Korea: Turning English education upside down

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Mon Jan 28 15:12:25 UTC 2008

Turning English education upside down

The presidential transition team lacks anyone who knows anything about
education and is increasingly going in the opposite direction from the
way it should be going. The ¡°dormitory-style¡± (gisukhyeong) public
schools it says it wants to start building in fishing and agricultural
regions next year are going to be the first to have all subjects
taught in English, part of the transition team¡¯s plan for English
immersion. As if trying to make themselves agreeable, superintendents
of education in the country¡¯s provinces and independent cities called
for English immersion to be expanded as soon as possible. It looks
like they are trying to sacrifice the whole of secondary education
just for English.

Immersion education began in the 1960s in Canada, and has since spread
to a small minority of countries such as Hong Kong and the
Philippines. These are countries that use English as their national
language, or as one of their official languages, and thus have no need
to debate it. Countries where English is learned as a foreign language
do not have programs such as these. There is therefore no analysis as
to how effective it is, but it would seem clear that it makes students
lose their appetite for regular classwork and damages the overall
quality of instruction. A few universities are doing immersion
classes, but there is an outpouring of criticism that these classes
are not living up to what they were supposed to be.

The World Economic Forum, or WEF, ranked Finland first in national
competitiveness for 2003, 2004 and 2005. The International Institute
for Management Development, or IMD, named Finland as the one country
outside the English-speaking world where it is most possible to
communicate in English. Finland has no great secret. If there is
anything notable about the way the Finnish do it, it is that starting
in grade three in elementary school, students take two hours of
English classes taught in English each week, and English language
movies and television dramas use Finnish subtitles instead of getting
dubbed. Something else that differs from Korea is that Finland does
not have scholastic ability tests. The Finnish think that competition
hurts students¡¯ desire for learning.

The most horrific result of immersion education would be the
destruction of the Korean language. People think and understand and
affix meaning to everything in their own language. They lose their
mental and cultural ability if they are suddenly required to think and
cognize in English. Korean language ability is even valued in
corporate hiring these days. The employment portal Job Korea did a
survey last year in which 75 percent of personnel managers at Korean
companies said ¡°employees who are good at Korean generally do good
work.¡± Nine percent said they do ¡°especially¡± good work. When asked
what employees are lacking, 6 percent said foreign language ability
while 19 percent cited Korean ability.

The transition team needs to be prudent. Education policy determines
the country for a hundred years hence. It needs to start with what is
most basic: doing away with a university entrance system that ranks
people by their grades, reducing the student-per-classroom ratio in
order to allow for more well-tailored education and devising
innovative ways to foster and support teacher development.


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