[lg policy] Korea: An academic world outside English

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Fri Jul 24 14:09:33 UTC 2009

An academic world outside English

It’s vital that we worry first about our mother tongue before spending
so much on English.

July 24, 2009

The government will have spent 4 trillion won ($3.2 billion) on
English education from 2008 to 2012. But for this astronomical
appropriation to have value, half should go to education and
dissemination of the Korean language here and overseas, a quarter to
English and the last quarter to other foreign languages. The
government may think English is so important that it cannot spare
resources for Korean or other foreign languages. No one can deny the
importance of English, but it is simply not possible to enhance the
English proficiency of Koreans at the cost of their own mother tongue.

Other foreign languages will also be necessary in this globalizing
world. The authorities say there will be trickle-down effects to other
languages once the present English education policy is implemented.
This is nonsensical, because the world will not stand still and wait
for Koreans to perfect their English. All people should have the right
to choose a language to specialize in. Those who happen to choose
other languages should be treated just like those who choose English.
And those who choose no foreign language should also be respected. Let
them study other subjects that would allow them to be more productive.

The government’s “English first” or “English only” policy has provoked
public resentment. It is time for the government to adopt a balanced
language policy to advance not only English but other languages.
Domestically, research in ancient Korean, local accents, classical
Chinese, loan words, terminology and romanization is necessary. Korean
language teaching for foreign nationals and second-generation Korean
immigrants overseas should be intensified. Languages die out. This may
help people communicate better, but it’s also a tragic loss of human
heritage. Linguists predict that only a few languages will survive the
next century. The Korean language is not expected to fade away because
Koreans make up 1.4 percent of the world economy, and Korea has the
12th-largest population.

More importantly, second languages are acquired on the basis of the
first. We learn English through the prism of Korean. Since those who
are fluent in their first language tend to be fluent in their second,
Korean study should precede English. Policy makers may argue that even
4 trillion won is not enough to ensure every high schooler can speak
English with ease. Such an argument neglects two significant facts.
First, education is a long-term task that requires consistency for
decades, but also demands agile adaptation to rapidly changing
environments. Second, language cannot and need not be acquired

Languages have two prominent and related traits: They are awfully hard
to acquire, and they are more art than science. It takes about four
years for babies to learn to use their mothers’ languages to a fairly
communicative degree. It takes them over eight years to learn a second
language to a similar degree. Children learn best through osmosis,
like riding a bike.  Only exposure to English in immersion courses can
guarantee this effect. If we want our schools to do this, students
should be exposed to English during the full school day, in homework
and on vacations. That is why the transition team for the Lee
administration proposed immersion courses in English based on the
Finnish model, though the public and later Lee himself disagreed. The
Finnish model is unrealistic for Koreans because Korean is far more
useful than Finnish globally. The average Korean, unlike the average
Finn, can do without English.

President Lee’s undying hope to see all high school graduates be able
to communicate in English without difficulty merits wholehearted
support. But the government needs to be more specific about this aim.
To make the average high school graduate communicative in English
would be like making all of them artists. It is unrealistic and
unnecessary at best and squanders time, energy and resources at worst.
The government should funnel 1 trillion won into the related project
to incorporate English education into the public domain, which was
adopted by the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology on April
15, 2008.

The government needs to make its objectives more realistic. One way to
do this would be to give up on competition, which runs counter to
Korea’s traditional egalitarian sentiments. The students who are
intrinsically motivated to learn English should receive opportunities
to do so as one of their extracurricular activities, free of charge.

Korea has to promote cooperation among local governments, schools,
teachers and parents. The present scheme for “zero-hour” and
after-school classes is designed to help the private sector infiltrate
our schools, making more work for public English teachers. They should
be freed from administrative chores. The government should give
incentives to parents who have their children learn English in Korea
instead of leaving for overseas. Under programs involving schools,
local authorities and parents, children should be able to learn
English for free at schools, public libraries, museums, art galleries,
residents’ centers and other public facilities.

What’s more, the government’s plan does not have a clear-cut vision
for the supply and demand of competent teachers of English. Here are
two specific proposals. The first one is to recycle retired teachers,
who are the most valuable and highly experienced specialists. When a
nation is in danger, the reserve forces are summoned. The government
has called English education an emergency, so retired teachers must be

Government miscalculations have led many licensed teachers of English
to be jobless, while there are still schools that suffer a shortage of
competent teachers on the other. Thus the second proposal would be to
grant licenses only to those who have completed postgraduate courses
in teaching English. One example is the International Graduate School
of English, which is “tiny but shiny” with its fame for graduates’
strong ability to teach English in English. All its students receive
full scholarships for four semesters. IGSE President Nahm-Sheik Park
is renowned as the Korean guru of English, and showed the government
what it must do in his landmark lecture delivered at the Korea
Maritime University in October 2007, when President Lee pledged to
return English education to the public domain during his campaign.

In conclusion, English may enjoy priority over other foreign
languages, but not over Korean, and other foreign languages must not
be neglected either. A more realistic and balanced language policy is
called for as an obsession with English only will harm all language
education. We cannot chase two rabbits, bringing English education
into the public domain and making the average high school graduate
able to communicate in English.  But with one stone, we can still kill
three birds: a balanced language policy, reduction of the English
divide, and closer cooperation among schools, local authorities,
teachers and parents. The government’s role is not to assign more
tests but to stimulate intrinsic motivation and reduce anxiety about
studying English. *It’s vital that we worry first about our mother
tongue before spending so much on English.


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