Thursday, May 03, 2007

Problems Learning English in South Korea

Despite South Korea's obsession with learning English, it ranked among the lowest in Asia in ability to use the language, and just dropped to 134th in TOEFL speaking scores worldwide.

I wonder if Korean language learning is a similar experience to what I saw in China. I taught English to several hundred Chinese children--somewhat against my will, like when I was lured under false pretenses and driven two hours outside of Beijing to teach an English lesson (but that's another story). The students were not supposed to have fun when learning English, because the teachers who were my minders believed that staring at textbooks and repeating after the white person was giving the students their money's worth (my Asian-American friend was rejected, incidentally, because he didn't look foreign enough). When I took them outside to play English Simon Says or other games that practiced their speaking ability outside of the classroom, all but one of my minders told me to never do that again.

There were plenty of Chinese teenagers who were not shy at all at forcing an English language lesson on the bus, at Tiananmen Square, or in a restaurant, and, much as I didn't like being a walking dictionary, I have to admit some people in China were good at practicing everyday English.

This article claims that Koreans just aren't practicing the language outside of the classroom, and it's affecting their capability to be competitive in the global market. Why would this be? Are more people there shy? Maybe there aren't as many foreigners around in Seoul? Any ideas?


Erin Robinson said...

Given some of the articles people have posted previously about the unpleasant experience for foriegners in Korea, maybe it is that there are fewer there. I, of course, have no idea, but it's a theory. Or it could be that the foreigners who are in Korea speak Korean more, or that Koreans just don't have the same motivation to learn it that the less economically successful Chinese do? It could also be tied to anti-American sentiment, perhaps? Learning the language of a country you dislike?

Sean said...

Hmmm, that's interesting. I just assumed that Koreans rocked TOEFL. I don't think it's because foreigners speak Korean more - you can get your own show in Korea if you're white and good at English; it's that uncommon. Also, I found that Koreans are really friendly towards English-speakers.

I'm just guessing here, but maybe it's a pride thing? I know that Koreans are often hesitant to use English because they know they don't sound perfect, and don't want to come across as ignorant.

Jaime said...

I think pride and shyness are part of it. I also think the KSAT (yes, that would be the Korean SAT) plays a large role. First, it only contains grammer and vocabulary so students prioritize their time preparing for these aspects of the English language. Second, this test dominates students' lives (especially in high school), leaving little room for time to practice speaking. If something is not on the test, it's placed very low on the priority totem pole.

ALthough this doesn't answer the speaking ability issue directly, I also think there's a bit of a class bias in terms of speaking practice opportunities. Although hagwons (cram schools) are a norm and English is very high on the list, it still is incredibly expensive for families to provide additional tutoring for speaking - one component not on the test that dominates the lives of students (and their mothers).

Also, the methods through which English is taught in the Korean school system are not the most effective. English is often taught by Korean English teachers who have rarely had opportunities to practice speaking English and can hardly speak English themselves (but were very successful memorizing vocabulary and grammar). English language textbooks are also often a bit antiquated and many of the English phrases are a bit off.

Also, Korea has yet to develop a massive program like the JET Program to integrate native speakers in schools. Not that the JET program makes great English speakers out of Japanese students either (anecdotally, of my time spent living in Korea and Japan, I found many more Koreans who could speak English). From my experience, both Korea and Japan fall victim to the English languge teaching policy of all it takes is a native English speaker (preferably a white one) in a room with students and oui la! students magically become fluent... riiiiight. Nothing to do with teaching ability or prior experience with foreign languge acquistion, etc.

Anyway, those are some thoughts from a former English teacher in Korea....

(and I'm blogging from Morocco, so I hope this is coherent)

Sayaka said...

This is a veeeery familiar issue to me. Look at this statistics. Japan's score is worse than South Korea's (actually it's only North Korea that gets a lower score than Japan in Asia.) I mostly agree with Jaime, but want to add a few points.

1. TOEFL's national average might not be a good indicator. See this statistics of the number of TOEFL examinees. TOEFL is expensive and thus not many poor people can take it many times. It can be assumed that in richer countries like Japan and South Korea, students try TOEFL exams more often than those in poor countires. As a result, examinees in richer countires are not too well-prepared compared to those in poor countries.

2. Why do they take TOEFL? I believe both in Japan and Korea, TOEIC is more commonly used to get jobs. TOEFL is specifically for those who plan to study abroad. I got an impression that, although it is now more popular to attend highschools and colleges in the US, most of them want to attend graduate schools in the US. For them, GRE's vocab is more manageable, and indeed they study for GRE really hard. (Last summer in Seoul Univ, librarie were always packed with those who were studying GRE.)

So they are some omitted variables that might exaggerate the correlationship btw TOEFL scores and poor English abilities in Korea (and Japan for that sake). HOWEVER, it is mostly the English education which is to be blamed, especially the college entrance exam system for a large part.

Grace said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Grace said...

As a former JET ALT (Assistant Language Teacher)in Japan, I have to put in my two cents of course. ^^ Jaime and Sayaka made very good points. The problem with English education in Korea and Japan is its heavy emphasis on grammar and structure. (And yes, the textbooks do have "off" phrases at times either because it's antiquated or it's British English, rather than American English). So while the students have a good grasp on grammar and sentence structures, they are lacking in conversational English.

That is also the case with my dad and I. I absolutely hated grammar in primary school and often went to my dad for help because he knew (and still does) the grammar rules better than myself. However, in terms of fluency and conversation I can speak and write more fluently than him. So the problem I think comes from balancing between grammar and conversation. For non-native English speakers, grammar is the foundation of their knowledge of English and it is emphasized heavily because they believe that knowing grammar through-and-through means that they will gain fluency. So on paper they seem to be fluent English speakers, when in actuality they are not.

People have realized the error in this type of thinking and are now trying to incoroporate English conversation into the classes. At least in the textbooks the middle schools were using in my city, they tried to sound more "conversational" in the dialogues and the Japanese teachers asked me to teach the students commonly used words and phrases. But again, it's the difficulty of balancing between what is grammatically "correct" and what is used in everyday conversation.

As a side note, I remember the Japanese teachers and students initially being disappointed that I didn't look the part of a "foreigner." I looked Asian and thus missed out on the "star treatment" that the other foreign-looking teachers got. ^^;;

snowume said...

Although the statistics should be a more reliable result than my personal opinion, I think that we should not overlook one important element. The English education has been booming in Korea in Korea for decades. Yet, as the article and Grace claimed, Korean students and system had been focused mainly on grammar and reading. A shift from grammar to speaking occurred recently. if elementary students or middle school students are asked in English, I believe that they can answer in English more fluently than those in early twenties.

Anonymous said...

It's probably because the way of thinking and speaking between two languages seems a bit different, logically and emotionally etc,.

Korean education leads students to
narrow down to one answer in any questions or problems; Almost no systematical drills to help them find the solutions in korean education, I guess. Only answer!
Therefore, from here, how they think cause the gap with those who are non korean speakers. For example, if they were asked what could cause the economy crisis, they could try to find their own perpective on the problem, but they try to have the correct answer and sometimes need to jump to the conclusion. Any debating could hurt them. Because it could mean they answered incorrectly making them feel unfamiliar with various perspectives from others. Further debating could cause emotional hurting. In that part, I feel sorry for korean students. They study alot but no mission after schooling graduation.

Another factor could be how koreans originally think and speak.
They enjoy talking but for a short time, they talk many issues, sometimes meaningless topics, even boring, junk issues. They are likely to accept them each other thinking of intimacy. Furthermore, they tend to contract the amount of vocabularies while English speaker organize and line them for a second. I can say, they make different efforts for the same time.

Everybody can learn and speak. But
it seems more important what is learned and spoken to continue the communication. And how they can beat the gap each other.