[VIEWPOINT] Let's Make English Education PracticalKorea has its own unique alphabet, called Hangeul, and everyone knows that Koreans are very proud of it and of their language. Living in Korea, one of the questions I'm most frequently asked is, "Can you speak Korean?" When I answer, "No, I only know the basic expressions," Koreans seem very disappointed.
Many Koreans I know argue that foreigners who live in Korea for only a few years should still learn Korean. But then, of the foreigners who work in Korea, who hasn't tried learning Korean?
Most of the foreigners I know have, at one time or another, tried to learn Korean and some are still trying. In their first few months in Korea, they work hard at it, but as time goes by, they eventually give up.
I think this is because it is very difficult for a person from an English-speaking country to learn to speak and write Korean fluently. Most foreigners end up just learning enough Korean to use a few greetings, order food at restaurants and give directions to taxi drivers.
Then, on top of those problems, foreigners here know that once they relocate to another country, the Korean language will no longer be of any use. That thought does not help their determination to continue trying to learn the language despite the slow going.
Koreans might think it's out of place for a foreigner like me who gave up trying to learn Korean to suggest improvements to the English education system in Korea. Actually, I understand how difficult it can be for Koreans to learn English, in the same way that it is difficult for foreigners to learn Korean. It is quite a challenge to learn a foreign language, and Korean and English are two completely different languages. Everything is different － the alphabet, the grammar, the pronunciation － you name it. A person must try to learn as a baby learns to speak.
The time, effort and money that Koreans put into learning English is incredible. But no matter how proficient Koreans become at reading and writing English, it seems that there aren't many who are good speakers of business English. This situation has improved in the past few years, but Korea still lags behind Hong Kong, Singapore and other countries in English proficiency. I found from my own experience when I ask Koreans for directions in the streets that there aren't many Koreans who can answer naturally in English. Considering the huge investment of time that Koreans make to learn English, the results are less than satisfactory.
Exports accounts for a significant part of the Korean economy. As English is the international language for business these days, being able to communicate in English is a good start to being a competitive player in the global business world.
Even France, which takes great pride in its national language, is no exception. Leading French companies such as Louis Vuitton and Cartier use English for business. So do German companies like DaimlerChrysler and Allianz.
We know that one of the main reasons that global companies choose Hong Kong or Singapore for their Asia-Pacific headquarters is the English proficiency in those countries.
As the Internet continues to advance in the business world, English will become an even more important communications tool in our lives. Speaking English proficiently will raise the competitiveness of Koreans. To learn to speak English fluently, it is important to practice speaking and listening at an age when language skills are being developed. Many Korean mothers pay a lot of money to send their young children to English lessons.
It is sad to see such a practice, because beginning English lessons at too early an age does not necessarily maximize the results. In order for Korea to become a major player in the 21st-century global economy, the English education system must change from one that focuses mainly on grammar, reading, and writing to one that emphasizes the development of listening and speaking skills.
By changing the way we learn English, we could save many families from having to be separated when mothers take their children abroad for English education and the fathers stay behind like a lonely goose.
The writer is the president of DaimlerChrysler Korea.
by Wayne Chumley