Speak Korean here and you'll be busted

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Speak Korean here and you'll be busted

Here's something unique to add to the plethora of English hagwon and study groups already rife in Korea: an English cafe.

At YoungASamo, near Gangnam Station in the south of Seoul, everyone is required to speak in English, even to strangers. Scores of students, professionals and even the elderly visit the cafe daily to converse in English, watch English-language videos (with no subtitles) and read English books while relaxing with a drink in hand.

For a fee, English courses are offered -- "Easy," "Happy" and "Screen English" -- during the weekdays, and free English conversation classes take place on Saturdays.

What began as a small study group of four-to-five people led by James Min in Olympic Park grew in only four years to become a membership-only cafe of 300 strong. Mr. Min, a Korean-American who has been teaching English since 1997, opened YoungASamo ("Meeting of English-Lovers") cafe exactly two years ago after the weather kept causing problems holding lessons at Olympic Park.

Most of the time, what is spoken or taught at YoungASamo is conversational, easy-to-understand English. Members take on English names as well.

"This is a group where people who truly love English come to hang out," says Lee Gyeong-ok, who is also known as "Dorothy."

Members are very friendly to newcomers, and encourage people to ask questions at all times. But to ensure that no one kids around in Korean, there are the "10 commandments" to abide by. If anyone dares to speak Korean after being a member for more than a month, there are punishments, such as doing pushups or being sent to "jail," a tiny room in the back.

Mr. Min's ultimate ambition is to redefine the English education system in Korea. He also manages the online YoungASamo community of 13,000, and has published several books on English pronunciation.

"I believe language is largely based upon culture and habit," Mr. Min said. "If people can get used to listening, mumbling and speaking English, it won't be hard to become fluent within a year -- I've seen it happen."

Mr. Min also operates an English information and tutorial service, EnglishMaster, and lectures at companies, schools and private groups. He gives approximately 10 percent of his income to help the homeless and children with special needs enrolled in nurseries. "I always try to engrain my students and fellow YoungASamo folk to help others, because good deeds will come back to you eventually."

When asked what one needs to do to be a part of this community of English lovers, he replied, "All you need is time and the will to dedicate yourself."

For more information about YoungASamo, call 02-538-0533 or visit www.youngasamo.co.kr.

by Choi Jieho

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