A bit of English-speaking lifeThe idea of an English-speaking zone in a non-English-speaking country may seem unusual, but it reflects the fervor among Koreans today to learn the language.
There now are two English villages ― facilities that require students to speak only English ― backed by local governments. Ansan Camp of English Village in Gyeonggi province, which opened in August, was the first.
Seoul English Village, which is currently running a demonstration program for students from elementary schools in its district, will have its official opening on Tuesday, although the program formally begins in the first week of January.
By 2008, Gyeonggi province plans to build two more English villages, one in Paju and the other in Yangpyeong, to accommodate a significant percentage of the 150,000 eighth-graders living in the province.
Seoul English Village may call itself a village, but the concept also has many elements of a theme park.
The clusters of small rooms that fill the four-story building in Pungnap-dong, eastern Seoul, are each designed with separate themes, ranging from a hospital to a police station, laundry room, or a street in New York. Though the exterior of the facility is reminiscent of an old English boarding school, the entire program is a “game” with one simple rule ― to speak English.
“It’s just like going abroad,” says Choi Ha-jeong, an 11-year-old student at Pungnap Elementary School who is participating in the program and who uses the English name Gina. “Since coming here I am not afraid of speaking to a foreigner.”
Gina says her mother sent her to the facility to learn a few words before she goes to New Zealand next summer.
Other students, like Noah and Jane, two girls also from Pungnap Elementary School in the program, say they have never been abroad or talked to a native English speaker.
Seoul English Village, funded by the Seoul city government, was created specifically to enable students in the upper grades of local elementary schools to learn English without going abroad. The six-day program places 200 students in various situations related to living in an English-speaking environment, forcing them to carry on simple conversations with friends and English-speaking teachers. The curriculum was developed by the Korea Herald, which is operating the program.
Students in the village go to restaurants and order food in English. They learn cultural etiquette and ways to talk to a host family in a room designed to look like an American family’s living room, playing monopoly with a native English-speaking teacher and a Korean assistant.
For lunch the students are taken to a cafeteria, and served ham and cheese sandwiches, minestrone soup and pasta salad. They also learn how to check into a hotel room, speak to a talk show host at a broadcasting studio, report a lost or stolen item at the police station, bake cookies in a Western-style kitchen, send mail to their parents at a post office and describe symptoms of their illness to English-speaking doctors at clinics.
In many rooms, students are asked to choose “action” cards and follow the instructions on those cards, such as “talk about your best friend” or “talk about your favorite season.” In most cases, students rush to find a word they know or reluctantly nod their heads, not having understood exactly what their teachers say.
But others in more advanced groups reply in full sentences backed by simple methods of reasoning. Asked her favorite season, one student in a broadcasting studio said, “I like summer, because I have a long vacation, and I can eat many ice cream.”
“This is a six-day, 24-hour-a-day intensive program in English studies,” says Jerry Wayne Lucas, a chief instructor at Seoul English Village. “Students have to go step by step in most of the exercises and do what the teacher says. If they do not understand and do not follow what the teacher says the exercise will fail.”
The biggest challenge for students is to not speak Korean ― something they are warned about in most classrooms.
As a penalty for speaking Korean, students are given a red dot on their “passport.” Teachers have the right to force students who receive three dots out of the school.
“They don’t want to go home after the program ends. That’s the only problem,” says Park Jong-hun, a chief operator of the facility. “If they go back, they have to sit through the classes at hagwons their parents send them to. Here they play as they go along.”
City-funded programs like the Seoul English Village are an option for parents who can’t afford to send their children overseas or to private English hagwons, which cost a minimum of 200,000 won ($190) a month.
The six-day package at the village costs 120,000 won, or less than one-tenth the amount it costs to send children abroad to learn English. For children from low-income families and those with single mothers, the Seoul government has promised to eliminate all charges. The only requirement for applying to the program is that students must live in Seoul, since the facility is being funded by the city’s taxpayers.
Currently, the school receives an average of 100 inquiries every day, according to Jeong Min-hyeok, the program administrator, and a large number of students are on a waiting list to attend the program.
“The biggest challenge is getting all the students into the Seoul English Village who want to come here,” says Mr. Lucas.
One dilemma for English village programs is the limitation on cultural experiences students have in their short period of mingling with native English-speaking teachers.
“Obviously the experiences are very limited,” says Derek Anderson, an instructor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. “But these students are very young. At that age it can get very overwhelming to travel abroad.”
He adds, “It’s a good idea as long as the teachers can enforce the English-only rule in the village. But often even in schools these rules tend to fall back pretty quickly.”
by Park Soo-mee
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