[GLOBAL EYE]English key to competitiveness

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[GLOBAL EYE]English key to competitiveness

Frances Cairncross, a management editor of the British weekly magazine The Economist, published “Death of Distance” in 1997. The concept of diminishing geographical distance as a result of the revolution of information technology was considered original at the time. However, seven years later, it sounds banal.
Children growing up in Seoul can meet kids living in Tokyo, New York or Paris on the Internet and play games such as Starcraft online together. To the youngsters hanging out in cyber space, the geographical distance or borders are no longer meaningful. The “digital revolution” has brought shocking changes in our lives. Japanese economic commentator Kenichi Omae compares the information technology revolution to the discovery of the New World in the 15th and 16th centuries. We have discovered yet another New World, and the only difference is that this time, it is an invisible one.
India is enjoying perks from the emergence of the invisible New World. When an American credit card holder calls the customer service center, an Indian customer representative from Bangalore or Mumbai would answer nine out of ten times. If it weren’t for the online network that enabled free international calls, it would be an unimaginable idea. When Indian college graduates are trained for a month to speak with a standard American Midwestern accent, even American callers cannot tell that they are speaking to Indians.
U.S.-based multinational giants such as General Electric, Citigroup, American Express, Honeywell, Sprint and America Online have moved their call centers to India. They only have to pay the Indian employees one fifteenth of the wages they would have to pay to the employees at call centers in the United States. Also, the turnover rate is merely one sixth. The Indian representatives are friendly, and customer satisfaction is even higher. At present, there are over 425 call centers employing 160,000 representatives in India. The $5 billion market today is expected to grow to $17 billion with 2 million employees by 2008. The young Indian professionals who are armed with knowledge in information technology and fluent English skill are called “zippies.”
With the global outsourcing rush of U.S. multinationals, some Americans express concern only half-jokingly that America will only be left with pizza deliverymen. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman warned Americans to “fasten your seat belt, because you may soon lose your job to a ‘zippie’ in the 2000s.” While critics claim that Americans are losing jobs from the phenomenon, some insist that global outsourcing will expand the total pie size of the world economy and ultimately help the U.S. economy.
Last week, the Financial Times reported that it is nearly impossible to find globally competent talents in Korea. One of the major reasons was the lack of English skills. While the Internet has dissolved the barrier of distance, communication barriers remain because many Koreans are not comfortable speaking English. What gives India the spotlight is the citizens’ English skill. In the age of global competition, the command of proper English is a necessity, not only for Korean companies to move overseas but also to invite foreign companies to the country. The English education focused on TOEFL or TOEIC scores has a limit. While colleges and universities are expanding classes taught in English, not many students register for such classes. Even the usually popular courses have considerably fewer students when the lectures are given in English.
Now, it’s time to examine implementing dual-language education in Korean and English from elementary school. Considering the parents’ enthusiasm for English education for their kids, the demand is evident. At least during English classes, only English should be spoken, and with the increase in the number of English-speaking teachers, English lectures could be expanded to other subjects in the middle and high schools. If we are concerned with the global competitiveness of the next generation, we should not waste any more time.

* The writer is an international affairs writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Bae Myung-bok
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