[VIEWPOINT]Get back to basics with English

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[VIEWPOINT]Get back to basics with English

I will never forget the first time I was told that Korea’s English teachers put too much stress on grammar. It stuck in my mind because the speaker, a young man next to me on the train to Seoul, showed no sign of having learned any English grammar at all. He said “she go” and “they goes,” left out all plurals and articles, and spoke consistently of the past in the present tense. And yet he was convinced that nothing had hampered him and his schoolfellows so much as the grammatical perfectionism drummed into them by teachers. Now, if someone who bowled only gutterballs were to blame his performance on an over-refined technique, you would assume he was joking, but this man was serious. I have since found that many intelligent Koreans agree with him. Whenever the national “English problem” is discussed, the education system is faulted for its alleged over-emphasis on grammar.
Having seen the textbooks used in Korea, I feel safe in saying that too little grammar is taught in high schools. This is not in itself so tragic, because people in their 20s still have plenty of time to master English from scratch. Unfortunately most of them miss the opportunity to do so. Instead of realizing that the house of their English skills lacks all foundation, they waste time adding tiles to the roof. For every young person on the subway studying English grammar, about 10 appear to be engaging in what linguists call “item learning,” or the acquisition of set phrases, slang, advanced vocabulary, and so on. Anyone who has been to a bookstore in Seoul will know what an enormous industry exists to meet and perpetuate the demand for this kind of learning. Not surprisingly, then, the average Korean learner combines a scrupulous adherence to colloquial idiom with an utter neglect of English grammar, as evidenced in formulations like “I’m wanna making friend” ― “wanna” is popular here even in written English ― or “she have bad hair day.”
Neither the government nor the public is happy with the general level of English ability, but the solution is seen to lie in offering more opportunities for practice. Cram schools thus promise to open students’ “malmun” or “speech doors,” though little attention is given to the quality of what comes out. A great fuss is made about “English towns” and other “English-only” zones, where people engage in a “free talking” that is little more than jumbles of words and phrases. Foreign teachers who try to teach grammar soon find themselves confronted with the demand for more “free talking” instead. Even the TOEIC and TOEFL exams, which test the ability to distinguish a correct sentence from an incorrect one, cannot induce people to change their ways; they simply go to separate cram schools that teach the various tricks of scoring highly.
This year I bought a cell phone made by a famous Korean company. A day after setting the language function to English, I cleared out my in-box, and was promptly informed, “All messages is deleted.” The indifference to noun-verb agreement is widespread here, but that sort of basic mistake hardly inspires confidence in a brand. Just as importantly, no multinational wants to establish a regional base in a country where even the educated elite cannot communicate with foreigners in a professional manner. If Korea is to stay competitive, it must finally start to take English grammar seriously.

* The writer, a professor of North Korean studies at Korea University, is a contributing editor for the Atlantic Monthly.


by B.R. Myers
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