Questioning the importance of EnglishThe importance of English in Korean society is beyond argument. If you are good at English, you get extra points when entering university, and if you are not, you might not even graduate from school or even find a job. It is fairly true on many occasions that your Korean is less important than your English when you are looking for employment.
The other day, I had a get-together with a group of friends who had volunteered in the past to work at the 2004 Women’s Film Festival. One girl who has only one semester left before graduation complained, “I’d like it if only those who really need to know English have to study the language.” Despite it not being their native language or the fact that they will seldom use English in their daily lives, English has become a subject of lifelong study for Koreans.
Perplexed at her assumption, I asked her to elaborate.
“I am not saying that we shouldn’t study English ― all I’m saying is that if you are not in a business-related or study field, you don’t need to speak it; all you need is to understand it when you read materials in your own field. You don’t need to communicate perfectly with native speakers.”
Although I have my own reasons to defend how globalization has affected Korea, I couldn’t help admitting that her argument had a point.
Maybe it’s not entirely about English. Maybe it’s because Korean society is so competitive, that we need something to gauge the differences between us ― even when we all know how small and insignificant that is. It’s like needing to get one or two more points in the Korean Scholastic Aptitude Test in order to get admission to a much more prestigious school.
Is an 800 score on a TOEIC examination really more important than your Korean skills and background knowledge of the region when you are going to work for a local government office? I doubt it.
There must be standards ― that is true. However, English has now become a universal standard in Korea when it is no real indicator of the qualifications needed in a given field. The new generation has diverse talents and makes achievements in various areas and so we might need to put less weight on English or, more exactly, on English tests ― we need to start looking at more essential qualifications.
More and more corporations are realizing this and trying to take other things into consideration when they evaluate candidates. For example, some companies are requiring good results in the Korean Proficiency Test.
Having said this, however, I do think as the world becomes more and more interdependent, the importance of English is beyond question. All I am arguing is that perhaps, just perhaps, it has been unnecessarily exaggerated.
by Junwan Kong