[VIEWPOINT]English learning, right and wrongThe recent opening of the Gyeonggi English Village in Paju has re-ignited the debate over English language education. While politics lies behind the controversy, the English education issue is something every Korean pays attention to. However, it seems that we still have a long way to go. If you look at the discussion in the media, society and academia, we are approaching the issue on a microscopic level without making serious efforts to analyze and solve the problems. It is now necessary to address English language education from a new point of view.
The first task is to get rid of a few idols surrounding English learning. Most of all, we need to give up the belief that English classes at schools can and should solve the problems associated with English education. The existing English curriculum at schools has been prepared on the basis of a national foreign language education policy. The English education policy at elementary, middle and high schools recognizes English as a “foreign” language. In that sense, education has not changed much in essence since 50 years ago.
While the seeds of English are planted in grade three, four hours a week, not enough water and sunlight are supplied and the soil is very barren. Once a student gets out of the classroom, English cannot survive; it is overwhelmed by the Korean spoken and written all around.
And rather than learning a foreign language, many Koreans hope to learn and speak English as another native tongue, or at least a second language that can be used freely. Just as in the controversy over making English an official language, there exists a fundamental difference in perception and the English education at schools is limited.
Second, we have a conviction that we have learned English for a long time, at least 10 years. We need to get out of that mass hypnosis as soon as possible. We did not learn English at school for ten years. As mentioned above, the English education at schools takes the form of a foreign language curriculum. Therefore, if you learn English from third grade to 12th grade, you would have spent 730 hours in English classes for 10 years. You can spend the same number of hours learning English if you take intensive English class for eight hours a day for 100 days. We are learning English little by little over 10 years, and the hours are, again, divided into reading, writing, listening and speaking lessons. We have less than 200 hours allotted for each lesson. Therefore, in order to reach the level expected by society or universities, students have to make a great sacrifice. In addition to the ceaseless personal endeavor, we have to resort to private education, including going abroad and enrolling in language schools. Such private education begins at elementary, middle and high school and continues through college and career.
Third, Koreans believe that if you learn English early in your life, you can master the language easily. But that is just a belief, not a scientific fact. From birth to age 4, children are exposed to their native language at least for 10,000 hours. They encounter situations where they have to speak or listen to the mother tongue at least 4,000 times a day. Such a tremendous amount of time is needed only for listening and writing, for young children do not engage in writing or reading. According to research at a university in the United States, immigrant students who arrive in the States at age 8 or 9 need at least five to seven years of exposure to English before they reach the same level of academic achievement as native English speakers. Canada offers over 5,000 hours of a French curriculum so that students can master French at a native level.
Now the fundamental problems we have become clear. The point is how the Korean society understands, embraces and uses the English language. The question is not just for the government but also for each individual citizen. Currently, no social consensus has been formed on the issue, and the government is not very interested.
Considering the debate over English and its social cost, the government needs to make a choice as soon as possible and take appropriate measures to implement a new system. If not, English will always be something for an individual to master alone and a financial burden to the parents of the students.
* The writer is a professor of English education at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Lee Byung-min