[EARLY ENGLISH EDUCATION: PRO AND CON]Ineffectual English policiesThey say that seven out of 10 primary school students receive private English education these days.
And according to a recent Internet survey, 53 percent of 1,218 parents said they started to teach their children English before the age of 3; many even said that they started exposing their unborn children to English speech.
The average tuition for toddlers at private English education institutes is about 400,000 won ($417) to 700,000 won per month, and the tuition for classes taught by a native English-speaking teacher is said to be well over 1 million won a month. The number of private English education institutes has doubled in the past ten years, and the market has grown about 10 times, to 10 trillion won per annum. (Compare the amount with the 2006 budget of the Ministry of Education and Human Resources Development, which is about 3.2 trillion won.)
Also, the number of primary through high school students going abroad for further study exceeded 7,000 for the first time last year. On top of that, if we take into account the reality in which people have their children’s tongues operated on to enhance their English pronunciation, all Koreans seem to suffer under stress caused by early English educational zeal and waste a lot of national energy.
The phenomenon of energy waste on national level that we see now has resulted from English education that starts in primary grade 3, a change made in 1997. The curriculum, one hour per week of English education, is no help for foreign language education; that requires intensive learning, and the policy change only resulted in an expansion of the private education market.
Last month the Education Ministry announced the names of 50 primary schools selected as model English education schools, where first- and second-grade students will attend English classes. Just like in 1997, the ministry announced its new education plan without going through the process of collecting public opinion in advance. The reason for the implementation of the plan is said to be the social demand to give English education some substance. Moreover, the ministry claims that the expanded reach of early English education will provide opportunities for English education to students in agricultural villages or urban slums that are now blind spots for English education, and alleviate social polarization. In fact, it is trying to conceal the failure of early English education that started ten years ago.
But the expansion of early English education will only aggravate the gap between social strata, because the ineffective one-hour-per-week English education will increase reliance on private education and ultimately reproduce the situation where parents’ financial capability decides their children’s English ability as time goes on.
But the larger reason I am against early English education is that it will produce human beings without nationalities by obstructing the establishment of the identity of our future generations.
What we need in this age of globalization is an attitude of standing firmly on our land while thinking globally. This is the reason that almost all countries that teach English as a foreign language make efforts to overcome the language imperialism that they confront in the course of English education.
Even linguists differ in their opinion on foreign language education, and there is no theory that proves scientifically just how a foreign language is learned.
For example, in the 1940s and 1950s, behavioral scientists considered language a habit, and so they believed that learning a foreign language early would make it habitual more quickly. But nativists and rationalists in the 1960s and 1970s claimed that people were naturally born with skills for acquiring languages, and learn languages through a cognitive process.
The constructivist scholars of today say that since languages develop centering around the functions of the language that it wants to express, the learner of a language uses it by reconstructing the information input accordingly. Aside from the behaviorist theory, no other theories emphasize the effectiveness of early education.
We have to stop making the whole Korean population feel frustrated with English. We must give intensive English education according to when it is required. According to 2004 data, the Korean language skills of our people were less than 30 points out of 100.
We urgently need to abolish ineffective and wasteful primary school English education and establish an English education system that concentrates on conversation and oral English in middle school, on basic grammar and reading and writing in high school and on one’s major field in university education.
* The writer is a professor of English education at Sangmyung University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Park Geo-yong