[SERI COLUMN]Bored students can’t master EnglishAs we all know too well, Koreans spend a great deal of time and money on learning English. But despite that investment, they are, on average, some of the worst in the world in terms of the ability to speak and write the language.
On Sept. 7, Samsung Economic Research Institute held an informal seminar on “The Economics of English Learning,” to explore ways to build up Koreans’ language proficiency as part of improving national competitiveness.
At first blush, it may sound unusual for an economic think tank to tackle the mundane issue of language learning. But one can see easily that it is an important policy question deserving serious attention. After all, the money spent on English lessons, textbooks and test fees in Korea is well over $15 billion a year.
The amount is estimated to be at least double that figure once the opportunity cost is reckoned.
That term describes the income-generating opportunities that are foregone when, for example, foreign companies decide against locating their operations here because of the poor state of language infrastructure.
Monetary cost aside, the hard-to-count cost of human suffering is also enormous. Although there are no official figures, hundreds or thousands of Korean couples in their mid-30s to 50s have to put up with miserable years of separate living an ocean apart simply because of the desire to send their children to the United States and other English-speaking countries for study there.
Jeon Hyo-chan, the principal author of a forthcoming report on the same topic, said in a presentation, “The debate about whether to adopt English as a second official language is moot; instead, we have to focus on finding more effective ways to improve the quality of English education.”
That may involve hiring more native speakers as English teachers in primary and secondary schools while sending more Korean-born teachers to intensive language immersion programs. In addition, getting the pupils exposed to the language at early ages may help the cause. That could be in the form of opening up as many low-cost “English villages” as possible and providing more TV shows with English subtitles.
The more important task, however, is to reform from the ground up the way English is taught in classrooms. For several decades, Koreans have been accustomed to the erroneous belief that the best way to learn English is to read cover to cover some of the “authoritative” English workbooks (written, of course, in Korean).
No wonder so many students today still ask foolish questions like, “Can you recommend any good books to improve my English skills?”
Probably because of the age-long Confucian tradition emphasizing learning by rote, students believe that memorizing the grammatical principles behind the language will magically transform them into an English expert within weeks. That’s far from the truth. In most cases, they get bored quickly by the pointless exercise. The result is that only few of them end up speaking and writing serviceable English after more than 10 years of expensive education.
It is time to throw away stale textbooks chock-full of useless grammar and archaic expressions, and instead embrace new learning tools pulled from the Internet and from other multimedia sources.
How nice would it be if students could learn the language painlessly while watching their favorite cartoons and social studies documentaries on television or through video streaming?
As with anything else in the world, language learning has to be fun. That’s the most important condition to keep students engaged during their years of study.
One thing to remember in all this is that the job of reforming English teaching doesn’t have to be entrusted entirely to government policymakers. There is so much room for private corporations to play an important part. For example, companies could open up their training facilities to anyone wishing to learn the language, offering them quality lessons at low cost, until now reserved for employees. After all, the companies will stand to benefit most from people’s better command of the language.
Companies could also send their employees to schools in low-income neighborhoods to teach as volunteers. Or they could set up “consulting shops” to dispense advice to those in need of English help. For instance, corporate volunteers well versed in the language could correct bad English expressions written on signboards in museums, parks and other public places.
They can also extend help to small businesses in their communities to create English-language Web sites. Most such Web sites now in operation are strewn with absurd English expressions.
As these small-step approaches add up, someday in the future an average Korean may be able to speak and write English with reasonable confidence. That will translate into a competitive asset in doing business internationally.
* The writer is managing editor of SERIWorld, Samsung Economic Research Institute’s English language Web site.
The views expressed here are the author’s and not necessarily those of SERI or this newspaper.
by Chung Sang-ho