[CAMPUS COMMENTARY]Why Koreans can’t speak English

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[CAMPUS COMMENTARY]Why Koreans can’t speak English

To be born destined to be a Korean student is to start a life of fearsome competition that never ends. Mothers and fathers wrap their children with the finest things and treat them as if they are the best. As their little ones grow, their parents won’t let them lose in this competitive race. English is an example. To turn their children into English whizzes, parents send them to English kindergartens and English institutes. During school breaks, they send their children to English camps to make even playtime a chance to learn English. Moreover, if they can afford it, they send their youngsters abroad and make them live there for good.
As these children grow up and enter university, they still study English to get good grades on the Test of English for International Communication (Toeic) and get into better jobs. However, even when they get to college these children who have been studying English more than 10 years still think their English is very poor, which is the truth. To most Koreans, English is a lifelong problem awaiting a solution. How come, through 10 years of study, Koreans can’t speak English well?
Even though Koreans are spending lots of time and energy learning English, we don’t seem to gain much compared to the pain we go through. According to a Samsung Economic Research Institute (SERI) report in 2006, Koreans spend about 14.3 trillion won ($15.4 billion) annually on private English tutoring. Koreans also spend 700 billion won a year for tests evaluating their English. However, according to SERI, Korea is known as the most difficult country in which to communicate in English. Then what have we been learning through years of studying English?
In an article I read on the Internet, a story caught my attention entitled: “A man who got a perfect score on Toeic. Not only once but 16 times a row.”
Jung Byung-mun, the guy with the perfect score, told the reporter English is not something you learn only from books. He added, “You have to enjoy English rather than fight against it.”
I second that. English should be something you enjoy, not something to be defensive about. Language is a tool with which to communicate with people and the world. Through language, we can gain more information and opportunities; that is why we learn another language. However, it seems the real purpose of learning has disappeared as we focus only on English as a tool, in such situation as getting a job.
At this moment in libraries, students are flipping through the pages of review books to remember Toeic formulas, mumbling words to memorize from the 5,000-word vocabulary list of last month’s Toeic. Instead of studying for their major courses, they are mostly preparing for the upcoming English skills test this month.
Please close the book, come outside and breathe the fresh air.
Before we Koreans can learn to speak English, we should learn who and what we are. Before we blame our tongues, we have to know ourselves. To successfully learn English, we should first have self-dignity and then approach the language as a communication tool, not as a burden.

*The writer is the editor of The Soongsil Times, the English-language news magazine of Soongsil University.

by Lee Sun-kyung
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