[Viewpoint]The best investment‘Please close the door carefully!” At Sinchon Elementary School in Ilsan, Gyeonggi, the morning assembly is held in two languages. Every sentence the principal says is followed with a translation from a native English-speaking teacher.
Break times and lunch are not signaled with a bell here. When the morning activities begin, the students hear, “Good morning. Are you ready to start a new day?”
The third period begins with an encouragement, “Are you hungry? Hang in there for just one more period.” The bilingual morning assembly and English translations were introduced to meet the demands of the parents. English class, which meets one or two hours a week, is not enough to satisfy them.
It is not news that Korean parents are passionate about English education. More than 10 trillion won ($10.8 billion) is spent in Korea on private English education. Many Koreans feel queasy and can’t speak a word of English when they meet foreigners. They are determined not to pass that fear down to their children. In the past, parents sold their cows and land in the countryside to educate their children in Seoul so they could escape poverty.
Today’s parents are similar in spirit. The age of globalization demands globalized talents and speaking English means opportunity and power. Major companies such as Samsung announced they will include an English-speaking test when they choose new hires next year. With the increasing emphasis on English, the parents’ choice becomes more apparent.
If public education is not enough, they will have to supplement it with private instruction. If regular high school is not enough, the children should apply to a foreign language high school. Or if studying in Korea does not guarantee fluency in English, some parents are willing to send their children abroad to be accustomed to speaking English.
Admission to foreign language high schools is creating as much commotion as the College Scholastic Ability Test. Foreign language high schools are blamed for excessive private after-school instruction, but the admission crisis should not be a reason to get rid of foreign language high schools altogether.
The government used all kinds of sticks to attack foreign language schools, but the competition rate jumped even higher this year compared to last year. Parents and students have the belief that foreign language schools guarantee their students a mastery of English and other foreign languages.
Therefore, the only way for Korean public education to survive is not to discourage foreign language high schools, but to turn all schools into elite schools. Lee Myung-bak and Chung Dong-young, who both aspire to be the next president of Korea, seem to know the solution.
According to their campaign promise, Koreans “will be able to speak fluent English upon graduating from high school without additional private instruction.” No matter who becomes president, Korea will be Asia’s Sweden, where every citizen has fluent command of English.
However, it is easier said than done. It costs an enormous amount to assign a foreign teacher to every school, not to mention improve public schools to the level of foreign language schools. This year, the government spent 110 billion won to appoint a native English-speaking teacher to all 3,467 schools, one third of our elementary, middle and high schools. The budget can be increased by cutting expenses of nominal engineering projects. Money is one thing, but recruiting more than 10,000 native English-speakers is also a challenge. There already are controversies over the qualifications and competence of some teachers.
One way to secure qualified teachers is to hire Koreans born abroad who want to learn more about Korea. An English Village insider told me there is a tendency for qualified ethnic Koreans to be discriminated against because of a preference for Caucasian foreigners.
We need to develop a system to verify the competence of teachers, not by the color of their skin. Other key tasks are to improve the quality of Korean teachers so they don’t fall behind their students and shift the focus of the test to speaking and writing. It won’t be easy. It takes effort and investment to make a country where every high school graduate is fluent in English. Hopefully, the presidential hopefuls are not just seeking more votes, but sincerely mean their promises. If done right, that is the best way to enhance national competitiveness.
*The writer is a deputy international news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Shin Ye-ri