Peril in rushing to English
News from Lee Myung-bak’s transition team that South Korea will have public high school classes taught in English by 2010 has been creating quite a stir. I saw some of the furor for myself the other day, when I happened to walk past a group of protesters in Gwanghwamun.
A part of the English education system myself, I wholeheartedly agree with the high school teachers, parents and concerned students who feel that this policy could have disastrous consequences for Korea and its people. At the same time, I also agree with President-elect Lee and his team that the amount of money being spent on private English education should be curbed.
Two places in Asia where English fluency is fairly widespread are Singapore and Hong Kong. But these are former British colonies, where Western influence was just one part of the cultural melting pot. Korea, of course, has no direct inheritance of Western culture, which means that it has to create a modern-day culture of English. It should be clarified that Korea doesn’t have to become an English-speaking country; it has chosen to do so for economic reasons.
Though there’s a ghost of a chance that minds will change when the details are unveiled, the policy proposed by Lee seems unfeasible for a number of reasons. From a certain perspective, the policy is even a bit sinister.
First off, a great deal of pressure will be exerted on high school teachers, many of whom completed their university studies some years ago in fields other than English. Those with science and math backgrounds may find it more than just challenging to master a language that was never the focus of their studies.
I suspect that the high school teachers will be (and are being) bullied into mastering English. For Lee’s policy to succeed, many teachers would need to spend two or more years studying fervently in an English-speaking country. Languages are not learned in a vacuum.
If this policy is carried through, the result will be confusion and mediocrity.
Matthew C. Crawford, visiting professor, Chungnam National University