[Viewpoint]Put the focus on practical English

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[Viewpoint]Put the focus on practical English

Korean students so far have not needed to learn practical English in the English curriculum.
High school students have been focusing on grammar and reading to get into the best possible colleges.
Once they graduate from college, their goal is to get a job. In the process of hiring, companies ask for test scores to measure English proficiency. They are not indicative however of the colloquial English you would need in an actual conversation with a foreigner.
It’s not that the students have no motivation to learn practical English.
Today, the English curriculum begins in the third grade. Most children start learning conversational English in the first year or two of school. However, as the parents grow more concerned about college admissions, the children switch to grammar and reading-centered programs as they move on to the fourth and fifth grades.
Some linguists think the critical time to learn a language is before the ages of 12 and 13. After this critical period, a child born in a region with a dialect will have a hard time correcting his accent for the rest of his life.
Similarly, it is most effective and economical to begin a practical English curriculum in the first grade and continue it through elementary school. If we could implement such a curriculum, all Korean students would be able to speak colloquial English by the time they graduate from elementary school.
An important fact is that Koreans are not poor at speaking English, they just don’t get a chance to learn practical English.
The ultimate goal of language education should be the ability to freely communicate with the native speaker of a target language through studying four elements: reading, writing, listening and speaking.
During their six years in middle and high schools, the time students learn English adds up to only about a month, on average, under the current seventh educational curriculum designed by the Ministry of Education. The students spend most of their time studying grammar and developing reading skills to prepare for exams instead of learning the everyday English needed for actual communication. Therefore, Koreans are not inherently poor at English. They just haven’t learned the language with actual communication with foreigners as the main goal.
Therefore, there is no need for the entire country to make such a big fuss over English. English conversation is not a science, it’s a skill. If you make up your mind to commit yourself to speaking English, you will be able to command the language to a certain degree. Once you are capable of speaking English accurately, writing ability will come easily. Proficiency in practical English can be acquired without difficulty if the direction of the English education policy is changed.
The important point is not how well a student knows English, but whether he can speak and write in the language. Therefore, it is more important that students accurately understand the study material in their native language of Korean, first. The public schools need to be very careful when hiring English instructors. The schools should only choose candidates who are qualified to teach children instead of hurriedly making decisions based on English fluency alone. Moreover, the teachers and aspiring teachers who have been preparing for more than four years should be given a chance to apply for the post of English instructor by offering intensive English programs. As the students in lower grades especially need a humanity-based approach, licensed Korean teachers should be assigned to these children first in order to prevent the misunderstanding of treating English as a purpose, not a means.
Many people live happily without having to deal with a foreigner once in their entire life, and not every citizen should be good at English.
However, in this era of globalization and infinite competition, English is a growth engine. If public education has reinforced the English program, Korean students will be able to freely communicate with foreigners. The curriculum should be reformed to include English classes from the first grade. Secondly, the college entrance examinations should focus on practical English. Lastly, companies need to test the applicants based on practical English. Then, students’ proficiency in practical English will accelerate naturally since many students set their goals to get into colleges and companies. The Lee Myung-bak administration’s drastic plan to strengthen practical English could be realized and succeed.

*The writer is a professor at Chung-Ang University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Min Byoung-chul
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