[Viewpoint]Much ado about English

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[Viewpoint]Much ado about English

Koreans’ zeal for English education is extremely high. It’s not surprising, therefore, that President-elect Lee Myung-bak has emphasized the need to raise the level of English education and made it one of the major policy objectives of his new administration.
At first, people welcomed the suggestion soon after his election that his administration would upgrade English education in schools so Korean youths could communicate in English by the time they graduate from high school.
However, by the end of January, the public suddenly turned a cold shoulder to the education policy being drawn up for Lee.
According to a poll conducted by a media outlet in early February, more than half the people objected to the new plan. What made the popularity of the plan go down so suddenly?
One factor was overzealous proposals, such as the introduction of English immersion and the teaching of English in English, that were announced by the transition team.
At the team’s suggestion of plans to introduce total immersion at primary and secondary schools, the teachers’ community became nervous and reacted strongly against the idea.
Eventually, the transition team had to withdraw its original proposal. But it is still sticking to a plan to hire a total of 23,000 teachers by 2013, at a cost of 1.7 trillion won ($1.8 billion).
This plan is controversial because it means a rapid change in the community of educators.
Teachers expressed concerns about the possibility of producing a large number of unqualified teachers due to the short period planned to train such a huge number of total immersion teachers.
The parents are also wary of the plan because they fear they will be forced to send their children to private English language institutes to get them ready to attend English classes taught in English.
The other thing that frightened people away from the English education plan was pointed out accurately by the president-elect himself. He put the brakes on the transition team’s frequent announcements on English education, saying, “Talk about nonessential things on the subject has muddled the essence of the plan.”
He was referring to such things as the transition team’s suggestion to change the current rules on romanization of the Korean alphabet and a proposal that would allow fluent English speakers to substitute teaching for military service, among others.
The team should not have mentioned such details at the stage when it was preparing policy guidelines for the incoming administration.
What, then, are the essential issues that should be addressed regarding English education in Korea? I think we should start with problems in the existing English education system.
Koreans, including President-elect Lee, criticize Korea’s English education for making Koreans handicapped in speaking with foreign English speakers. It seems the blame is, in large part, put on teachers who are not good at speaking English and lack skills in teaching English speech. This is the reason why the transition team proposed hiring a large number of English immersion teachers.
But the English education curriculum in Korea and most non-English speaking countries had been originally designed to enhance reading and comprehension skills of students, not for developing conversational or verbal communication skills. The curriculum was designed to teach knowledge of English. That is why until 1996 Korean schools started English education in middle school.
For the development of conversational skills, it is better to start education in a second language in primary school, because one should learn another language before the age of 12 or 13 to speak it fluently.
The transition team should have clarified this first and concentrated on a plan for the improvement of English education at the primary school level, with follow-up plans for middle school at a later stage.
Once students learn to converse in English during primary school, they can move up to the stage of developing their writing ability in English. From spoken English, the stress of English education at the secondary school level, therefore, will naturally be on comprehension and writing. It is not practical, or necessary, to teach skills in English conversation for 10 years.
In the age of globalization, middle and high school students should be required to learn a second foreign language so they can also communicate with people in non-English speaking countries.
Besides plans for improved school education, there is one thing the new plan should include: the use of mass media in English education.
It is necessary to create an environment whereby people can have easy access to English in daily life. In that sense, we urgently need an FM radio station that broadcasts news in English on a 24-hour basis. Arirang TV broadcasts English news, but its aim is to reach audiences overseas, not Koreans here. KBS International Radio broadcasts news in English, but its broadcast in shortwave, also to reach overseas listeners. We do not have a radio station that provides news in English for foreigners living in Korea as well as Koreans, including students, who want to listen to English news every day.
English newspapers are also useful for English education. In such countries as Singapore, Hong Kong, India and Pakistan, where people speak fluent English, there are many English newspapers with large circulations. We have only three English dailies and they are all struggling with low readership. The new administration should introduce a policy that allows English teachers to use various materials, including English newspapers, as teaching supplements.

*The writer, a former editorial page editor of the JoongAng Daily, is a visiting professor of media studies at Myongji University.

by Park Sung-soo
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