[Viewpoint] He who hesitates is lost in translation
I speak English to my 2-year-old, and my wife speaks to her in English and Korean. But besides the occasional television program and visits from my foreign friends, that’s where the English exposure ends. My mother-in-law speaks Korean, her neighborhood playmates speak Korean and the children at her day care center speak Korean.
Despite this, she still understands English, and when she and I are alone, she speaks it, if not perfectly, at least freely. But when there are others around, she becomes shy and her English dries up like a puddle under the hot summer sun.
This fear of speaking English in public keeps many Koreans from developing their full potential as English speakers. The underlying basics are there but the connection between their knowledge and their tongues fails under pressure.
Hwang Ji-hye, deputy director of the English Education Team at the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, says the problem is one of exposure.
“Lack of contact with English and foreign culture,” she said. “That’s our situation.”
Since 1995, the Korean government has been trying to change that by hiring native English speakers to teach conversation in public schools.
According to ministry data, 5,500 native speakers were teaching in Korea’s around 11,000 public schools as of Sept. 30, 2008. That’s one teacher per two schools. The ministry would like to raise the ratio to one-to-one, but officials are taking their time to accomplish it.
“If we focus only on numbers, it’s hard to have good teachers from other countries,” Hwang said. “We now think the more important thing is to choose better teachers.”
Hwang said an additional 11,000 native speakers reportedly teach at private English academies. Another 18,000 teach off-the-books, she said.
These are impressive numbers, but are they making a difference in speaking ability for average Koreans?
Jang Min-seok, a sophomore political science and international relations major at Korea University, is doubtful. The gap between English speakers and non-speakers is only going to get bigger here, he said.
“Most people will stay the same,” Jang said. “But some people who can speak English will improve as time goes by, and the gap between them will be broadened.”
Jang, who grew up on Jeju Island, spent six years studying English at a hagwon, or private institute, and had classes with native speakers in high school.
As a child, he waited in front of E-Mart during school vacations for the occasional foreign tourist to walk by so he could practice speaking. Hearing about life in other countries made him want to learn more. He now has his eye set on a position at the foreign ministry.
Jang said the once-a-week conversation classes he had in high school weren’t helpful. Only three or four students in a class of 40 could say anything in English and the teacher rarely pushed them beyond the simplest phrases.
Besides better conversation classes, Jang says Korean parents have to place a higher value on the language. He said many parents tell their children learning English is not that important because they will graduate from university and get a job in Korea. Jang disagrees.
“Koreans say the Korean language is scientific and historic and easy to learn,” he said. “They say so, but what most people in the world speak is English.”
Jang said more opportunities exist in Seoul than on Jeju and in outlying provinces.
Cane Rhiu, academic director at Yeoksam YBM in Seoul’s Gangnam District, thinks efforts to improve English are paying off.
“When I first started [six years ago], there were so many lower-level students,” Rhiu said. “These days, I don’t have any lower-level students.”
Rhiu credits Korea’s greater engagement with other countries.
“People get more chances to use English, even in Korea,” he said. “They also get more chances to travel outside of Korea.”
Yoon Sung-hae, an international studies student at Korea University, picked up her English skills through a combination of self-study, enrollment in a language program at Sogang University and attending a foreign language high school.
Yoon, now 21 years old, began learning English when she was 7 after being inspired by the Backstreet Boys.
“I fell in love with them and my dad told me I had to learn English,” she said. “They’re American and in order to learn their songs, you have to learn English.”
While she studied formally, Yoon said most of her learning came from her avid consumption of the Disney Channel, as well as movies and music in English. It’s a strategy she recommends to others.
“I think English is not just a language,” she said. “In order to learn English in an easier way, I think you have to be open minded in accepting the culture as well.”
Yoon, who uses English every day in her classes at KU, said being willing to make mistakes is another key to becoming fluent.
“I thought it was a natural thing for me to make mistakes because I’m not a native speaker,” she said.
Yoon Won-sup, a reporter on the international desk at Maeil Business Newspaper in Seoul, agrees. He became fluent through daily contact with American G.I.s while serving in the Korean Augmentation to the United States Army, or Katusa.
Speaking English in the army was not easy at first, but he overcame his fear by making mistakes and learning from them.
“I thought if I just keep hesitating, I’m not going to learn English well,” he said.
And while he didn’t have native English teachers in public schools, he thinks they will improve English ability in the long run.
“I think it’s absolutely positive,” he said, “because the presence of the foreign teachers itself reduces Koreans’ fear.”
More opportunities exist in Korea to speak English than ever before. Hagwon abound, foreign language high schools are becoming more common, and half of all public schools have native English speakers to teach conversation. To me, an outsider and someone who comes into contact with a disproportionate number of Korea’s English speakers, it seems like these efforts really are bearing fruit. But only by speaking will hesitant English speakers make the transition to fluency.
Sounds like good advice. Maybe I’d better go practice my Korean.
The writer teaches journalism at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.