[Viewpoint] An academic world outside English

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[Viewpoint] An academic world outside English

The government will have spent 4 trillion won ($3.2 billion) on English education from 2008 to 2012. But for this astronomical appropriation to have value, half should go to education and dissemination of the Korean language here and overseas, a quarter to English and the last quarter to other foreign languages.

The government may think English is so important that it cannot spare resources for Korean or other foreign languages. No one can deny the importance of English, but it is simply not possible to enhance the English proficiency of Koreans at the cost of their own mother tongue.

Other foreign languages will also be necessary in this globalizing world. The authorities say there will be trickle-down effects to other languages once the present English education policy is implemented. This is nonsensical, because the world will not stand still and wait for Koreans to perfect their English.

All people should have the right to choose a language to specialize in. Those who happen to choose other languages should be treated just like those who choose English. And those who choose no foreign language should also be respected. Let them study other subjects that would allow them to be more productive.

The government’s “English first” or “English only” policy has provoked public resentment. It is time for the government to adopt a balanced language policy to advance not only English but other languages. Domestically, research in ancient Korean, local accents, classical Chinese, loan words, terminology and romanization is necessary. Korean language teaching for foreign nationals and second-generation Korean immigrants overseas should be intensified.

Languages die out. This may help people communicate better, but it’s also a tragic loss of human heritage. Linguists predict that only a few languages will survive the next century. The Korean language is not expected to fade away because Koreans make up 1.4 percent of the world economy, and Korea has the 12th-largest population.

More importantly, second languages are acquired on the basis of the first. We learn English through the prism of Korean. Since those who are fluent in their first language tend to be fluent in their second, Korean study should precede English.

Policy makers may argue that even 4 trillion won is not enough to ensure every high schooler can speak English with ease. Such an argument neglects two significant facts. First, education is a long-term task that requires consistency for decades, but also demands agile adaptation to rapidly changing environments. Second, language cannot and need not be acquired quickly.

Languages have two prominent and related traits: They are awfully hard to acquire, and they are more art than science. It takes about four years for babies to learn to use their mothers’ languages to a fairly communicative degree. It takes them over eight years to learn a second language to a similar degree. Children learn best through osmosis, like riding a bike.

Only exposure to English in immersion courses can guarantee this effect. If we want our schools to do this, students should be exposed to English during the full school day, in homework and on vacations. That is why the transition team for the Lee administration proposed immersion courses in English based on the Finnish model, though the public and later Lee himself disagreed. The Finnish model is unrealistic for Koreans because Korean is far more useful than Finnish globally. The average Korean, unlike the average Finn, can do without English.

President Lee’s undying hope to see all high school graduates be able to communicate in English without difficulty merits wholehearted support. But the government needs to be more specific about this aim. To make the average high school graduate communicative in English would be like making all of them artists. It is unrealistic and unnecessary at best and squanders time, energy and resources at worst. The government should funnel 1 trillion won into the related project to incorporate English education into the public domain, which was adopted by the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology on April 15, 2008.

The government needs to make its objectives more realistic. One way to do this would be to give up on competition, which runs counter to Korea’s traditional egalitarian sentiments. The students who are intrinsically motivated to learn English should receive opportunities to do so as one of their extracurricular activities, free of charge.

Korea has to promote cooperation among local governments, schools, teachers and parents. The present scheme for “zero-hour” and after-school classes is designed to help the private sector infiltrate our schools, making more work for public English teachers. They should be freed from administrative chores. The government should give incentives to parents who have their children learn English in Korea instead of leaving for overseas. Under programs involving schools, local authorities and parents, children should be able to learn English for free at schools, public libraries, museums, art galleries, residents’ centers and other public facilities.

What’s more, the government’s plan does not have a clear-cut vision for the supply and demand of competent teachers of English. Here are two specific proposals. The first one is to recycle retired teachers, who are the most valuable and highly experienced specialists. When a nation is in danger, the reserve forces are summoned. The government has called English education an emergency, so retired teachers must be remobilized.

Government miscalculations have led many licensed teachers of English to be jobless, while there are still schools that suffer a shortage of competent teachers on the other. Thus the second proposal would be to grant licenses only to those who have completed postgraduate courses in teaching English. One example is the International Graduate School of English, which is “tiny but shiny” with its fame for graduates’ strong ability to teach English in English. All its students receive full scholarships for four semesters. IGSE President Nahm-Sheik Park is renowned as the Korean guru of English, and showed the government what it must do in his landmark lecture delivered at the Korea Maritime University in October 2007, when President Lee pledged to return English education to the public domain during his campaign.

In conclusion, English may enjoy priority over other foreign languages, but not over Korean, and other foreign languages must not be neglected either. A more realistic and balanced language policy is called for as an obsession with English only will harm all language education. We cannot chase two rabbits, bringing English education into the public domain and making the average high school graduate able to communicate in English.

But with one stone, we can still kill three birds: a balanced language policy, reduction of the English divide, and closer cooperation among schools, local authorities, teachers and parents. The government’s role is not to assign more tests but to stimulate intrinsic motivation and reduce anxiety about studying English.


*It’s vital that we worry first about our mother tongue before spending so much on English.

by Jaebum Kim
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