[Viewpoint] A three-way English competition

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[Viewpoint] A three-way English competition

Lately, opinions that the 21st century will be “the era of Korea, Japan and China” or “the century of Asia” are assuming great prominence. The Korea-China-Japan summit meeting scheduled for the end of the month will provide an opportunity for the three countries to pursue an East Asian alliance.

The 19th century belonged to Britain, and the 20th century was dominated by the United States. The 19th and 20th centuries were an era of the English language. At present, more than 400 million people around the world consider English their native language. It is the de facto international language and it made a great contribution to Britain and the United States’ dominance of the world.

English is also recognized as one of the crucial qualities of human capital. According to research on the correlation between English proficiency and national competitiveness, the ability to communicate in English is a critical variable that supports expansion of international trade. One report found that countries which have more citizens who are proficient in English are likely to have faster economic development. That’s why some 1 billion (according to the British Council) to 2 billion people (according to Forbes Magazine) are working hard to learn English at this very moment.

Even if global power shifts to another country, it is highly likely that English will retain its hegemony in the order of global languages. There are many reasons to believe it. First of all, the United States is expected to maintain its status as one of the dominant nations in the era of Korea, China and Japan. Moreover, if China does surpass the United States, only to be surpassed immediately by India, English will boast even more powerful influence as the official language of India. Psychological warfare over English proficiency has already broken out between China and India. Having realized that high English proficiency is one of the prerequisites to becoming a leader in information technology and other high-tech industries, China is promoting a policy to surpass India in its number of English speakers.

A Korean saying goes, “A wealthy family will last three generations even after it is ruined.” That holds true when it comes to the status of a language. French is still a favorite foreign-language choice among American high society. Roughly 100 million Europeans learn French as their second language and have it at their command. We don’t even have to address the dominance and influence of English.

If Korea wants to trade on an equal footing with China and Japan in the Korea-China-Japan era, we need to take advantage of English as a neutral language. As that era is fast approaching, we need to check our nation’s competitiveness in English. In order to lead the “Asian century” as one of the three driving forces, Korea needs to not only get ahead of China and Japan in terms of English proficiency but also be able to communicate in English in countries all over the world.

We have to resort to the standardized tests such as Test of English for International Communication (Toeic) and Test of English as a Foreign Language (Toefl) to compare English proficiency between countries. The good news is that Korea’s English proficiency is at least ahead of Japan’s. Korean test takers have been outscoring than their Japanese counterparts in Toeic tests since 2001. In the 2008 regular Toeic tests, the average score of Korean test takers was 610, 30 points higher than the Japanese average of 580.

According to the Feb. 27 issue of Diamond, a Japanese business news weekly magazine, one of the factors that allowed Samsung to get ahead of Sony is the Toeic score of its executives. In order to advance to the section chief level, Samsung Electronics demands that candidates score a minimum of 920 points on the Toeic while Sony asks for 650.

The awareness of the importance of English has translated into the growing gap between Sony and Samsung Electronics. The Toefl is graded on a 120-point scale, and the average Korean score in 2009 was 81, far higher than Japan’s 67 point average. The Yomiuri Shinbum reported in its April 28 issue that English proficiency among Japanese citizens was seriously behind that of Koreans and Chinese.

When it comes to Toeic and Toefl averages, comparisons between Korea and China are inconsistent. The average score of regular Toeic tests in 2009 for Chinese test takers was 727, far higher than Korea’s 610 point average in 2008. However, Koreans’ average Toefl score was higher than China’s in 2009: 81 to 76.

As far as English is concerned, Korea does have a competitive edge over Japan and China.

From now on, we need to contemplate how to ensure world-class English proficiency. Every year, Koreans spend 15 trillion won on English education outside the public school system. It is money well spent, and a wise investment on which we should not skimp.

*The writer is a senior reporter at the JoongAng Sunday.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

By Kim Whan-yung
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