[Letters] Why Koreans learn English

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[Letters] Why Koreans learn English

A lot of English teachers come to Korea expecting to teach active, enthusiastic Korean students eager to learn English. Many of those teachers complain about the fact that no matter how hard they try, they can’t get students’ attention.

While some Koreans want to learn English so they can pursue studies in English speaking countries or communicate better with their foreign friends or in-laws, most Koreans study English simply because they have no other choice.

During the late 1990s, the Korean government decided that all Koreans should get a degree. The government reached its goal in 2000, when 89 percent of Koreans graduated from high school and attended college. This had positive and negative results. On the one hand, Korea could now rely on an educated population. On the other hand, there were not enough jobs to meet the demand of a highly educated population.

Companies thus decided to put stricter requirements on hiring job applicants. Job applicants now need to attend good colleges, but most importantly, get high scores in standardized English tests to be qualified to apply for a job. Most companies and job applicants know that Korean companies seldom use English in their everyday activities. Overseas Koreans usually play the role of communicating in English when needed.

Most Koreans know that getting a high score in the TOEFL or TOEIC will guarantee them a stable job. The TOEFL, TOEIC and TEPS do not test the ability to engage in serious or entertaining English conversation. They test the ability to read English-language newspapers, academic documents and understand lectures or newscasts. They also test command of grammar and vocabulary that even professional American linguists don’t need to have.

Most Koreans don’t study English to communicate with the expat community living in Korea. There are too few English-speaking expats in Korea and many Koreans have never met a foreigner other than their English teacher.

Korean companies know that learning English in Korea and getting a decent score on the TOEFL or TOEIC is no easy task in Korea. Years of memorizing vocabulary and reading English language documents are required before Koreans can get a command of English that will satisfy test makers.

Getting a score of more than 100 on the TOEFL has become a sign of intelligence in Korean society. That kind of score can guarantee access to elite foreign-language high schools, programs at top universities and jobs at top Korean companies.

Korean companies and graduate schools have now set the bar high for students and job applicants. Rather than testing them on their conversational knowledge of English, they require scores of up to 100 on the TOEFL test (when the national Korean average is 72) to be considered for application. But most American Ivy league schools only require a 70 to 80 for international applicants.

Korean companies could hire overseas Koreans or expats if speaking English was key to everyday business activities.

Good TOEFL scores indeed guarantee that the Korean applicant studied hard and continuously for the test. I would say that it’s a good thing for Korea that Koreans are better at taking English tests than at speaking English. If all Koreans were bilingual, Korea would face a brain drain caused by difficulties finding a job and unsatisfying working conditions.


Akli Hadid, a former student in Korea now residing in Algeria.

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