The ill effects of ‘English fever’

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The ill effects of ‘English fever’

The description of English education in Korea as “English fever” is apropos. Not only does it describe Koreans’ zeal for English training, the term also denotes an irrational and abnormal condition. Despite Koreans’ determination for self-improvement, many of the incentives for learning English are increasingly disconnected from rational basis and producing unexpected and deleterious results. For their sacrifices of energy, time and money, Koreans are receiving questionable returns: in professional development, in skills acquisition and in the integrity of the educational paradigm.

As a component of the CSAT, English improves students’ chances of entering a top-ranked university, which is closely correlated with career opportunity. Beyond university, however, the need for proficiency is less clear. A recent study by Kim Hi-sam of the Korea Development Institute suggests that while English experience reflects favorably in the job interview process, Toeic is more closely correlated with final employment status and salary - implying a discrepancy between the wide variety of study options available to students and the options that will most likely produce a professional advantage.

Furthermore, workers apparently chosen for their proficiency earn the perceived English-wage premium regardless of whether their jobs actually require English use: suggesting that the perceived English premium is indeed merely a perception, and that workers are, in fact, being rewarded for qualities merely associated with English acquisition. This is noteworthy for two reasons: One, the study also finds that almost 70 percent of university students sacrifice time in their major courses - often in their critical final year - in order to acquire English experience for employment screening purposes; and two, major GPA is actually more closely related to workplace satisfaction.

Meanwhile, a recent study by Kang Chang-hui and Hyun Bo-hun, professors at Chung-Ang University, examined the effects of private tutoring expenditures on 9th grade English, Korean and math test scores. Their research suggests that tutoring produces no statistically significant increase. In English, a 10 percent increase in expenditure is correlated with an approximately 1 percent increase in test score. Nevertheless, the pursuit of English continues unabated. The government has declared universal English proficiency to be integral in future phases of development. It has rescinded the ban on private tutoring and enacted large-scale immigration and employment programs to populate a vast landscape of public schools, hagwon (or, private cram school) and associated for-profit enterprises with native speakers. The English education market is valued between $15 billion and $20 billion. Kim Hi-sam estimates that one-third of all private tutoring expenditure is spent on English. Since 2004, annual growth has been estimated at 30 percent. Despite these numbers, Koreans continue to rank near the bottom on international standardized tests.

It is difficult not to conclude that the market is overvalued. However, aside from the financial aspects, Koreans should note the wider social costs. The perceived need for language skills in employment and the ensuing demand to acquire those skills lead not only to the usual opportunity costs for families and the widening of the rich-poor divide. It leads to the corruption of education itself as well. Accredited institutions of education have an obligation to the cognitive and intellectual development of their students. This public trust is compromised by the pursuit of profit, which puts downward pressure on standards and accountability.

Kang and Hyun speculate that one reason for the poor return on investment may be the poor quality of teachers in the private educational system. I would agree and argue that this is directly attributable to the skewed business incentives created by the inflated demand for these services. I perceive that the economics of the English industry are resulting in a systemic preference for mediocrity.

The majority of Westerners, who are recruited to teach English in Korea, possess neither credentials nor background adequate for their responsibilities. They lack basic tools for evaluation of student needs and assessment of student progress. However, one must acknowledge that they are merely recruited according to institutional preferences. I have observed university academies that actually discourage academic rigor for fear of depressing repeat business.

If English fluency is deemed a national goal, then the government should pursue a more coordinated strategy for reaching that goal. For one, it should enact stronger regulations on the English industry. At this point, I do not believe that the industry is capable of regulating itself. There is simply too much money in the system and too much incentive to learn English. Possible strategies include a stronger accreditation system for education providers; standardized curricula; minimum qualifications for teachers according to classroom responsibility; and disclosure by institutions of general student progress according to benchmark tests. It could also initiate a program to recruit and retain highly qualified teachers. Presently, Korea is not a choice destination for the best international teachers.

Korea should also rethink its assumption of native-language speakers as ideal teachers, a myth that few linguistics experts believe. By allowing professional teachers from the Philippines and elsewhere, Korea could quickly increase the efficacy of its work force.

Addressing the quality of English education involves more than just piecemeal solutions. Ultimately, Korea needs to address the demand itself. To the extent that English skill is perceived as a screening device in employment, Korean students will pursue that skill. Employers should signal more clearly the qualifications needed for access and advancement, thereby encouraging students to spend their time and resources more efficiently. The government should also enhance public learning options to alleviate the economic burden on families and to provide more equitable access to the higher echelons of tertiary education and employment.

Absent state regulation, individual Koreans should take it upon themselves to become smarter consumers. As we may infer from Kang and Hyun, Koreans do not need to spend more: they need to spend more wisely. Before paying for expensive private English training, they should review the record of the institution.

Despite the fever, English competency is undeniably important to future development and individual opportunity. I believe that general fluency is a realistic goal if pursued rationally. Korean students are already world leaders, as evidenced by the latest PISA and TIMSS assessments. They can achieve spectacularly in languages, too. However, I do not believe that English fluency can be achieved by present methods, which, I believe, are working against this goal. The world is already stunned by Korea’s development over the last 50 years. I encourage Koreans to apply their tenacity to this area also.


*The author received a master’s degree in social science and government from Harvard University, and is currently a graduate student at Boston College studying education evaluation. He was a professor at Seoul Women’s University from 2010-11.


by Robert Price
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