EF Korea head praises diversity

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EF Korea head praises diversity

Yoon Seon-joo is the country manager of EF Korea, the domestic branch of the international education company, but she’s also a passionate believer in the importance of learning new cultures and languages.

“Going abroad isn’t going to a ‘bigger pond,’ but a ‘different pond,’ I would say,” Yoon said in a recent interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily. “Korean students are locked too closely in competition. The more they study, the narrower their thinking becomes.”

Yoon, formerly a producer at SBS, one of Korea’s major broadcasters, joined EF Education First after studying at Harvard Law School and working as a lawyer in Hong Kong because she truly wanted to provide Korean students with the opportunity to learn a foreign language through cultural experiences.

Her ideology goes well with EF’s mission: live the language.

The company, founded in 1965 by Swedish businessman Bertil Hult, is a global education group that runs about 500 campuses in more than 50 countries where students can learn a language while also engaging in cultural exchanges and traveling.

The company currently offers English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Chinese and Japanese.

The Korean branch was created in 1988, when demand for English education surged after the country hosted the Summer Olympics in Seoul.

Since Yoon took the helm in 2012, EF Korea has expanded its presence, opening one more office in northern Seoul and sending about 50 percent more students - elementary to college level, and even adults - to EF campuses overseas.

Although she doesn’t want to necessarily advise parents to send their children to English-language kindergartens, she does think it’s important to expose them at a young age to foreign cultures and break their fear of meeting people from different backgrounds.

Korean parents are notorious for obsessing over education, spending fortunes on their children’s education and private tuition.

“I’m not a believer in private tuition, but as the leader of EF Korea, I think it’s desirable to spend wisely on good private tuition programs that can provide what public education cannot,” she said.

“I, myself, am an example,” she said. “At 7, I spent about two years in the United States, which helped me get a sense for English.”

Yoon said she was even luckier in that she attended an elementary school with students from as many as 50 countries. She learned English naturally, she said, in an environment where a variety of cultures co-existed.

“My perspective toward the world was created at the time, I think,” she said. “I learned that everyone is different and every culture is unique.”

Her personal experience fits well with her work at EF Korea.

“Learning the language separately doesn’t mean anything,” Yoon said. “EF provides a language course where students can learn a foreign language on its campus by using books and materials developed by our researchers. The most important part is after-class activities. Teachers give various assignments, ranging from going to a shop, listening to given sentences or interviewing someone.

“And one of the best and basic options we offer is allowing students to stay with a local host family,” she continued. “The fact that they are using the language as they wake up in the morning and eat breakfast is the most important part of our education.”

Yoon added that she is working toward adding Korean as the eighth language in the global language-learning programs EF provides.

“As well as sending our students abroad, I want to bring foreign students to Korea,” she said, recalling her experience at Harvard when she brought about 40 students to Seoul during spring break to give them the chance to immerse themselves in Korean culture. “They were awed by the co-existence of technology and history in Korea,” she said. “Seeing them, I felt that a broader scope was needed, not only for Korean students but also for students of other nationalities.”

Opening a campus in Seoul, she said, is her final goal at EF Korea.

“Before that, we need to prepare a lot of things. First of all, there needs to be better materials and tools to teach foreigners the Korean language,” she said. “There are more than 30 ways to describe sweetness in Korean, and too many confusing honorific forms, which can be difficult for foreigners who think differently than we do.

“We should make sure teaching foreigners another language is different from teaching a native language.”

Yoon added that she hopes more Koreans here will keep an open mind toward different ethnic groups.

“Korean people take pride in being part of a single nationality, but what this means is that they think there are Koreans and non-Koreans,” she said. “I want to see our people move beyond discriminating against different ethnic groups and be open to global citizens.”

BY SONG SU-HYUN [ssh@joongang.co.kr]

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