Yesterday, another question came to my inbox wanting to know why Koreans don’t learn to speak English. My response could only be Koreans are trying, but they have many obstacles. Koreans want to learn to speak English, but there are many things that get in the way of them trying to speak English. Many Koreans speak English, but many study and it just doesn’t happen for them. Here are some of the attempts they make and the obstacles.
To begin with, English is taught in all the Korean schools. The reason I came to Korea was because the Korean government recruited me to try to help Koreans speak English. They first sent me to an elementary school. Every class in that school had English lessons. However. the Koreans English teacher didn’t feel competent in English, so she really didn’t teach. She put a DVD in the machine, she gave them a workbook, and she she didn’t let me teach. She put me in the hall way, gave the kids an English phrase, and had them all stand in line and say it to me one by one. I wasn’t satisfied with that kind of teaching because I am an actual English teacher, not just a puppet to let someone pull my string so I can say an English phrase to them. The problem with her was that to teach, in Korea all you need to do is graduate from a teacher’s college, but you are not taught your subject. She assumed that she couldn’t speak English and that I couldn’t teach. However, I changed her mind about my abilities through my actions and the success I had. They try to teach English in their schools, but they don’t accomplish much. They bring native speakers of English to Korea calling them teachers, bu they want to use them like one of those dolls that you pull the string, and they say something in English, not to actually be teachers.
They bring lots of native speakers of English to Korea from other countries as English teachers who are not actual English teachers. They don’t know what they are doing. The students can’t speak English, the teachers can’t speak Korean, and most of the foreign teachers haven’t been trained to teach. The boss who knows nothing about English is the one who gives them the text book. If these foreigners learn to speak Korean, all of a sudden, the boss no longer wants them. They want people to be English speaking machines, but they don’t think about the fact that communication can’t take place. The foreign teachers get in trouble if they speak Korean. The Koreans think it is better for the students to struggle to try to understand rather than have it explained to them. However, if that foreign teacher is up there explaining a difficult English book in English with a group of students who don’t speak English, It is like rain falling, but everyone staying indoors or using a big umbrella. Very few get wet, and no one gets soaked. The Koreans never thought about starting at the bottom and giving them a foundation first and building on it.
At the university in the English classes, they give them really hard text books and hire native speakers who know nothing about grammar and can’t communicate with their students to teach those text books. I suggested to my university to hire my Romanian friend who teaches English because at least she understood grammar, but she wasn’t taught how to teach people who couldn’t understand her when she spoke. When she first got to the university, it was a mess because the students all sat talking to one another and not listening to a word she was saying because they couldn’t understand. No teaching was taking place because even though she knew her subject, she didn’t know how to start at the bottom and work up and she couldn’t communicate with her students. We reorganized and gave her the students who knew a little English so at least they could benefit from her teaching. I studied Korean like crazy to try to help the ones who didn’t understand at all, and I had been taught to speak Japanese by a woman who couldn’t speak English, so I understood the method of teaching students I couldn’t talk to. However, many foreign English professors have called me very unsure of what to do because they were not actually English professors. They were Science teachers, preachers, Education majors, and they didn’t understand grammar at all and couldn’t speak Korean. I spent a lot of time explaining grammar to them, helping them make handouts, helping them plan their classes, and helping them make out their tests, but I couldn’t do it for every teacher in Korea. The Korean English teachers as well as the native English speakers they hire to teach English are both obstacles to the students learning to speak English.
On almost every street corner in Korea you can see a private English school. Many learn to speak English in this schools. However, they are an obstacle in their own way too. They think there is only one way. They have a system of books, and those are the only books the teachers are allowed to use. They think there is only one method. They don’t encourage creativity in their teachers. Everything is done on computers. What they do works, but there is no room for more good ideas. Everything is strictly controlled. They push their kids hard, and the kids want to rebel because they have no childhood except the books and classrooms from this private school. Kids don’t go outside to play after school. They don’t swing and climb trees. Everything is digital. These schools are expensive, and if the parents can’t pay big prices, the kids don’t learn to speak English, but many do. By middle school, a lot of Korean kids start causing a lot of trouble and spending their time in PC rooms playing video games and smoking. They don’t know ow to play like children.
One of the big problems Koreans have with trying to learn English is that the English language and Korean are so extremely different. As far as language goes, they are as different as night and day. The gulf between them is huge! The ideas of language, the grammar concepts, the idea of what a sentence is, even the ideas about punctuation are from two different worlds. The American government classifies Korean as the second hardest language for English speakers to learn to speak. This just underscores how different the languages are. When I was teaching English as a Second Language to students from several countries while I was still in America, I noticed that the Koreans were having a harder time than any of the other students. When I got to Korea, I realized the problem. The gap is just huge between Korean and English, much larger than between other languages and English. Koreans learn to speak English, but hardly any English speakers learn to speak Korean. They would rather study a language that is much easier, but Koreans only have English to study.
Another obstacle to Koreans learning to speak English is the big test they all have to take if they want a good job in Korea, the TOEIC test. Everyone thinks it is a test of proficiency in English, but it isn’t. Students can speak English very well and still not do well on that test. They can not speak English at all, but still get a good score on the test. All students want is a good score on that test so they get get a good job in Korea. The purpose of the test is to figure out which ones speak English the best, but it doesn’t do that. The professors set up special class to teach strategies to pass that test. The students study the strategies rather than studying to learn to speak English. They are wasting their time with the TEIC test, but none of the bosses who hire the ones with the high scores know, so they go on working on the TOEIC test. It is part of the system.
It is the system itself that is a big obstacle to them learning to speak English. The control that the bosses must have over the classes, but many times, the bosses either don’t speak English or don’t understand education. They are in charge, and they rule with an iron fist because of the Confucian system. There is no suggestion box. There is no encouragement to be creative. A friend of mine who was a university president actually sat in his office and told me that the Koreans are the smartest people in the world and they didn’t think anyone in the world could do the work they do in their classrooms. They don’t accept home schooling. They think no one can learn unless they are in a classroom, hence they have many, many after school schools. Even adults to go these schools, and not just for English. In America, if you want to make a garden, you talk to your mother or your friend who has a garden and get advice. In Korea, they must go to a private school and sit in a classroom to learn even how to garden. No one every thought about picking up a book on their own. No one ever thought that anyone other than a Korean would know anything. Their own pride in being Korean is an obstacle to them learning to speak English. They think foreigners can’t speak Korean, not that they just don’t try, but they think they actually can’t even if they tried.
The government has now become an obstacle to them learning to speak English. Korean parents feel the burden of making sure their kids can learn to speak English.They go so far as to sending their kids overseas and not having a close relationship with them just so the kids can learn to speak English. I know people who were sent to New Zealand, to Australia, to the Philippines, to Malaysia, and to America at very young ages away from their parents and even against their own will because the parents wanted them to learn to speak English. They couldn’t speak English and were placed in the home of people who couldn’t speak Korean, and perhaps they were only 12 years old. It is extremely drastic and traumatic for the children, but their parents are deadly serious about putting them above the pack. The Korean parents have become so militaristic about making sure those kids learn English that the Korean government has outlawed the children being taught English before the third or fourth grades. They say the parents are teaching the kids English before their Korean language skills are intact, and they want to stop it. They want those parents to give the kid’s Korean language skills a chance to develop before the are forced to start studying English. The parent’s response to the English problem caused a law, but the parents are disobeying the law and getting their little kids English lessons anyway.
As you can see, the assumption that Koreans aren’t trying to learn to speak English is just a false assumption. Koreans are working hard at teaching and learning English. However, the road is full of obstacles. some obstacles are there naturally and others the Koreans make themselves. No one can say the Koreans aren’t trying to learn to speak English. They are. they don’t have a lot of success, but they are trying. The question came from someone from the middle East, so perhaps they are trying to do business with Koreans thinking that English is an international language and that everyone should speak it. Koreans think the same way. They think English is an international language. They ones who speak English think they are ready to travel. They think they should be able to speak to anyone in the world no matter where they go because they speak English. Everyone in the world doesn’t speak English, but you can find English speakers in every country. People who assume that studying English will get them around the world are right. You can even find English speakers in Korea, and if they are speaking English well, you can infer that perhaps they are very talented compared to those around them, perhaps they had a chance to live in an English speaking country, or perhaps they just had a good teacher. Lots of people in Korea try to speak English, but it doesn’t’ mean they succeed.