Purpose of English study in Korea
In the current trend of globalization, English has been identified as a critical resource by the government for Korea’s survival.
Accordingly, English education has been a major priority in all areas of the country. However, I argue that English does not play as much of a role as is claimed in promoting Korea’s global competitiveness.
Instead, English learning has merely continued to serve as a means by which individuals access status, power and success in Korea, namely, an ideological assessment tool to support the inequality within a status conscious society.
There is little doubt that English is necessary for Korea’s economic survival and contributes to the country’s competitiveness in an internationalized world. However, the problem aspects come from confusion and disjunction between the government’s rhetoric and the English language pedagogical practices.
Instead of focusing on developing the nation’s practical English skills, a special place has been given to the results of English proficiency tests, which do not realistically reflect a candidate’s practical English skills. These test scores have become a major criterion for success in all areas, including not only education but also in job-performance evaluations.
For example, the policies of a number of sought-after conglomerates require the submission of TOEIC scores as an essential criterion for employment eligibility. It is believed for employers that these English proficiency scores would provide them with a tool to assess a candidate’s level of work ethic and commitment to achieve the target goal.
Even after initial success in the workplace, the new employees are continuously placed under pressure to maintain or to improve their TOEIC results. This is because employees with low scores are often excluded from promotion or from involvement in the company’s international training programs.
Achieving high scores in TOEIC, in particular, has also become essential for academic success. In Korea, the hierarchy of power relations is sustained largely through the medium of ``good education,” achieved by entering ``highly-ranked universities,” measured according to a strict ranking system. A number of prestigious universities require students to have high TOEFL or TOEIC scores to gain admission, which in turn allows them opportunities to upgrade their social position. Realistically, for the majority of Korean students, English language largely remains an academic exercise with little motivation to learn more than what is required to receive high scores in designated tests.
Students, parents, English teachers and school administrators all consider that the ultimate purpose of English education is for students to achieve high test scores in order to qualify for entry to highly regarded universities.
Some also argue that young children’s “native speaker” pronunciation symbolizes their parents’ high socio-economic status, thus being able to afford expensive English private tuition fees and to hire ``woneomin” teachers. A few recent newspaper articles report the effects of parents’ salary on the improvement of their children’s English scores. Their native speaker pronunciation with high scores in English tests is believed to be one of the ``must-haves” to become a member of the elite groups within this status-conscious society.
Clearly, the stated goal of English education to promote the nation’s global competitiveness by improving people’s practical English skills is not well reflected in English related social practices in Korea. Instead, English has only been adopted as a tool for evaluation and a symbolic measure of one’s competence associated with success in all areas.
It is an urgent matter to facilitate English education in Korea that focuses on developing the skills necessary for global communication, not leading students to obsess about the scores of these English tests, being only seen and used as a ladder to higher social positions.
The writer is a Ph.D. candidate and an instructor in English as an International Language in the Faculty of Arts at Monash University, Melbourne, Australia. She can be reached at email@example.com.