Recently, I have been meeting with small groups of middle and high school English teachers in Seoul. These teachers invite me to lecture on whether and how English newspapers can be used to teach the English language in the classroom.
In the three-hour presentation, I point out 10 things Koreans overlook in learning English.
First, learning English does not need to be expensive. According to Statistics Korea, last year, Koreans spent 6.5 trillion won (about $6 billion) for their children's English classes. This amount is equal to 20 percent of Korea's defense budget. However, inexpensive language learning is now possible with the many e-learning tools available. Parents, teachers and students only need to find the appropriate e-learning tools.
Second, Koreans waste too much time learning unnecessary vocabulary. Private academy lecturers require seven-year-olds to memorize such words as anthropology, archeology, ophthalmologist and cinematography, which are not used much in daily life. My experience shows that Koreans need only 10,000 words to pass any English proficiency test such as the TOEIC and TOEFL or English tests for college-bound students. Although the current English vocabulary is around one million words, one only needs 10,000 words to be able to read English newspapers and listen to English broadcasts such as by CNN, ABC and NBC.
Third, English textbooks should be adapted for the Korean context. Students are better able to learn another language if their learning is related to their own culture and everyday life. English textbooks in Korea are imported from English-speaking countries, and thus, students learn only about English-speaking cultures. Students seldom learn about whether Joseon Dynasty naval commander Yi Sun-shin (1545–1598) is either an admiral or a general. They do not learn about traditional Korean foods such as oxtail soup, grilled pork belly, sweet rice nectar and red bean porridge.
Fourth, few teachers, parents and students understand the vast differences between academic English and every day English. Korean education is so focused on teaching academic English that it fails to teach students how to use the English language in their daily life. Note that even native English speakers seldom use academic words in their day-to-day conversations.
Fifth, Koreans underestimate the importance of newspapers in learning English. Newspapers are helpful because they use English to cover topics in which most are interested. Even in English-speaking countries such as the United States, teachers are encouraged to use newspapers to help students improve vocabulary, writing and general knowledge. Korean education policymakers should adopt the newspaper in education (NIE) concept.
Sixth, newspapers are the best tools for enriching vocabulary for daily use. For example, for the past 15 years, The Korea Times has been using about 10,000 words, greater than the vocabulary required in exams for college-bound students and English proficiency tests like the TOEIC and TOEFL.
Seventh, many people mistakenly believe the more difficult and lengthy words they use, the more intelligent they will be perceived. For example, some writers use procrastinate to mean delay or postpone. President Barack Obama sets an example for using plain language not only in casual conversations but also in speeches. He has even introduced the Plain Writing Act of 2010, which mandates all federal agencies to use words that are understandable to average Americans.
Eighth, readers should read more English dailies based in Korea. While Western publications such as The New York Times and Time are respected and worth reading, they seldom cover Korean issues, and even then, cover only popular issues like the inter-Korean tension and North Korea's nuclear threats. On the other hand, English dailies based in Korea can help students learn English expressions and vocabulary in the Korean context.
Ninth, Koreans shouldn't focus only on getting high scores in proficiency tests like the TOEIC and TOEFL because these tests do not foster practical English skills. Just as a driving license does not mean you can drive a car on the road the next day, getting high TOEIC or TOEFL scores does not mean you will be able to read, listen, speak and write well in English in daily life.
Finally, Koreans should learn not only to read, listen and speak in English but also to write in English. To this end, they can use many editing software programs including Style Writer.
According to StyleWriter creator Nick Wright, once you plug the editing tool into all versions of Microsoft Word, it "searches for thousands of writing faults including complex words, jargon and abstract words, wordy phrases, hidden verbs, passive verbs, cliches and long sentences. It then pops up advice showing you how to edit each sentence. Using StyleWriter typically cuts 25 percent of the words from the document and removes the stale writing habits so common in organizational writing. It's just like having a professional editor sit down next to you and highlight all of your writing problems in your document."
Korean educators have so far tried many methods to help students learn English. However, their attempts have failed, and parents continue to spend money on expensive private tutoring. However, my 10 points suggest better, less expensive ways to learn English such as through the NIE concept.
Lee Chang-sup is the executive managing director of The Korea Times. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.