In class, Korean students usually write down what the teacher says and answer questions in an exercise book containing written English questions. After school they typically go to a hagwon to upgrade their English scores for the university entrance exam. Most high school students focus only on learning easy technical skills, and their English is quite poor.
If we contrast English education in Korea with Finland and Singapore, we can clearly see the problems. Here`s how students in these countries learn English:
An English teacher in Finland begins class by asking students in English about their daily lives just like students would speak in their mother tongue. In contrast, Korean students learn grammar, reading and spelling from their Korean teacher, rather than accurate pronunciation, fluency of speech and listening comprehension.
Singapore emphasizes fluent English communication because it is an international city. For example, in a typical large elementary school, more than 30 languages are spoken - but the official language is English. Therefore, most students become bilingual naturally in the course of their daily schoolwork.
The problems of Korean English education are severe. First, our classes are too grammar-oriented. Korean English teachers focus on grammar because of their generally poor speaking ability. As a result, English class in public school is often boring. Learning is passive, not active.
Second, Korea has a low supply of foreign teachers, and they are sometimes of poor quality. For example, a foreigner with no teaching experience can easily be hired, even by our public schools. Plus, our typically large class size makes it difficult for even good foreign teachers to teach effectively.
Third, all students face a big burden - constant studying for exams - so they think that only test scores are important.
Fourth, because of Korea`s weak public education system, some parents invest in overseas education in English-speaking countries rather than spending money on extracurricular study in Korea.
I would suggest three solutions for these problems:
Develop domestic teachers` ability by sending them abroad to study English, and hire competent, experienced foreign teachers, and reduce class size if possible.
Invest wisely in public education. Many critics point out that government spending on education is not efficient or based on serious research.
Decrease the weight for university entrance examination scores and increase that of the student`s high school record when selecting students for college. This could result in more enthusiastic class participation. In-class activities could encourage students to take the initiative in learning, rather than learning only what they need to score well on tests.
Effective communication and an active attitude are essential elements of mastering a language. This should be our focus.
Although a hundred million won is spent to educate one student from kindergarten to high school - (Kangnam standard), Korean students are well below average in TOEFL scores among OECD countries. Our approach to foreign languages must change, and the government must make a greater effort to use financial resources wisely to bring about these changes.
The author is a 2nd year university student in the nursing college at Pochon CHA University and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org - Ed.
By Kim Min-gyu