Koreans and Studying English (part II)

This post is a continuation of my earlier post. In this post, we will continue to discuss the factors that contribute to the inefficient ESL learning as well as take a look at a few things we can do to help.

Test score


English in Korea is test driven. Many students study English to get a good test score so that they can enter a reputable university or get a good job. Some only attend the conversation class to prepare for an interview or for traveling abroad. They’ll only study what they need to know in order to pass the test. Usually students have the format drilled into them. For example when they prepare for standardized tests like TOEIC or an interview they memorize the answers. There’s no opportunity for students to express their opinion or be creative.

These methods and the preoccupation with producing correct test answers means that studying is merely a means to achieve a desired grade, and not about gaining knowledge. Therefore, it is not surprising when someone who scored over 800 in TOEIC score cannot express themselves in English or even comprehend the language.

These students score extremely well on exams, but they lack in terms of actual English proficiency. If you speak to students, they often have surprisingly little knowledge about the subjects they score 98 and 100 percent in. They know nothing outside the parameters of the test.

Students are learning for the sole purpose of getting high test scores. Given this fact, it is not surprising that Koreans struggle to actually communicate in English, despite large investments towards ESL education.

Tiger moms and decision making

From an early age Korean kids are pushed to be the very best in all they do. Anything less is unacceptable. These kids are forced by their parents especially by their mothers to study English and excel in it regardless of what the child wants or is interested in.

Most Korean moms have the perception that when it comes to English education their child if taught “correctly”, can absorb information presented to him or her and recite it back with perfect accuracy. If the child fails to learn English with this method, parents tend to assume the problem must be the teacher and not that their child has a learning style that requires a different method of learning.

Most private school English teachers do not serve the students’ learning as much as they serve their parents’ idea of “education”. Furthermore, none of these parents are experts in teaching English, yet most of these moms have suggestions as to how the class should be taught.

‘Free Talking’ is another over used word in Korea in my opinion. For example, many moms want their preschoolers who have no background whatsoever in English to have a ‘free talking’ class with the native teacher. They don’t want the teacher to use a book or teach phonics or reading (anything that might help the child learn the language) but they expect their child to be able to have a conversation with the native speaker in perfect English. If they do not see any results or get what they want, they assume the teacher is not good enough.

In the land of hagwons, whatever the parents say is what goes, even if it’s not in the best interest of the student, or even if it is certain that the inclusion of certain materials and methods would benefit the students. This stubbornness from Korean parents forces hagwon directors to appease to their wants and demands inevitably allowing individuals who are neither teachers or English speakers themselves, to dictate exactly how the classroom is run. Hagwon directors easily give in to these ridiculous demands because Korea has no shortage of hagwons. Parents have no problem shopping around until they get what they want. So for most people it’s just good business sense to keep these tiger moms happy.

Lack of motivation

The competitive nature of the society and pressure from parents becomes overwhelming for many students. They are pushed by their parents, teachers and peers to get good scores. Anything less than perfect is unacceptable. They go to several different private institutes after finishing school. They have little to no time to relax or eat. Many of them burn out completely. They are usually tired. The workload and the long hours make many students resent education. For Korean students it’s ‘all work and no play’. It is hardly surprising when many students do not improve even though they study English for months or years. They come to class because they HAVE to not because they WANT to.

Few opportunities to practice English outside the classroom

Another problem is that most of these students do not get a chance to practice English outside the classroom. They get a chance to speak with a native teacher in English for about an hour to 50 minutes during class. But outside the class they do not use English at all. At home, in school, with the Korean English teachers the preferred language for communication is Korean not English. The fact remains that, outside the office, the classroom, and social occasions and interactions with foreigners, Koreans ( for the most part ) have little need for English in their ordinary everyday lives.

Lack of confidence

The biggest obstacle for many students is the lack of confidence in using the language. From my personal experience I know that many students comprehend what you are saying and know how to reply but are too scared to make a mistake and so they don’t try. Because of Confucianist thinking many Koreans are afraid to make mistakes, get embarrass and eventually lose face. So rather than try and make mistakes they take the easy way out and don’t try.

Things we can do to help

Korean Education system is trying to change and promote a more practical approach towards learning English. The Korean government has and is trying to change hiring requirements and policies regarding ESL. In addition the government is also trying to change the curriculum and the way English is being taught.

Another thing that truly need to change is the influence of parents on policymakers and administrators. This is not to say that parents should not be part of the decision making but their sway should not be stronger than that of language teachers and specialists.

As an ESL teacher you can try different methodologies. Include ESL activities and games to make the lesson more interesting. Most importantly be in tune with your students. Try to be empathetic. Encourage your students. Help them to understand that making mistakes is a natural part of the learning process.

The system is not going to change miraculously overnight. It will take time and patience for real changes to take place. In the meantime, having a positive attitude and the desire to teach and learn despite the challenges will go a long way towards improving the ESL learning experience.

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