Wednesday, 06 August 2008

Why study English?

Watch out for the swearing at the beginning

This clip is interesting because it touches on Korea's obsession with “learning” English. I’m saying learning, because many a student studies for years and take tests to prove their proficiency, but is unable to hold a conversation.

I have often wondered about why most Koreans feel the need to study English. Although I have not explicitly asked the question, I have heard, through conversation, most of the answers in this clip.  (Please watch out for the searing in this clip.)


Common answers to the question “Why study English” are:
"In Korea it means power."
"I want to go to America."
"It is the international language."
I would like to discus my personal feelings in these three answers.

1. In Korea it means power.

From what people tell me, I can see how this might be true. If you “know” English, then your job opportunities are increased immensely. Unfortunately, knowing English and speaking is not the same thing. There are various proficiency tests to prove you are capable, but there are also many Koreans who pass these tests and are unable, or unwilling to speak English.

I have heard that the Korean Air crew swap around when there is an English Speaker in there service zone. The crew member who can actually speak English will then serve your zone. To get into Korean Air, you have to have passed TOEFL. According to international law, or at least while I was a flight attendant, you have to be able to speak English if you want to work on International flights. Being an international flight, you will likely have Non Koreans onboard. In an emergency, you need to be able to tell people what to do and what to expect and you will do this in English if they are not Korean.

Part of this “knowing” English, but not speaking it, is that many people are unable to understand any non-American accent. Sure, my parents have no idea what Ali G is saying, but give them a week and they will be fine. Leave them in England for a month and they will often not even notice the accents. Point is, the accent will hinder them, not stop them.

For someone who doesn’t care about ever leaving Korea for an extended period of time, there is no practical reason at all to study English apart from an employer’s baseless requirement. If it is possible to live in South Africa, with 11 languages, and never have to speak English, then surely it is true for Korea where 98% of the population is Korean?

2. I want to go to America

The reason I hear most for going to the US is to study. Korea cares more about the status of a university than the actual competence of the students. If you get a degree from one of the big three universities here, then you are well away and if you get a degree from an US Ivy League School then you might as well have been touched by god himself.

Point is that you go to the USA not to create a life there, but to get a degree so that you can come back to a country where everyone speaks Korean. Sure, this reason is marginally better for me, but the end result is still that English was only a means to an end. Once you come back you might never need English again. In that sense, this is almost the same as Answer One.

3. It is the international language.

This is a little more to the point, but no one seems to grasp what the point of an international language is. English is considered the international language of business, not THE international language. You are able to do business all over the world if you are able to speak English. Sure, Mandarin Chinese has more speakers, but Chinese business men don’t go to Africa and expect people there to speak Chinese. They go there and speak English. Very few Africans are first language English speakers, but most in the cities can, at the very least, handle themselves in the language. Chinese is the biggest language in terms of FIRST languages.

So, again, unless you are planning to travel without a tour guide or do business outside of Korea, then what is the point of this statement?


In this clip the one guy said "Swimming". That might be the best answer I have heard in a very long time. You want to become an international swimmer? Well, most people in the world don’t speak Korean, so get your act together and learn a language that many people do speak, even if it is not as a first language.

*This is a question, i feel,  that can be equally applied, with similar answers to many countries throughout the world.

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