Koreans spend millions of dollars every year on English education. Public schools have hired native teachers, and parents nearly go broke sending their children to “hagwons”(private institutes) for private classes. Unfortunately, improvement in English skills is not happening as quickly or effectively as the government would like. In this highly competitive culture people are always pushing themselves to perform better and outdo the person sitting beside them. So why is it that, despite native speakers in public schools and countless hours and dollars spent on hagwons, many Koreans still cannot speak conversational English?
Teaching Styles and Learning Goals
While in Korea, I have observed Korean English teachers giving an entire lesson about English grammar in Korean. Language learning should be about trying to express oneself creatively in a second tongue. While grammar and error correction certainly have a valid and important role within second language acquisition, a focus on communication is an integral part of language learning that is too often forgotten in Korean classrooms. I think language teachers in Korea are beginning to understand the importance of communicative language teaching; however, the difficulty comes with the implementation of this methodology. Currently, Korean teachers must prepare their students to succeed on academic tests, rather than preparing them to speak conversational English.
Testing culture is rampant in many developed nations, and Korea is most certainly one of them. My limited experience with high school and university students has led me to the conclusion that many Koreans believe that if they don’t perform well on their high school examinations, then they won’t be able to get into a good college. If they don’t get into a good college, their opportunities for future employment and success are much more limited. I’ve even had my high school students explain that the attractiveness of one’s spouse is directly related to their test scores. The higher the test scores, the more attractive the spouse. The pressure for students to perform well on tests is insurmountable, and the stress has taken a harsh toll on the population’s youth.
When teachers teach to the test, through rote memorization, students learn how to perform well on tests. But is this really language learning? Are the tests reliable and valid assessments of students’ knowledge of English? It depends on what your personal language goals are, why you are learning English, and how you are going to use English. Standardized tests examine a very limited set of skills under very specific circumstances. Real communication rarely happens under these conditions. Authentic communication is spontaneous and creative, and the same sentence is rarely uttered twice.
It would be naïve to think the entire English education system in Korea can or will change overnight, so as students it is important to know what you can do to improve your language skills. In my classes I try to encourage students to speak freely. I’m not going to get angry if a student makes a mistake. Students are concerned with how others will see them, but the truth is this: no one is perfect at English. Not even me, a native English teacher. I will make mistakes, and so will you. Mistakes are okay, and making them is the only way we can start to get better. Rote memorization takes the fun out of language learning. And trust me, learning a language can actually be fun!
Reading for Pleasure: So, instead of sitting with a Voca book on the park bench, try to read an actual book in English, not a vocabulary list. Extensive reading is one of the ways, if not the best, to increase your vocabulary. The exposure to the quantity of input is invaluable to a language learner. Countless empirical studies have shown the multiple benefits of extensive reading.
But extensive reading is not enough. Reading helps learners acquire vocabulary passively. In other words, learners can recognize a word and understand the meaning, but they cannot produce this word spontaneously. In order to transfer passive vocabulary into active use, we have to encounter the word several times and practice using it in communicative situations.
Take a Risk: Next time you see a foreigner, don’t say ‘hello’, giggle and walk away. Strike up a conversation: we’re happy to chat. If your goal is to be able to have conversations in English, you should have conversations in English! There are a number of foreigners roaming the streets near Gujeongmun, thus offering plenty of opportunities to speak. Take advantage of the free English conversation lesson you could get while you stand next to a foreigner waiting for your coffee. Research shows that when you speak in the second language, you notice your limitations and become aware of where you can improve.
Instead of being a passive student in class, take a risk. You might be wrong, but your teacher and fellow students will respect you for showing interest and effort. As a teacher, there is no greater moment than when students use the target language to complete a task successfully. When this happens I know that students are one step closer to being able to have a real conversation outside of class.
Communication in a second language opens us up to so many new cultural experiences. It is not always comfortable and can be very challenging, but the fulfillment we can achieve by learning about a new language and culture is worth the persistence. The education system is stacked against Korean learners, so many of them will have to take it upon themselves to become commutatively competent in English. Attitudes have to change. Those learning English have to realize that it’s not such a drag after all. It can be exciting, rewarding and eye opening.