Thursday, January 12, 2006

Pragmatists beat out Nationalists

Beginning this fall semester, English education for elementary students is to be expanded, from just 3rd to 6th graders to all students. The Korea Times reports that the Ministry of Education and Human Resources Development announced this as part of a plan to strengthen early English education as part of overall human resources development.

And that means the pragmatists have again won out over the nationalists. The echo chamber known as the Korea-related blogosphere seems stuck in the N-Gear (i.e., relying on the facile analysis that all things in Korea are dictated and guided by blind nationalism), but despite the noise the jingoists like to make (making noise is what they do, after all), cooler and wiser heads typically prevail.

This is another such case. In the early to mid-1990s, Korea was caught up in the argument of whether expanding English education into the elementary school system would erode Korean children's sense of Koreanness. The argument was not whether English education would be more effective if it began in third grade rather than seventh grade (中1); instead, many feared that teaching kids English at an earlier age would erode their Korean language abilities and thus their sense of Koreanness.

The pragmatists (i.e., those who felt that Korea would have a leg up, a la Singapore or Hong Kong, if its students were conversant at what is the world's unofficial language, the Lingua Franca, as it were) eventually won out. The teenagers who enter universities this coming March will be the first crop of students to have been exposed to English in school at the age of eight or nine.

But the pragmatists' plan was never to stop there. The third, fourth, fifth, and sixth graders were just test cases, and they eventually wanted to expand English education to the youngest of elementary students. The nationalists have squawked that this would be even worse, but the pragmatists have won out.

[photo: English speakers standing around talking. Beginning in fall of this year, Korean first and second graders will be able to join these conversations.]

To be fair, there is substantial anecdotal evidence that the nationalists may be partly right. Hand in hand with the advent of text messaging, many Korean youths seem to have lost the ability to spell correctly in Korean, quite a feat for a language with a phonetic alphabet and mostly straightforward rules of spelling. English (along with some Japanese and a few other foreign languages) has infiltrated Korean slang to such a degree that many young people don't know which words are standard and which are casual expressions.

The Ministry is to earmark about 51 trillion won for the skills improvement project over the next five years, including money for recruitment of English speakers as assistant teachers in all middle schools nationwide by 2010 in an effort to enhance English conversation and English teaching skills.

I'm sure that some in the blogosphere will look at the 51 trillion won figure and say that, judging by the English skills of the average Korean, this will be like flushing money down the toilet. Better if they use North Korean superbills to pay for this.

For those who have been in Korea only a year or so, the snapshot of Korea they see now might seem as if it is one where Koreans can't speak English worth a damn. But for those who have been here longer, it is obvious that the number of young Koreans who have lived in Korea all their lives and can actually converse in Korea has increased significantly. This is due to a number of factors, including the massive increase in English-language programming, the expansion of English-teaching institutes, and the Internet, among other things, not just elementary school education.

The Korea Times also reports that the Ministry plans to oblige primary and secondary schools in free economic zones (Inchon, Pusan, Chinhae and Kwangyang) and an international city (Cheju and later, I think, Songdo) to conduct math and science classes in English under the so-called "English Immersion Program," starting from 2008 on a trial basis. Furthermore, students living in Pusan adjacent to Japan may be required to take Japanese, while students living in Inchon near China may learn Chinese. (Personally, I think Japanese would be practical for people in Seoul and Inchon as well.)

There are a few other changes, as well. The current school year system will be scrapped in favor of one where schools begin the academic year in September rather than in March by 2010 to coordinate with foreign educational institutions. Also, the the 6-3-3-4 system (six years for elementary school, three each for middle and high school, and four years for university) may be changed to a a 5-3-4-4 school system.

Of course, the pragmatists still had to include a nod to nationalistic ambitions. Quoting Deputy Education Minister Kim Young-shik:

By 2010, we will help ten local universities join the world’s top 200 universities and national competitiveness rank within the top-ten in international competitiveness.
That may not be such a bad thing. As we all know, patriotic drives to rise in the rankings have long been the engine of Korean achievement.

[photos below: more English speakers talking]


  1. I actually am with the nationalists here. Starting English so early may help Koreans get a leg up with the lingua franca, but it is bad for the Korean language. Your example of Singapore is a bad one here as few Chinese Singaporeans are fluent in their own (albeit government imposed) language (Mandarin). Hong Kong has changed the emphasis from English to Mandarin. I have noticed the number of English speakers to have actually gone down on my numerous excursions there. The worst example of this is India. They have developed some kind of weird hindi/english dialect which is neither language. Yes, I am a language purist. I would like to see Koreans get their own language right before messing with another one.

  2. Korean students would be more likely in for failure than ever, under the proposed English progem, if it is continued with the current education system in which students are tied to such a tight schedule that not even a single "chance to make a mistake" is allowed-- a previlege usually reserved for youth.

    They are told to jump even before they walk. Say, they are "urged"to always speak correct and natural English even before they can "make Konglish". Konglish is bad for English, but making Konglish is a natural process. Only positive is the program's ideal that language is for communication but not for study.

    The idea of "English Immersion program" now the government is trying to plant in elementary schools nationwide, just like democracy, reads well, but acts poor, I think.

    Immerse yourself or get drowned, if it pays off...


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