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… and so abysmal when it comes to learning English

Opinion essay by Ajda Rozina Zupancic

I am prefacing this lengthy piece of writing by saying I whipped it up in an afternoon at a coffee shop, i.e., it is not well researched nor supported by credible sources alphabetically written at the bottom of the page for further perusal. These are my own opinions, and while I believe them to be true and stand by them (until proven otherwise), I implore you to fact-check the stated facts, especially the Korea-related bits, if this is your first encounter with the topic. The foundations on which I base this article are my degree in Korean Studies and living in Korea for almost two years. I in no way, shape or form call myself an expert.

Koreans are no different from Slovenians in when they start learning the English language: at a young age, often even before primary school, if their mothers have a say in this. And yet it seems futile since we still make fun of their accents, L and R are apparently one and the same for some, and they seem to use ‘he’ and ‘she’ interchangeably as well. It is not a question of studying hard or not — Korean students often employ hagwons, specialised centres for learning school subjects after school, English included. So why then are they so poor at it when they study English as long and definitely harder than Slovenian students?

Setting aside the significantly different language and sentence structures of Korean, which of course do impact learning a structurally different language such as English, I have surmised this is largely due to how the English language is taught in schools and who teaches the language. If we focus on the latter, Korea has been very prolific with hiring (native) English speakers to teach in their schools in the last decade. When I say Korea employs native English speakers I mean that they hire indiscriminately, as long as the person has a BA… in any field. So you have history, geography, philosophy graduates teaching English to impressionable minds without having the proper skills and qualifications to do their job.

The other problem is the way students learn English in schools: they are taught not to say anything if it is not 100% correct or they risk bringing shame upon themselves. This coincides greatly with the ‘saving face’ culture of East Asia and their collectivist mentality. ‘Saving face’ simply means to preserve one’s honour in front of other people, and it is one of the defining features of Koreans, as well as the Japanese.

Koreans may rank high academically speaking, and they are sure to know their way around English tenses and declensions and conjugations, but they fail to have a simple verbal interaction with a stranger because of the emphasis on achieving a high score on a written test with little to no actual communication practice. This, I believe, is largely due to the College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT), the Korean version of the matura exam we have here in Slovenia. Only it is much more decisive than ours and can make or break one’s future.

Most Koreans wish to enter one of the three SKY universities: Seoul National University, Korea University or Yonsei University. Failure to do so, or failure to attend the desired university, is quite literally deadly. When some of the students realise the CSAT exam is too tough and they will not be able to get a good enough score, they hand in the exam, leave the examination centre and find a decently high building to jump off. It has gotten to the point that the buildings surrounding the examination centres make sure to lock their rooftop access doors to prevent suicidal teens from attempting the worst on the day of.

To steer away from the morbid reality; since one of the exams on CSAT tests the English language ability, many teachers simply make their students proficient in test-taking while largely ignoring that the purpose of learning a language is communication, as a certain English Department lecturer is wont to say. So for the focus of English language teaching and learning to change, we would first need to amend the importance of the CSAT, and since this is still far off or nigh impossible, I will focus on what Korea is doing right in regard to language teaching.

Though they may seem hopeless in getting a better grasp on the English language, I do believe there is still hope for the new generation. Just recently, for example, a new challenge has popped up: Korean mothers are encouraging their children to read 1,000 English books to accelerate the language-learning process. The Korean government has also voted to allow grades one and two in public schools to return to English after-school classes, which means that wealthy students and those studying in private schools had an advantage on English learning while the ban was in effect since they could simply pay for afternoon English lessons at hagwons.

Mayhap I will not have to eat my words in a decade when eloquent Japanese, Korean and Chinese students speak in perfect Queen’s English, eat their scones and shine their Oxfords on the way to dominate the English-speaking world, who knows. Or they will develop a hard outer shell when faced with their own incompetence, all the while asking, ‘Does this face look bothered?’ While they may be failing to teach students passable English, Koreans excel in teaching foreigners their own language. Exhibit A: Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.

According to the 2019 QS World University Rankings, Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (HUFS) ranks as the 13th best university in Korea. (There are around 200 of them in Korea, just to make explicit the fact that this particular university is not the bottom of the barrel.) It is primarily known as a language university, and if you ask any Korean Studies students at the Faculty of Arts where they went on their exchange, they will most likely say HUFS since the university is a sister university to ours, which means classes there are free for us University of Ljubljana students. The private university has two campuses, one in the capital Seoul, and one a good hour away in Yongin. I studied Korean and English for a year in Seoul and am currently spending my second year in Yongin, only focusing on learning Korean.

(A tip from somebody who likes to encourage fellow English Department students to take a chance and go abroad during university years: HUFS Seoul campus has over 150 courses at the College of English to pick and choose from, and the level is more or less comparable to that of the BA English courses at the Faculty of Arts, and more importantly, the credits are easily transferable. The things you have to pay for are the plane ticket and dormitory fees, and of course the day-to-day expenses, but otherwise it is a wonderful opportunity for those more adventurous students. The bad side: this is not like ERASMUS, where you get paid to go abroad. If you don’t have a scholarship already, extra funds will be hard to get a hold of from the Slovenian or Korean government.)

I have studied the initial two levels of Korean at HUFS Seoul campus, and am currently relaxing after the midterm exam for level four (out of six) at the Yongin campus. My days start at six or seven in the morning in order to study. Then I have four 50-minute classes of Korean from 9:30 AM. I particularly enjoy the brisk 20-minute walk to the classroom every morning to get some exercise in as my modus operandi is otherwise permanently set on ‘don’t leave my room except for food’. I am the type of person who is less than worthless for doing anything productive in the afternoon after classes, but I do force myself to review the day’s lessons and/or make notes for future lessons for an hour or two even so. Then I go to sleep as soon as possible, rinse and repeat from Monday to Friday. That means twenty hours of Korean lessons plus ten to fifteen hours of self-study per week.

I don’t know about other students, but I have sailed pretty smoothly through all my classes and courses back in Slovenia with a few weeks of studying before the exams. (I know that’s not what you’re supposed to do, the term ‘sprotno učenje’ is imprinted in my mind, but the current system at the English Department doesn’t incentivise me not to study just before the exam, and hey, it’s been successful so far, if my BA in English is to be believed.) But, alas, my usual method of procrastination is not sustainable for the Intensive Korean Course, since there is a Monday quiz that tests what was learned the previous week. Now, the weekly quizzes comprise 10% of the grade for writing, which is 2.5% of the overall grade, so technically I could just skip them, but 2.5% is 2.5 % and those are some easy points, so… I am bad at mathematics, but I do use my paltry skills to calculate my chances of postponing studying.

To expand a bit more on how the Intensive Korean Course is structured and what it comprises: it is a 10-week course (technically an 11-week course due to the national holidays that sprout up and whatnot) that crams in 200 hours of Korean, and focuses on all four major language skills: writing, speaking, reading and listening. The first two hours of the day are usually spent learning new grammar and speaking practice with one teacher, and the latter two are for reading with the second teacher. The listening practice switches between the two teachers, and the writing portion is usually reserved for Fridays when we are given a 400-700-square wongoji paper (each square represents a syllable, a space or punctuation), and a good half hour to write something on the given topic.

Every week we learn eight to ten new grammatical points or expressions, usually two per day, for example: reported speech, different ways to say ‘because’ (there are seven I have learned so far, well, ten if I stretch it, and they are dictated by what precedes the conjunction and what follows it, or if the speaker and listener both know the ‘why’ of it, or if the two clauses are happening asynchronously or not, etc.), expressions of agreement, proverbs, how to say ‘even’ (at least two ways) or ‘even if’ (at least six ways), and on and on and on and I want to bash my head in just a bit sometimes. But as any other person under the language-induced Stockholm syndrome, I don’t mind all that much. (I think my teachers mind more when I ask for clarification between -아/어/여서 ‘because’ and -(으)니까 ‘because’.)

The listening portion consists of dialogues that are sometimes easier, sometimes more complex, depending on the vocabulary and grammatical structures used. With the progression of levels, the conversations have been getting longer and longer and they encompass more and more difficult words. To practice our pronunciation, we then read the conversations we have listened to in twos or threes, and the unknown words are explained or expanded upon.

We also have a different topic we focus on every week and build the vocabulary around it. For example, when we learned about environmental problems, vocabulary such as ‘abnormal climate’, ‘industrial waste water’, ‘domestic sewage’, ‘chemical fertiliser’ and ‘ozone depletion’ appeared. With each level the student is then able to hold a more nuanced conversation, further increasing their communication skills. Having peeked ahead, the textbooks and workbooks for the final two levels exclude grammar and mostly focus on expanding vocabulary and communication skills.

Reading has progressed from a couple of paragraphs with short sentences to winding writing in the form of a newspaper article or an interview that spans over a page. The focus is on understanding the vocabulary presented in the given text, comprehending the sentence, summarising the paragraphs, extracting the main points… Each of the four main skills is then tested in a separate midterm and final exam. One hour for the writing, listening and reading exam, and a presentation and an interview with the teacher for the speaking exam.

This long explanation of my Intensive Korean Course I have given has two main purposes: one, for those who think differently, an exchange semester or year abroad is not all fun and play. I am postponing a year of my postgraduate studies to learn a valuable skill that may aid me in my future employment prospects. And I am sure many other students who (wish to) attend an ERASMUS or CMEPIUS exchange have similar aspirations. For example, I completed all of the second-year courses during my BA in Korea for both majors, English and Korean. That means that on top of taking the Intensive Korean Course I took English classes for my credits. I believe many other students would be similarly inclined if given the opportunity to study abroad without restrictions on their grades. Besides, teachers then receive sophisticated students in return, all fit and ready to debate their broadened worldview.

And two, I am wondering if the apparent competence and success of the Korean course could be transferred to the English classes Korean students are taking in their schools. Of course it is not as easily done as said; for one, Korean students do not have the luxury to study English twenty hours per week. Also, if the goal is a perfect score on a (written) exam such as the CSAT, then it is understandable why communication takes a back seat for teachers and students alike. But school is an ivory tower, and soon the students will be sliding down the razor blade of life. In the real world, the score on an English exam has little significance if (English) communication skills are non-existent.

To summarise my ramblings: language learning is tough, Korea is tough, Korean is tough, English is also tough and ‘tough’ has now lost its meaning because I have written it too many times. I share snippets of Korea with my friends every now and then, and sometimes get asked why I would even choose to live in Korea due to the (negative) experiences I tell them about. But one of the universal human traits is that we more often talk about the negatives than the positives, which means to truly experience the best a country has to offer, you should visit it yourself. So go check out our university’s exchange program options and live the life you’re wishing you would. (I am most certainly not a walking and talking ad for foreign exchange. Or am I?) 읽어주셔서 감사합니다.

Originally published in Issue XVIII in May 2019.