Beyond the English Divide in South Korea

Beyond the English Divide in South Korea

Maria Teresa Martinez-Garcia (Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, South Korea)
Copyright: © 2020 |Pages: 20
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-1219-7.ch013
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The knowledge of English in South Korea is considered to be an important asset, such that it is an indispensable skill when applying for admission into the top universities in the country or finding good jobs. The investment of families in making sure their offspring learn the language has been consistently increasing in recent years. However, not all families have access to the same private resources, thus creating a division (also known as ‘English Divide') between the richer families, who can provide their children with good private education, and poorer families, who cannot do it. This chapter provides a detailed account of the current economic situation of South Korea, emphasizing the importance given to English education. Moreover, the authors outline the work done by nonprofit organizations (such as Beyond the English Divide) to stop this English Divide.
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While South Korea traditionally has been considered a country with relatively strong monolingualism, since the 80s, the situation is rapidly changing. Nowadays, English is seen as an important key for success, and the lack of English skills is considered an important handicap in the competitive Korean society (Park, 2009). The importance given to English education has been fostered by the Korean government, which pushed its citizens to be more proficient in English to gain international recognition, more openness, competitiveness, and economic stability in the global economy (e.g., Kim, 2000; Park, 2009). For example, through the 6th National Curricula, English education was implemented obligatorily in 1995 for middle schools and in 1996 for high schools, and all the curricula was changed moving from a pedagogical approach focused on grammatical knowledge and accuracy towards focusing on communicative language use and fluency (e.g., Kwon, 2000; Shin, 2007). In addition, since 1997 (in the 7th National Curricula), mandatory English language education has been implemented beginning in the third grade in elementary school (Jung & Norton 2002; Lee, 2004; Song, 2013).

The emphasis on English education for Korea’s development has not only affected primary/secondary education, but it is also reflected in its growing importance in higher education and the job market. Since the late 90s, most universities require students to take an English test as part of their Korean SAT (entrance exam). Moreover, as a graduation requirement, students need to achieve a certain score on standardized English tests such as TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) or TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication), produced and administered by the Educational Testing Service of the U.S., for graduation – and those minimum scores have risen over the years (Park, 2009). Furthermore, English skills have become an important criterion for decisions regarding employment in the white-collar job market, such that even jobs that normally would not require English knowledge still test candidates on their skills during the interview process (Choi, 2002; McTague, 1990; Song, 2011) and even during their career (Choi, 2002). In fact, over 90% of workers in large, private manufacturing and exporting industries are continuously required to take English tests throughout their working career (Choi, 2002).

Thus, having high English proficiency offers significant advantages in entering top universities, landing high-paying jobs, and in future promotions, thereby widening the economic disparity prospects between the rich who can boost their English training and the poor in the country who cannot. Since the introduction of English as an elementary school subject, the private English education market has continued growing, with parents trying to give their children the best chances of having a good future. In recent years, English private after-school academies suppose an estimated $3.3 billion market (Park & Abelmann, 2004), and the competition for entering English-only kindergartens (yeongeo yuchiwon) with native-speaker staff (often twice or three times more expensive than regular kindergartens) is also thriving (Park, 2009).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Child Community Center: In South Korea, it is considered to be a place where children can go after school to be fed and receive private, free education (offered by volunteers) without any cost to their families and while their caretakers are still at work.

Youth Center: A place where young people (but not limited to young people) can meet and participate in a variety of activities, including sport activities, educative, or religious activities.

Volunteering: The action of offering one’s free time with the aim of helping other and without looking for a financial retribution.

Nonprofit: An organization, group or entity that is dedicated to furthering a particular social cause or advocating for a shared point of view without looking to obtain personal profits.

Expat: Short for expatriate. Group of foreigners in a given country who had to relocate to the new country due to financial, work, or family reasons.

Underprivileged: Pertaining to a group or social class economically below the average of the country where this person/group lives. They normally do not have access to the same resources as some of their peers, which ends up affecting their prospects of improving their quality of life in the future.

Incorporation: Status of an organization or organism after following all the legal steps to become a legal entity. After being incorporated, the organization receives benefits from the government (like subsidies or tax exemptions) and can follow all legal procedures as a legal entity.

English Divide: A social division created within a society due to the lack of access to English by some of the members of the population. While the richer members can access this education and receive future benefits from it, the poorer cannot access it, and so their prospects of improving their quality of life in the future are reduced.

Educational Welfare Center: In South Korea, it is considered to be a place where anybody in need can go to receive help (from legal advice, to food or child care service) without any cost to the person in need.

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