English in the school system
According to the OECD, the Korean educational system is one of the top 3 worldwide. Korea takes the idea of a knowledge economy extremely seriously. 95% of Koreans aged 25-34 have a high school diploma, the highest rate in the world, and 82% of high school graduates go on to enroll in post-secondary education. Performance in English, however, lags behind core subjects like math, reading and science. Students begin learning English in the third year of primary school. Emphasis throughout the education system has historically been on grammar and reading comprehension, which are tested on university entrance exams.
The desire for practical spoken English skills is extremely high, driving parents and students to supplement the education received in school which many parents consider insufficient. 80% of Korean children receive some form of tutoring outside of school hours, and 30% are enrolled in English-language tutoring. In the past few years, Korea has been the third largest sending nation of students to study in the USA in absolute numbers, all program types combined, following only India and China with their vastly larger populations. 40% of all Koreans who study abroad are enrolled in an English training course rather than a university program. The phenomenon of “split families” in which mothers take their school-aged children and live in an English speaking country for several years while fathers remain in Korea, working to fund this English immersion experience, has been widely reported both in Korea and abroad.
During the past 5 years, the government has implemented a series of reforms aimed at improving English teaching in public schools. 8546 native English speaking teachers were placed in Korean schools in 2010 through a government sponsored program to encourage development of conversation skills. Approximately 20% of all Korean schools now have at least 1 native English speaking teacher. English teachers are receiving additional training in teaching oral English and many have been awarded internationally recognized TESOL certification.
English at Work
The Korean economy is strongly driven by trade. 70% of the Korean GDP is represented by import and export. The government recently announced a goal of becoming the 7th largest exporting nation in absolute terms by 2015. Today it is 9th. The huge growth in exports and imports in the previous decades is already driving today’s demand for professionals who are competent in English, and this trend is set to continue.
In a survey of 583 office workers in 2010, Job Korea, a major recruiting company, found that a third of Korean job seekers consider poor English-speaking ability to be their biggest handicap in career progression. English proficiency test scores such as TOEIC and TOEFL are no longer the sole measure of a candidate’s English ability. Employers are increasingly independently verifying workplace English speaking skills during their hiring process by including English-language presentation exercises and debate sessions for applicants. Large Korean companies like Samsung Electronics, Hyundai-Kia Motors and SK Group are even conducting job interviews in English.
Culture and Attitudes towards English
Korean society is very competitive and a high level of proficiency in English is seen as an undeniable edge in achieving economic success and having a good career. Pressure is high on Korean parents to supply this educational asset to their children. Amongst adults, English proficiency is well respected. Due to the large numbers of students abroad, there is now a visible cadre of powerful Korean business people and politicians who speak excellent English and appear publicly doing so.
The Korean language borrows heavily from English, often via Japanese, leaving the resulting borrowed words quite a distance from their English cousins. Some scholars lament what they see as a pollution of their language, but journalists, business people and young people are nevertheless enthusiastic about borrowing new words from English to show how in touch they are with foreign culture.
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