Problems for Learners in South KoreaThere are a variety of issues students have to face in the Korean education system. Koreans take their education very seriously. This is rooted in their cultural thoroughness and the tough competition to gain acceptance into a Korean university. From the year 2000 to the present, Korea has been going through a type of restructuring of producing a knowledge-based curriculum and society to keep up with the demands of globalization. english education has become a national desire. Many individuals at a young age find learning english appealing along with Western culture. The aspiration to learn english in Korea is strongly tied to economic goals of becoming an international finance hub. english has been incorporated into the primary school curriculum to create more of an advantage regarding the developments of technology and globalization.
Concerning Koreans learning english, there are common problems of Korean students. Korea has attempted to increase communicative language learning, shifting away from traditional memorization techniques and basic grammar translation. Students are not seeing this change as much as they would like. This is heavily due to the top-down hierarchal process of education policy which some students have stated is prejudiced against teacher and parent input. This way is a part of their decision-making process partly because it is a part of the Korean culture, but many students and citizens believe the difficulty lies in having an examination-centered education. Teaching to the test shows the rigidity of the Korean education and the focus on scores alone. For example, Korea was ranked near the bottom for english Testing when grammar was replaced with speaking.
Korean students start out learning english in primary school, and by the time they are through middle school they are expected to have a practical english vocabulary. A problem these students face is most of the english they have learned is textbook english with little relation to the spoken english language of native speakers. Examples of this can be seen when Koreans, who have been studying english via textbook for many years, have a difficult time speaking introductory conversation with a foreigner in Korea, a native english speaker.
Many difficulties experienced by Korean english learners stem from differences in the languages. The structure and system between the two languages is extremely different making it challenging to transition from Korean to english. Spelling and sound correspondence is very challenging. In the Korean language, each letter or character corresponds to a sound unit. This is not the case in the english language where sounds are pronounced in different ways depending on the word and context.
Culture plays a large role in how Korean students learn. Korean students have a tendency to express themselves in indirect ways. Originating from Confucian way of thinking, Korean students have been trained to express themselves in a general way even when asked to communicate their ideas. They have been more unaccustomed to discussion and debate. In the classroom, Korean students can appear passive, defensive, and shy when they are encouraged to express their opinions and ideas freely.
Koreans have a group-oriented way of thinking. The family and society rank above the individual. Unlike native english speaking people, Koreans write or put their family name before their first name showing the importance of belonging and family. Also, many Koreans use “our” instead of “my” when referring to the teacher, “our teacher.” The same concept is applied
when addressing people. In english we teach, “on a first name basis”; however Koreans do not call people by their names but by social or family roles and relationship. For example; instead of calling somebody Bill, they call them Selina’s father or Andrew’s teacher.
Just as the Korean way of thinking differs, so will their behavior. Many Korean students are aware of the differences involved with their behavior to that of a western native english speaker. Korean students sometimes find it very difficult to adapt to the western style teaching methods. A westernized teaching style gears more toward having students become active, direct, communicative, and responsive. Some Korean students avoid eye contact as sign of respect to their teachers, frown when concentrating, and use a low tone of voice out of respect. Korean students can sometimes find this very frustrating when the teacher does not understand Korean culture and reasons for certain behaviors. For example, Korean students have reported misunderstanding with a native english teacher interpreting their frown as displeasure, their low tone of voice as lack of confidence, and their lack of eye contact as poor body language or being uninterested.
An english teacher’s misinterpretation of Korean student’s behavior, difficulties due to language difference, and the culture gap are challenges Korean students have been faced with. More effective teaching and learning can be made with the effort of both the english teacher and the Korean learners. Encouragement and flexibility are both very effective ways for decreasing the frustration of the english learning process for Koreans.
Byung-Eun Cho (2004) Issues Concerning Korean Learners of english:english Education in Korea and Some Common Difficulties of Korean Students. Seoul.
Suh, Cheong Soo, (Ed.) (2003) New Millenium Dictionary of Korean Language and Culture. Seoul: Hansebon.
Thorton, John G. (2009) Learning english as a Second Language in South Korea: Perceptions of Students and their english Speaking Instructors. Southern Queensland.