By Yoon Won-sup
President-elect Lee Myung-bak’s transition team has announced a series of measures to improve the nation’s English ability such as getting teachers to teach English in English not in Korean in primary schools and above.
The rationale behind the whole package of English education lies in Koreans’ poor performance in English even though they spend a huge amount of money on learning the language.
For example, South Korea stood at the 107th out of 143 non-English native countries in terms of the average Internet-based TOEFL score from September 2005 to December 2006, according to the test administrator ETS. The average score of Korean examinees was 72 out of 120.
Here are similar features of English education in countries that belong to the top 10 in the ranking excluding Singapore as the Asian country has adopted English as an official language.
Teaching English in English
Most northern European countries teach English in English from the first class, or introduce it in a gradual way.
Klaus Herzog, counselor in charge of science, culture and education at the German Embassy, said that he had his first English class at the age of 10 in the 1960s and the teacher just began teaching English in English without saying a single German word.
Of course, teachers used German to explain the grammar but the use of German was exceptional, Herzog said. Classes taught in English are an established teaching method in Germany and now students at have their first English class at the age of eight.
“Korea seems to put strong emphasis on visual comprehension and not so much on comprehension by listening,” Herzog said. “Meanwhile, in Europe, listening comprehension is important. For example, I took a listening test for high school graduation in which I summarized what I heard in English.”
He further said that people learn English just as a baby learns their mother tongue by listening to his or her mother speak.
Martin Hauge Torbergsen, first secretary of the Norwegian Embassy, echoed Herzog’s view but said that students learn English gradually in English. By the time students enter high school, they will attend English classes all taught in English, he added.
Torbergsen said that English tests consist of written and oral examinations. In fact, English tests in Korea are mainly written examination of reading comprehension, grammar and spelling.
Meanwhile, Riku Warjovaara, first secretary of the Finnish Embassy, stressed that though English is taught in English, other subjects such as Finnish and history are not.
His point reflected that the transition team dropped its original plan to teach all subjects in English.
Qualified English Teachers
The second and probably the most important feature is that countries, whose TOEFL scores are quite high, are all proud of qualified teachers with a masters degree in English or experiences of studying in English-speaking countries.
Warjovaara said, “Every English teacher must have masters degree in English. In addition, they must have degree in teaching.
Herzog said that all English teachers are fluent in English without exception.
“Even in the 1960s, teachers in their 30s and 50s were also very fluent and most of them were German,” Herzog continued. “A majority of Germans who teach English have studied mainly in the U.K. or other English-speaking countries.”
Torbergsen also said the English teachers in Norway are all fluent with a masters degree in English.
Most Koreans would be quite envious of the diplomats’ description of their English teachers in terms of quality because the majority of Korean English teachers are not fluent in English. That’s one of the reasons why Korean teachers are strongly opposed to President-elect Lee’s drastic plan to get teachers to teach English in English.
Austrian Ambassador to Seoul Wilhelm Donko said, “Most of our English teachers have either the experience of studying in English-speaking countries or learned English directly from people with such a background.”
Those European diplomats echoed that almost all English teachers are their nationals and people don’t think they particularly need foreign English teachers because of the high quality.
However, Korean students prefer to learn from foreign English teachers largely because of their much better pronunciation.
Thanks to the excellent teachers, European students don’t have to get private tutoring, which is very rare in Europe but very popular in Korea.
“Private tutoring is very rare and it only happens when a student is really bad at school,” Herzog said.
So the diplomats said more focus should be given on the training of good teachers.
Torbergsen noted he could understand why Koreans spend lots of money on English when the return on the money spent was not that rewarding.
An exchange program is also a distinguished feature responsible for better English ability of Europeans.
It is very common for students of secondary schools to study in Britain and other European countries as well as the United States. One of the advantages in the program is that students generally get financial support: for example, they only pay living expenses while tuition is covered by the program organization.
Herzog said, “Almost all middle and high schools have exchange programs and students who are willing to go on the program can apply.”
Warjovaara said attention to the Finnish teaching method in overall education would be helpful for Korea’s education authorities. He stressed that Finnish learn not to pass a test but for life.
“The relations between a teacher and a student is equal and teachers do not just give knowledge. Instead, they discuss issues and teachers encourage students to learn by themselves,” he said.
In addition to teaching methods, diplomats suggested more balanced English education, particularly on listening and speaking.
“Theory such as grammar is much less important than the ability to use the language,” Donko said. “English language education is an important part of the education system from primary school onward.”
originally published here: http://koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/special/2008/02/180_18509.html