Gary Littman

OWNER OF THE LANGUAGE HOUSE

Garry Littman is the owner and director of The Language House in Geneva which organises English language training for professional people, companies and students. He was a radio and newspaper journalist in his native Australia and ran a restaurant in Kathmandu in his younger days. He is an English language trainer and an aficionado of pétanque.

An unhealthy obsession with English

The world is a little obsessed with the English language which, for better or for worse, is the global language of aspiration. For parents from Sion to Seoul, it’s a ‘must have’ for their children; a passport to a more secure future.

Nowhere is this obsession more pronounced than in South Korea which suffers from English fever, a term commonly used to describe the nation’s unhealthy fixation with the English language.

In its most radical form, parents turn to tongue surgery to fast track their children’s anglicisation. A lingual frenectomy involves cutting through the frenulum (tissue underneath the tongue) to lengthen the tongue to better enunciate certain sounds, especially the R and L.

But the statistics are far more disturbing:

  • Despite a free public education system ranked among the best in the world, Korean parents spend some 20 trillion won ($18 billion) on private education each year, much of it on English education. This is equal to about half the national budget for public schooling. Spending on private tuition in South Korea is the highest as a proportion of GDP among developed countries.
  • Korean parents may spend between 10 and 30 % of their household income on private run-for-profit English schools called hagwons or cram schools. The term cram comes from the slang term cramming, which means to study intensively a large amount of material in a short period of time, often before an exam.
  • About 75 cent of primary school children attend early morning or evening and night classes in hagwons.
  • Most high school students have 12 to 15 hours per day of schoolwork, hagwons and homework
  • Hagwons are open from 5am to midnight. A recent push to open them 24 hours day and night was defeated.
  • There are about 25,000 hagwons that teach English in South Korea. That’s about one hagwon for every 650 students.
  • The average South Korean gets nearly 20,000 hours of English education from kindergarten through to university
  • It is not uncommon for a Korean mother and her children to move to an English-speaking country for an extended period of time to improve her children's English ability. Fathers left in Korea are known as gireogi appa which literally means a goose dad (papa oie) who must migrate to see his family. (A cheaper alternative is to spend a summer at a mock-English village, such as the Gyeonggi English Village, with red telephone boxes and where only English is spoken).
  • Korea (population 50 million) has the largest number of students studying English in the USA, more than China (1.3 billion), India (1.2 billion) and Japan (127 million).
  • Overall it is ranked number three in the world for the greatest number of students studying overseas, behind China and India.

When it comes to judging the world’s best education systems, South Korea is often ranked number two or three in the world. But this is not the case when it comes to English. The most chilling aspect of the country’s collective English neurosis is that the outcomes remain, at best, mediocre. An English Proficiency Index survey of 60 countries worldwide ranked South Korea 24th, just ahead of Japan and below Argentina and the Czech Republic. (Switzerland is ranked 16th, France 35th and Germany 14th). Based on this evidence, South Korea ranks as a mid-tier English-speaking country on the global scale, despite its massive investments.

Clearly, the approach to learning English is flawed. The objective is not to communicate, but to be successful in exams and college placements, which create a pressure-cooker atmosphere.  The system is intensely competitive and is viewed by many as one of the main reasons for the country’s high youth suicide rate. Diplomas are regarded as the most important criterion for evaluation in employment, marriage, and informal interpersonal relationships.

Most hagwons have a teach-for-the-test curriculum that focuses on memorising information, standardized multiple-choice tests and test techniques. According to teachers, Korean students are not taught to communicate, but instead trained to memorise information that can only be used to take standardized tests for entry into universities and colleges. Children are pushed into a highly competitive and stressful social environment from a very early age.

Perhaps, not surprisingly, South Korea’s suicide rate is in the top three worldwide. The number of suicide deaths has more than doubled in the last 10 years. Suicide is the most common cause of death for those under 40.

Photographs: Students were asked by their English teachers to express themselves in English with signs. The theme was education. More photos.

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