Welcome to Linguistics and Korea

Ever wondered why Koreans speak "bad English"?
Why it's so hard to learn Korean?
Why it's so hard to have "normal" conversations with Koreans?
Why it's so hard to fit in with Korean culture and society?
We don't claim to have the perfect answer to these questions, just a few hints that we hope will clarify the situation.
If you have questions, comments or suggestions, we'd be happy to hear from you. Email us at raphael.hadid [at] gmail [dot] com

Why Koreans learn English

A lot of Koreans learn English. They put a lot of time, money and efforts in learning the language. However, to native English speaker's eye's, Koreans do not speak as fluently as they should after having invested all those efforts. Many view this as a problem, a national disaster, a tragedy. However I will argue that it's not.

First we need to ask the question of why Koreans learn English. As I argued in the previous post, if you ask Koreans why they study English, they are likely to say because they have to get good scores at standardized English tests in order to get a good job, get admission from universities in English-speaking countries, or get a promotion at work. Those who want to learn English to communicate with their English speaking friends don't attend hagwons, they hang out with English speaking friends. Those who want to learn English to understand Hollywood movies don't go to hagwons, they download Hollywood movies. So if you're an English teacher at a hagwon, your students are most likely studying English to nail that TOEFL, TOEIC or TEPS which will get them their dream job.

Though tests like the TOEFL do have a speaking section, that speaking section is very predictable and Koreans found a way to study for it. Rather than spending time having conversation with English speakers to improve their skills in a language they don't like speaking, they memorize sample answers (sometimes as many as 500-1,000 sample answers) and use the sample sentences during the test. What they are looking for is a good score, not the ability to prove that they can speak good English.

In class, they do not learn English because they want to communicate with foreigners. The Korean job market is very competitive and chitchatting with foreigners is considered a waste of time that could be gained studying for other standardized tests or doing something that would look nice on the resume.

In fact, some people prepare their children to take standardized tests from a very early age. Foreign language high schools are very prestigious, and an excellent TOEFL score may guarantee admission to one of those schools. Others want their children to be familiar with the TOEFL so that they achieve excellent scores when they become adults. The important thing is getting a good job in the future, not being regarded as a "cool guy" by native English speakers.

So why the TOEFL? Why not design a Korean language test that would be designed to fail those who did not perform well? Koreans are very cooperative when it comes to tips on how to improve scores in standardized tests. There are online lectures, books, websites that know every trick in the book to get a perfect score in a standardized test. However, when it comes to foreign languages, people have to start from scratch and to use a very methodical approach to study languages. And while one can easily ace a test in his native language without being too disciplined, studying for foreign language tests requires discipline.

Standardized tests use a form of language which can not be acquired through chatting with friends or enjoying cultural products. They use academic language, the kind of language you will find in academic publications and conferences, a language that even native speakers can have trouble with. In fact without familiarizing one's self with the TOEFL or TOEIC formats, even a native speaker may get a low score.

Recently the Korean government has promised to focus high school tests more on speaking ability that on writing ability. However, without conversing with actual native speakers, high school students will be likely to speak using sentences that they memorized from a book or write down what they will say first, and their objective will remain obtaining a high score to enter prestigious universities, and not interaction with foreigners.

So why don't Koreans want to learn languages to talk with foreigners. I hear a lot of people say that it is because of Korean culture, Confucianism or what not... But I see it as a question ambitions. Koreans have a difficult time remaining competitive within their own community, and they would be even less competitive in foreign countries where they have to beat the language barrier, the cultural barrier and racial stereotypes in addition traditional competition.

The bottom line is many Koreans attending hagwons have no intention to be closer to foreigners. They face tough competition at home, since they have a small country with few natural resources, all speak the same language, and are geographically a landlocked country. Since they all speak the same language and all have access to the same products, and with little diversity in the economy, jobs are all pretty much the same. The only difference that will determine whether they are competitive or not is how well they score in tests, not how well they get along with foreigners.