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

Different methods Koreans use to learn English

With the fact that a good TOEFL or TOEIC score will be a decisive factor to getting a job in Korea, Koreans teach their children English as early as pregnancy, and some adults spend every minute of their spare time studying English. Here's how they proceed:

Pregnant women teaching their baby English:
They read their children stories in English, make them listen to tapes in English, watch educational English programs and other English language programs on television. In some cases, they will hire a native speaker to read stories out loud or even have conversations with their to-be-born baby.
Does it work? There is no scientific evidence that a fetus who listens to people speaking any language around them will grow up to speak the language. So far, linguists have demonstrated that language acquisition is a lifetime achievement, but that the crucial stages of language acquisition are between the ages of 8 and 12. That is, languages learned before will be forgotten, languages learned afterward will be spoken with minor grammar mistakes.

Hiring English speaking nannies to talk with babies from 0-5 years old:
They hire nannies and ask them to play with their children so that they can learn English.
Does it work? Depending on how much time the child will spend with the nanny, some English can be learned. But as soon as the nanny will be gone, so will the English.

Making children attend English-language pre-schools:
Some Koreans pay of fortune so that they children can attend kindergarten with teachers from English speaking countries. Since linguists have demonstrated that language acquisition in schools is made through interaction with students and not through that with teachers, and Korean children will spend most of their time speaking Korean to each other. And what five year old child would pay attention to a language class or to a teacher speaking a language he does not understand? Children attending such kindergartens may at most learn a few English words and phrases, but will not be able to build constructive grammatical sentences.

Making elementary school children attend hagwons:
Those children have often reached the crucial age to learn a language: 8-12. They attend English hagwons and take English classes in school, classes which require them to answer standardized questions and check whether they memorized the vocabulary, but where they don't have actual conversations in English.
Does it work? Though children have reached the crucial age to learn a language, once again, languages are learned through interaction with classmates. They may learn a great deal of vocabulary and grammatical structures, but they will only remember them if they use them. If class consists in answering written questions, they will be good at answering questions, period. If class consists in memorizing vocabulary, they will be good at memorizing vocabulary. And if class consists in having conversation in class, they will be good at having conversation inside the classroom, but will not be able to have conversation with an actual English speaker.

Hiring private tutors for children:
Private tutors are expected to help their children with homework and check if they have memorized those lists of grammar or vocabulary. In some cases, they will expect tutors to have conversation with children.
Does it work? It may help children get better grades in school but it will not actually help kids be fluent in English. To be fluent in English, constant interaction with classmates or parents is required.

Sending children to foreign countries:
Some parents send their children to English-speaking countries so that they can learn English. They attend local US, Canadian or Australian schools and interact with local people.
Does it work? Children will learn the language and speak it more or less fluently, depending on how old they were and how long they lived in the country. They will learn the language regardless of their personality. However, they will also learn the culture and start to view some aspects of Korean culture as unacceptable. When they grow up and become adults, they are not likely to live in Korea, and if they do, they will tend to own their own businesses or work in the education sector or any independent job that does not require having to deal with the local culture. Note that children who only spent one year as part of an exchange program will not learn to speak the language fluently.

College students spending a year in an English-speaking country:
Some college students go to English-speaking countries and attend English language institutes for one year or more. They often get their information from Korean websites which recommend schools where there is a large number of Korean students, and will sometimes live in towns where there are large Korean populations.
Does it work? It depends on what ambition those students have in mind. Some will want live in a foreign country, forget about Korean life and interact with English-speaking people without worrying about that TOEFL test they will have to take when they go back to Korea. Such students are often cast out by their Korean circle who considers they betrayed them, and get pressured by their parents to spend less time talking with local people and more time studying to get those grades and that degree. Others keep in mind that they have to get a job in Korea, take standardized tests in Korea, therefore focus on getting good grades without ever talking to foreigners or actually using the language. Finally, some travel to English speaking countries because everyone else does, do not have the TOEFL in mind but do not want to interact with local people either.

Adults attending hagwons:
Adults attend hagwons expecting vocabulary lists that they will memorize. They want native English speakers because such teachers will pronounce words with a standard pronunciation which will help them memorize the word. Others want to learn conversation, understand movies, understand the news etc. but always do so underlining words they don't understand and memorizing them.
Does it work? Hagwon students often focus on vocabulary and grammar rather than on actually speaking the language. Their goal is to expand their vocabulary and expand their understanding of the grammatical structure of English, but not to understand actual conversations in English. Those who have family, friends or spouses who speak English will usually "practice" speaking English with those people rather than attend hagwons.

Adults hiring private tutors:
Adults often hire private tutors to have conversation with them. There are two complementary reasons why adults hire private tutors: in Korean culture, it is a social taboo to have conversation with a person who was not introduced by a third party or who belongs to the same organization.
* Korean people rarely answer adds posted by English speaking individuals. They usually look for a private tutor through their Korean connections who will help them find one they already know and can trust.
The second reason is that there are few native English speakers living in Korea and that it is difficult to sustain lasting contact with native speakers. So the only way to have English conversation is to pay for it.
Does it work? Since tutors are paid to have conversation, they are expected to listen rather than have a two-way conversation. Some individuals are comfortable with foreigners, have two-way conversations, and their conversational English improves dramatically after each session. They also familiarize themselves with the conversation culture of the English native speaker, and actually want to learn more about how to make conversation with foreigners. Others will want the conversation to go their way. Although conversation will make perfect grammatical sense, they will learn "Korean style" English conversation. But students hiring tutors do end up more comfortable speaking English.

Language exchange:
Some individuals will opt for language exchange with a native English speaker. They will have English conversation for a certain amount of time before they switch to Korean.
Does it work? Though language exchange is a great way to practice conversational English, in the end, it is a question of commitment. No money is involved, and both individuals should feel that they are learning the language equally in order to commit to having frequent language exchange sessions. If one feels left out, he will drop out.