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

Korean language education case study - Yonsei University Korean Language Institute

Yonsei University Korean Language Institute, know by some as YSKLI or KLI, was the first institute entirely dedicated to teaching Korean to foreigners.

More than 4,000 students attend the institute. The institute is a "cramming" institute, trying to teach as much as possible in as little time as possible. This formula makes it attractive to foreigners from all over the world, but mostly from Asian countries, as foreigners want to learn as much Korean in as little time as possible.

The institute has a curriculum divided into 6 levels, each level having 200 hours of class. Since different students have different backgrounds, KLI has placement tests which determine what level students will be attending. The program has a reading, speaking, writing and listening part, but the very little importance is given to the speaking part.

Here's a summary of how KLI teaches Korean:

Students are separated by nationality and language spoken. Students from China will be put together, Southeast Asia together and North Americans and Europeans together.
Level 1 includes around two grammar patterns a day, about 10 words a day to memorize and a lot of speaking activities. Knowing that students can not converse in Korean with native speakers, students are put in situations where they have to practice their spoken language: they will do role playing games, including games like being a taxi driver and a customer, a shopkeeper and a customer or friends going to a restaurant. A workbook was designed to practice the vocabulary and grammar learned, and teachers will explain concepts several times so that students can understand. While Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese students have an easier time memorizing vocabulary because 65% of the Korean gloss is made up of Chinese loanwords. Japanese students have no trouble with both grammar or vocabulary because both languages are Altaic and both borrowed a lot from Chinese. Western students however may complain that two grammar patterns a day and 10 words a day is too much, and that there are too little games or situations where that vocabulary can be used.

Level two is a "shock level" for westerners and many give up at that point. Games and spoken practice is set to a minimum and the curriculum focuses on memorizing grammar and vocabulary. Students have to complete hand in lots of homework and still have to memorize two patterns and ten words a day. While in level one all words which are new are defined in English at the bottom of the textbook, level two requires students to search a lot of words in the dictionary as many words are left unexplained. Students are separated by "Korean ability", meaning that those ethnic Koreans who spoke Korean at home but did not learn how to write it will tend to be placed together. There will usually be at least one class solely made up of ethnic Koreans. Japanese students will also be placed in the same classes, while Westerners may end up in classes where they will be the only non-Chinese student.
Class material in Level 2 is very dry and includes topics that require no discussion, including going to the bank, to the post office etc. There are no class discussions and the only speaking activities are when students try to make sentences using the grammar learned in class.

Those who survived level 2 will find level 3 relatively easy. The grammar is explained and is often the combination of two grammar patterns which were learned previously. Students may have trouble understanding the passive voice and causative verbs, which have peculiar forms in Altaic languages. However, while there are speaking activities in the textbook which include describing Korean culture and student's culture, they are skipped altogether. In fact teachers are often worried that such speaking activities may lead to students saying negative things about Korean culture or about each others' culture. Level 3 still teaches those ten words a day and two grammar patterns a day, but they are relatively easier to memorize. The curriculum centers around everyday life (apologizing, being sick, greetings etc.) but most of the focus is put on the grammar.

In level 4 all English explanations of Korean words are removed from the book, meaning that in order to succeed, students need to spend a significant portion of their free time searching for words in the dictionary and memorizing them. Most of the vocabulary is not commonly used, therefore students have problems memorizing it as they do not find where to use it. In level 4, one's ability to speak or write the Korean language no longer determines whether one will pass the level or not, it is the ability of a student to take KLI tests which will determine whether they will pass. There are very few speaking activities, and some teachers will skip those all together, meaning that the class will be a four hour lecture on Korean grammar and vocabulary, coupled with listening and writing exercises. Teachers will sometimes recommend students to practice speaking through writing activities. Some classes have as many as 80% students failing to pass the test.
Another novelty is that students have to make newspaper presentations and moderated debates. However, many students memorize their newspaper presentations and debate interventions and recite them, or read them altogether.

There is a novelty in level 5 which consists in including non-studied materials in the examination. This means that in the listening examination, passages will involve topics that the students will not have studied in class and will not be familiar with. The listening examination includes words which were never studied in class, and multiple choice answers as long as two lines each with words that were never studied in class. KLI wants level 5 students in addition to doing homework and memorizing vocabulary, to listen to the radio and news in Korean and to read Korean books. However, no emphasis is placed on conversing with native Korean people. Most will fail their listening examination.
The curriculum centers around dry semi-academic topics including culture, education and science. Less grammar is taught and a large focus is placed on vocabulary, since as much as two hours a day may be spent with the teacher explaining vocabulary words. The only speaking activities are presentations which students memorize in advance.

Examinations are relatively easier in level 6, however, there are no speaking activities at all. Students are no longer required to take speaking examinations, they do paper presentations instead. As students are busy preparing for life after KLI, few students study or listen in class. A large portion of the curriculum is once again centered around explaining vocabulary words. Students are no longer asked to try to make sentences to practice grammar and the curriculum is made up of long teacher monologues. The curriculum focuses on even more specialized academic topics (sports and technology, elections, gender issues etc.) on which many Koreans themselves know very little. Students are also required to write a newspaper article and an essay in Korean.

To summarize, KLI does accordingly to the demand. Most students study Korean to go to university and get jobs and have no actual interest in having conversation with Koreans in informal contexts, thus the lack of focus on spoken Korean. Therefore emphasis is placed on understanding Korean rather than speaking it, and the kind of Korean used in formal contexts.

Most KLI students say 나는 날마다 친구들과 공부해요 which sounds very weird and too formal to a native Korean speaker's ears. The fact that a lot of level 6 students say such sentences which a native Korean person will never say shows that students in fact interact very little with native speakers. Any native speaker would say 내가 메날 같은 친구들이랑 공부를 해. However, KLI refuses to teach the spoken form of Korean and insist on students to use the written form even when they speak, though students do not get penalized when they use the spoken form.

Despite attending Korean classes for 1,200 hours, students have difficulties following college classes or even conversations with Korean people. In fact, in order to learn a language, teachers should make students participate in class to make them feel that they are using the language. If you learn about, say, elections in Korea but never actually discuss the topic, you will not understand a conversation related to elections in Korea, despite knowing all the words and understanding all the grammar which is being used.

People learning languages with economic motivations dislike being asked their opinion on any topic and having to answer in speaking the language i.e Korean. Such students want to prove that they have the grades and degrees which are needed to prove that they speak Korean, not the actual ability.