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[Student Essay] Balancing the Costs and Benefits of Stressing English Education

  • June 23, 2011
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As Koreans spend a tremendous amount of time and money on learning English, how much the educational system should stress English has long been a controversial subject in Korea. Recently it became an issue again, as it was discovered that the recent suicide of a KAIST student was partially caused by the stress he felt consequent of KAIST's 100% English lecture policy. More generally, with surveys reporting that over 90% of elementary students in Seoul attend afterschool English classes, with an average cost amounting to approximately 200,000 KRW per month, the pros and cons of intensive English education call for renewed examination.

Korea has its reasons for stressing English education. With an economy that heavily relies on exports, being able to communicate with foreigners has long been a prized skill. The demand for human resources fluent in English has grown even higher with the progress of globalization. A worker who speaks English can more easily contact foreigners for business than one who doesn't, and with 70% of Internet content being in English, can have access to more information. English proficiency is viewed more and more as a standard of global competitiveness. These were some of the considerations made when, in 2008, the Presidential Transition Committee proposed the implementation of"English immersion education" (an education method that teaches various subjects, such as history and science, in English) in public elementary and secondary schools. (The committee withdrew this proposal due to public opposition.)

However, the doctrine that global competitiveness requires intensive English education can be misleading. It could be pointed out that quite a few non-English speaking countries are just as competitive as the English-speaking or European countries, such as Japan, Taiwan, and Israel. The recent story of Toshihide Maskawa, the Japanese Nobel Prize winner in physics in 2008, who started his award ceremony speech by saying"I can't speak English", backs this up.

Many of those who oppose intensive English education do so on the grounds that excessive English education can result in a failure to teach the Korean language, hence weakening the Korean identity. It is true that Korean is not being treated as importantly as English by Korean students. The effort they put into studying Korean is minimal compared to what they put into studying English. Language is understood as a vessel of one’s mind, and thus there is widespread concern that with the weakening of Korean language skills, an important part of Korean culture might be lost as well. Such a fear is not surprising, as during the period of colonial rule, the Japanese tried to eradicate the Korean language and implant Japanese as a means of turning Koreans into true subjects of the Japanese empire. This is why many people support the argument that Korean education should be a higher priority than English.

However, in that the acquisition of foreign language skills does not automatically mean the loss of Korean, blaming English education for native language decline may be a stretch. Even if language is a vessel of the mind, learning an additional language can actually enrich a culture. Another argument against English education is that too many people are studying English, when only a small portion of them actually use English in their profession. It is commonly perceived that this is a waste of human resources. This perspective, on evaluating the costs of excessive English education, focuses on who learns English, rather than what educational activities are being given up to learn English. Even if it were true that only a small portion of the population actually needs English in their jobs, this could be a misleading approach because no one can know who will work in such fields. If we only provide intensive English education to a limited portion of the population, those people will end up monopolizing the jobs that engage in international activities, which are usually the well-paying ones. This would mean discriminating against the others in educational opportunities, and therefore depriving them of job opportunities.

What we should realize is that for every choice there is an opportunity cost. For every hour one spends on studying English, he/she could study something else such as their major courses, or perhaps enjoy a hobby, or ponder upon something else. All of these would qualify as educational activities, in the sense that they could enrich one’s life. According to Yoon's, an English education company, more than 70% of elementary and secondary school students spend at least 1 hour per day studying English, while 13.8% spend more than 3 hours per day. SNU is not an exception to stressing English education. Each department requires its students to take a certain amount of English credits in order to graduate, and also requires a minimum score on the TEPS (a standardized English proficiency test developed by SNU) for admission to graduate school. In the meantime, many departments also require a second major or a minor for graduation, which greatly increases the workload. A survey of Yonsei University engineering students reported that lectures taught in English required studying more than twice as long as Korean-taught lectures just to stay caught up. Is English really worth this much time and effort? Time is limited, and stressing one thing means more or less sacrificing many others. If the impact that spending too much time on English can have on learning other subjects is not taken into consideration, we will never be able to make a proper education policy that enhances one's overall competitiveness or happiness. We must approach the subject of English education from a perspective that sees it as a part of the educational system as a whole.

Written by KIM Jaeseung, SNU English Editor,   ?
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