Korea Puts a Theme Park Twist on Teaching Children English

Students all across Asia work hard to learn English. They know fluency will likely be a key factor in snaring the best-paying and most prestigious jobs.

In Korea, which is an exporting powerhouse, local authorities in one district say they are "creating global Koreans" with a teaching approach that supplements learning with laughter. Have your passport ready -- you are about to enter a tiny piece of Korea where speaking Korean is strongly discouraged. A make-believe immigration checkpoint is your first stop at "English Village," near the city of Paju, in Korea's Gyeonggi Province.

Once inside, you are likely to see spontaneous street performances or be greeted by specially designed cartoon characters -- all part of a teaching philosophy aimed at convincing young Koreans that "foreign" equals "fun."

The village's architecture is like that of an ambitious theme park. Giant fairy-tale castle structures surround quaint European row houses and spotless streets. There is a concert hall, theater, and even a city hall, surrounded by restaurants and coffee shops staffed by English-speaking foreign teachers.

Students aged about 13 or 14 are sent here for immersion programs lasting a week, with special summer programs of two to four weeks. From nine to nine each day, they are immersed in games, artistic projects and tasks designed to get them to interact with native English speakers.

One of the most popular activities is making videos, using inexpensive digital cameras and editing software. The students narrate their films in English.

There are plenty of places for the kids to practice speaking: they can withdraw play money at a pretend bank, then use it to tip their waiter at a restaurant. There is also a health clinic, where a patient played by a foreign teacher helps the children understand basic symptoms in English.

Walk into just about any activity room, and there are kids enthusiastic about speaking English. Jeffrey Jones, an American business executive who has long worked in Korea, is the director of English Village. He says the project started with a phone call from Gyeonggi Governor Sohn Hak-kyu.

"He said, I've promised the electorate during my campaign that I'd build an English village," said Jone. "I said, 'what's that?' He said, 'I don't know what it is, but I want to do it - can you help me?'" Jones says they decided to make learning English fun, instead of just rote learning from books. The result, says Sohn, provides a boost to self-confidence that classroom study rarely offers.

"Everyone in Korea [feels] afraid of meeting foreigners, engaging foreigners," said Sohn. "But as you can see, the young girls who spend here only three days are not afraid of engaging foreigners, they are not afraid of answering questions."

Sohn says that confidence will pay dividends in the future, because the better Koreans can speak English, the easier it is for them to handle international business. Sohn says the English Village also aims at narrowing what he calls Korea's "English divide" between families who can afford private tutoring and trips abroad for their children, and those who cannot.

A week at the camp, all-inclusive, only costs about $80 per student, with the rest paid for out of public funds. The fun continues at English Village. The Paju facility, which opened in March, is the second of two English Villages in Gyeonggi Province. A third is planned. And its creators think the idea will create a new way of learning all across Korea -- replacing rote learning with recreation.

VOA News / May 09, 2006 23:59 KST