Is There Enough English Education?
The Ministry of Education, Science and Technology said last Thursday that it will begin administering nationwide TOEFL-style English proficiency tests in 2012 and will then decide whether to replace the existing English proficiency part of the national college entrance exam with new tests.
The education ministry has taken a step back from the stance of the transition team of President Lee Myung-bak, which said the TOEFL-style national English proficiency tests would replace existing exams starting in 2013. This means students will now have to prepare for both the English segment of the university entrance exams, as well as the TOEFL-style English proficiency test.
The plan to select 10,000 English conversation teachers has also been altered from the original objective. In the beginning, former diplomats, employees of Korean companies with years of overseas experience, second-generation Korean-Americans, and people with Master's degrees from abroad were slated to become English conversation teachers, even though they do not have teacher's licenses. The move was part of the government's plan to increase the numbers of proficient English conversation teachers as part of its "Teaching English in English" program.
But in its announcement on Thursday, the education ministry said it would choose English conversation teachers over proficient English speakers among those who hold teaching licenses. That narrows the pool of candidates of Koreans who graduated from teacher's colleges and specialized in English education or to Koreans who majored in English and completed teaching courses. This will strengthen the vested interests of teacher's colleges, rather than English language education.
Koreans spend W15 trillion (US$1=W1,292) a year on private English lessons and spend more than 10 years of school to learn the language. But Koreans consistently score lowest in the world in terms of English language proficiency. The British Council and Cambridge University evaluated the scores of English proficiency tests from 20 countries and found Koreans ranked 19th in tests for immigration and professional internships.
At the heart of the controversy is the issue of how the language should be taught to Koreans. At least 2,500 hours of language classes are needed to make basic communication in English possible, according to experts. Korean students take just 730 hours, including lessons in elementary, junior and senior high schools. And the English classes themselves do not promote the improvement of conversational skills. Expanding the number of English classes is crucial in order to improve the level of English language proficiency among Koreans.
Teachers should teach English in that language, while students should answer in English in order to enhance the efficiency of education. Then teachers’ English proficiency should be encouraged to meet such expectations. For example, Malaysia invested great effort in training staff to teach classes in English before it began to teach science and math in English nationwide in 2003.
In Korea, we must first check the English proficiency levels of some 1,200 English language education majors that graduated each year. We also need to discuss what must be done in order to improve some 29,000 English language teachers.
Is it really essential for Koreans to increase the time spent on learning English? For example, Finland, whose language is very different from English, ranks fourth in the world in terms of English skills, with an average TOEFL score of 257, whereas Korea ranks 91st, with an average score of 213. This is because in Finland half of the country's major TV programs are broadcast in English and the government drastically widened opportunities for its people to learn English in their daily lives.
The education ministry has held just two hearings on English education. At those discussions, school teachers, education workers and university professors on the panel warned that allowing unlicensed people to lead classes would rattle the foundations of teacher's colleges. This shows why discussions on improving English language education usually end up going nowhere.