Ground-Breaking 'English Village' in the Doldrums

In 2006, Gyeonggi Province opened what was considered an innovative educational facility that offered English-language immersion programs that its creators hoped would replace expensive studies abroad. The province spent W99 billion to set up the English Village in Paju north of Seoul (US$1=W1,013).

Sohn Hak-kyu, then the provincial governor, said the camp marked a "revolution" in public education. There were high hopes that such facilities could dissuade a growing number of parents from packing up and heading abroad with their children in order to help them master the English language or spend huge sums of money on expensive crammers.

But eight years later the English Village has deteriorated into a major headache for provincial officials. After a brief period of popularity, attendance declined as people realized that a few days of immersion programs are not enough. Soon, tourists outnumbered students there. 

Suffering from chronic cash flow problems, the English Village relies on hefty subsidies from Gyeonggi Province to stay afloat.

The English Village was nearly empty, with less than 100 people milling around early Saturday afternoon, which is the peak traffic hour in the sprawling compound. And most of the visitors came simply to enjoy a walk through the picturesque streets rather than to learn English.

One visitor said, "I come here once in a while to take pictures and enjoy a day outdoors."

A visitor looks at a Korean-language menu in front of a restaurant in the English Village in Paju, Gyeonggi Province on Sunday. A visitor looks at a Korean-language menu in front of a restaurant in the English Village in Paju, Gyeonggi Province on Sunday.

The original purpose of English Village is being eroded and tourists have replaced students.

In 2012, 44,768 students came to the village for the English immersion programs. In 2013, the number had fallen to 35,500, and this year it has dropped even more after the government banned overnight field trips following the April 16 ferry disaster that killed hundreds of teenagers.

Instead, one-day English programs became more popular, while off-site facilities such as a camping ground, sports center and rail bike ride are teeming with visitors.

The English Village also makes money by renting out its facilities to film crews, leading to growing criticism that it no longer serves its original purpose.

Gyeonggi Province spends around W3 billion a year to keep the facility open. One reason for the chronic deficit is that the city has to keep the program costs at a reasonable level since it operates it for public benefit.

Kim Jung-jin, who took over as head of the facility in April, said, "Since it's a city-run public program, we can't raise the fees as much as needed to keep up with inflation. We just have to turn to other businesses to make up the deficit."

In 2012, when Kim Moon-soo was provincial governor, officials tried to get a private company to run the English Village in order to save taxpayers' money and make it more competitive. But provincial council members opposed the idea, concerned that it would turn into a purely commercial business.

Incumbent governor Nam Kyung-pil, who took office in June, is also looking for a way to give the village a new lease of life.

One city official said, "We're looking at every possible way to deal with the village. We may even sell it off or change its original purpose."

englishnews@chosun.com / Sep. 02, 2014 13:05 KST