September 26, 2014 12:55
Most people in northern Europe speak English fluently. According to the English Proficiency Index compiled by Education First, a global education business, Sweden ranks No. 1, followed by Norway and the Netherlands. Some 89 percent of Swedes speak fluent English, and no one in the country gets nervous when approached by a foreigner in a supermarket or in the street.
What is their secret? The education system has a lot to do with it. In Sweden, English teaching starts in elementary school, focusing on conversation, and many subjects are taught in English through all grade levels. For instance, some classes such as chemistry in high school are taught in both English and Swedish. Education authorities do not meddle in that.
Outside school, language learning takes place on TV. Swedish TV does not dub foreign-language programs but provides subtitles instead, so children get exposed to English at an early age.
But in Korea, where English-language education accounts for a huge proportion of the vast sums parents and the government spend, most people are still seized by panic when a foreigner approaches them in the street. Korea ranked a poor 24th out of 60 nations on the EPI last year.
Education First says that despite "enormous private investments," Korea has seen "minimal" effects, while the proficiency of Koreans has "declined overall."
This may be due to several reasons, but flip-flopping educational policies of successive administrations may have a lot to do with it.
In 2008, the government was all for "practical" English and announced plans to hire more native speakers in schools to teach conversation. The traditional focus on grammar shifted to more emphasis on listening and speaking. But the changes were short-lived. The number of foreigners teaching in Korean schools in fact declined, despite an investment of W39 billion (US$1=W1,044) in a practical approach that is about to become extinct.
This year, the goal is suddenly to make the English portion of the university entrance exams easier, in order to reduce the competition that causes parents to spend astronomical sums on crammers. The ones who end up losing due to these short-sighted policies are the future leaders of Korea.
By Ahn Seok-bae from the Chosun Ilbo's News Desk
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