I recently watched a documentary about the Finnish school system called The Finland Phenomenon. Finland ranks #1 in education by almost any worldwide standard or test and it was interesting to get a brief introduction to their school system, their methods, the culture of the country and how people view education. But one thing in particular made my jaw and heart drop at the same moment. The level of English-language proficiency of even the junior high level students was amazing.
I’m sure the documentary film makers cherry-picked the most proficient to do this activity, but still, the level of fluency was remarkable, even for a high-advanced second language learner of such a young age. None of my students, as bright as they are, are at the same level or even on track to become so by the time they graduate high school. Not in pronunciation, not in their grammar, not in their tone.
After looking into their education standards for foreign languages, I quickly found out that I am not the only one who has found a discrepancy between Finnish-learners of English and their Korean counter-parts. The Korean Times ran an article in 2008 talking about this idea. Here is part of the opening lines:
“At the end of a nine-year primary education program, Finnish students can leave the school competent in speaking English, whereas for Koreans, speaking English is a distant hope no matter what kind of degree they have acquired.”
I actually have no clue what the writer, Kim Se-jeong means by “degree”, but the rest of the phrase is understandable enough. Whatever the goals of English education in Korea, conversational fluency is not the top priority in practice.
Back to the Korean Times:
“Teachers (only) spoke English. If you had questions, you had to ask it in English. In the beginning (level), especially, you learn to speak without knowing much grammar,” the [Finnish] ambassador said. This is still the same after several decades. …
“In Korea, English education in schools has been a target of criticism for its lack of practicality.
“As far as I understand, learning English in Korea focuses on grammar and rote learning, which is not the focus in our system,” the ambassador said.”
And here is the real kicker: there are no specifically hired native English teachers. The Finnish teachers of English, who are second-language learners themselves, teach English completely in English. This is a problem for Korea to model. The most current research shows that Korean English Teachers, even though they are educated to Teach English in English (TEE), revert back to traditional models of Grammar-translation and audio-lingual methods (rote memorization and translation). In the abstract for the article, “It Cannot Be Done Alone”: The Socialization of Novice English Teachers in South Korea, researcher Sang-Keun Shin says:
“Prior studies on novice teachers’ adjustment to the school environment have shown that many new teachers adopt the teaching practices of existing teachers. By exploring the reasons why new teachers with a proficient command of English end up conducting English classes in Korean, this study analyzed factors influencing the socialization of new teachers.”
In the past, Korea has tried to circumvent this problem by hiring Native English Teachers to fill the role of communicative education. Of course, when you already have a full-time English teacher (Korean) it is hard to part with the same amount of money or benefits for another English teacher, whose skills would largely be redundant. All they are really looking for is someone to perform TEE and help the students communicate more. The other option is to lower your standards, which is what was done. Don’t get me wrong here, Korea spends a lot of money on NETs (that’s why I came here in the first place). But that huge expense isn’t what it should be for a professional teacher.
To teach in Korea, and particularly as part of the public school system (at least for GEPIK), you need only be a college graduate and have the equivalent of a “100 hour TESOL certificate” (I still have no fracking idea what the “100 hour” actually refers to. People have explained it, but what it seems to come down to is about a 2 weeks class on TESOL). So let’s understand that a little better. You can be a business major, a physics major, a dance major, an anything major and as long as you take the equivalent of a two weeks TESOL course (compared to what students of applied linguistics do, you know.. the whole two year thing), you are good to go in Korea. Hell, you’re pretty much good to go anywhere.
Unsurprisingly, the quality of the NET’s was below what Korea thought acceptable. And English education reform has been (and will probably always be) a hot-topic while Korea continues to import Foreigners to do their teaching. The current trend in thinking is to follow the Finnish model, and get rid of most of the NET’s. Indeed, in my organization, GEPIK, we have been informed that positions for middle and high school teachers are being closed (with exceptions). In all probability, I most likely won’t have a second year here in Korea.
And personally, I’m ok with that. I actually believe this is the right step for English Education in Korea. With one huge caveat. Native Korean Teachers have to pick up the slack. The NET’s have taken the blows for poor English education in Korea for as long as we have been here. And honestly, we deserve every bit of criticism. From what I have seen in the NET community, we are mostly a group of amateurs. A huge part of the NET community, while grateful for the work, are more interested in travel. Another portion of the NET community simply does not have the training in either Education or Language/Linguistics to be an adequate teacher of the subject. Being a native speaker does not make you an English Language expert. It makes you a speaker (what we call having “tacit linguistic knowledge” in linguistics).
But to the Native Korean teachers, well, remember that NETs were suppose to be a solution to a pre-existing problem. Have you fixed the issues within yourselves? Current research says, no. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done, and Finland has the model to follow after.