English Language Teaching in Korea – Guest Post by Martin Sketchley (@ELTExperiences)

I would like to thank Martin Sketchley for sharing this fantastic blog post about his time teaching English in Korea. I have really enjoyed reading this – it is so interesting to see how things are teaching in another country. I love the extra reading list as well! Thank you so much, Martin!

Martin Sketchley has been teaching English as a foreign language for six years. He taught for three and a half years in South Korea for various private language institutes. During this period, he was a BULATS Examiner and assisted in introducing the exam to this region of Asia. Martin returned to the UK and recently completed an MA in English Language Teaching at the University of Sussex. Currently, he is a Cambridge ESOL Examiner for B1 and B2 CEF level examinations, works at a local language school in Eastbourne and maintains a blog (www.eltexperiences.com). Finally, Martin is now seeking for a publisher to assist his authoring of a book related to his experiences of language teaching and education in South Korea.

Personal Background to Teaching English in South Korea

Martin at the Wall Street Institute in South Korea

I started teaching English as a foreign language in South Korea in December 2005 unqualified, inexperienced and totally out of my depth. As is common in South Korea, all budding English teachers require a degree in any subject and the enthusiasm to teach young learners or adults in a variety of settings. I started my teaching career teaching young learners and teenagers in a small private school in a small rural Korean village. This provided the beginnings of what is now a rewarding and interesting career. After completing one year of teaching at this small private school, I decided to commence a four week CELTA Course at the British Council in Seoul in February 2007. The rest is, as they say, history.

ELT in South Korea

English was initially introduced to Korea with the use of Christianity between the mid-fourteenth and early twentieth century (1392-1910). After the Japanese colonisation period of Korea (1910-1945), English was reintroduced to South Korea due to the Korean War, directly from the US Army (Shin 2007: pg.77). English Language Teaching was firmly established in South Korea within the 1990s, and prior to this, English was taught predominately by grammar translation and rote memorisation methods. However, Kim Young-Sam (a previous President of South Korea), persuaded the Ministry of Education to adopt a more “communicative English curriculum” (Shin 2007: pg.77). There has been slow change to adopt the ‘communicative approach’ of English language teaching, now commonly referred to as Communicative Language Teaching (CLT), inasmuch that the current President, Lee Myoung-bak, when he first came into power, asserted that the teaching of English should be in English so that Koreans are able to “communicate with Americans” (Shim 2009: pg.106). Consequently, this has implications for not only Native English Teachers (NETs) but also Non-Native English Teachers (NNETs). There is an expectation, due to current political pressure and the recent educational reforms, which encourage NNETs to teach English in their L2. Furthermore, these recent changes urge the Ministry of Education to implement “a national English proficiency examination that concentrates on practical English” (Shim 2009: pg.107). Although educational reforms have been implemented by the Korean Government, a study in 2006 reported that South Koreans spent an annual $15.3bn on private English lessons and $752m on tests such as the TOEFL (Card, 2006). It is believed that “incompetence in English … is claimed to have cost South Korea important business opportunities” (Song 2011: pg.36) and that Koreans have no option but to focus their financial resources to English learning. There are claims that some “parents will spend the equivalent of a month’s salary … on monthly [English] tuition” (Demick, 2002), with some parents deciding on extreme ‘linguistic surgery’ for their children so that they are “better able to pronounce” (ibid.) particular words thereby giving them a more ‘competitive edge’ in English. So how come South Koreans spend so much money on English education? Park (2009) considers the current ‘English fever1’ within South Korea is due to a Korean’s belief that education, albeit English in this case, is regarded as “the most powerful means to achieve upward social mobility and economic prosperity” (ibid. pg.50). The ‘national religion’ of acquiring English in South Korea is a big industry, with many Korean mothers pressurising their children to learn English with the belief that it obviously would improve their future employment prospects (Park 2009: pg.50). However, English in Korea is “a language hardly or never used in everyday communication” (Song 2011: pg.36) but has become an integral measurement in Korean educational performance.

Martin teaching children in South Korea

The English Speaker Model in South Korea

The native speaker model is commonly implemented in South Korea, with Inner Circle teachers being recruited. Kirkpatrick (2007) noted that the Korean Government “decided to employ 1,000 native speaker English teachers in its schools” (ibid. pg.185), with advertisements in various Korean newspapers. There was an advertisement in the Korea Herald (www.koreaherald.com) which sought the following expected native speakers of English:

Type 1 teachers require a Certificate in TESOL or three years full-time teaching experience with a graduate degree in TESOL or experience and interest in Korean culture and language.

Type 2 teachers only have to be native speakers of English with a bachelor’s degree in any field.

(Kirkpatrick 2007: pg.185)

The above advertisement could require Type 1 prospective native teachers, at minimum, to have ‘experience and interest in Korean culture and language’, which was my situation late 2005. However, this raises one important matter whether native teachers, without any formal background or experience in teaching or education, are the best models for English education in the Expanding Circle. Nonetheless, what is and what defines a ‘native speaker’ of English? If English is now the lingua franca, are we not all ‘native speakers’ of a variety of English? A stereotypical ‘native’ speaker of English, in the opinion of South Koreans, is an individual who is considered from the Inner Circle. Kachru & Nelson (2001) refer to a ‘native speaker’ as “someone who learned a language in a natural setting childhood as first or sole language” (ibid. pg.15). However, Medgyes (1992) noted that there is a certain amount of ambiguity by defining the native and non-native speaker (ibid. pg. 340-341). Additionally, issues arise in relation to World Englishes which question “who can be labelled a NS or a NNS because a single norm for standard English no longer exists” (Higgins 2003: pg.616). Higgins (2003) also suggests that in an attempt to move away from the native and non-native speaker model, “scholars have employed a concept of ownership to investigate speakers’ ideological stances toward English” (pg.617). There are critics to the concept of native or non-native ‘ownership of English’, stating “things will fall apart and the [English] language will divide up into mutually unintelligible varieties” (Widdowson 1994: pg.383) if there is any diversification. However, there is some hegemonic assumption that Inner Circle speakers will be communicating with Outer or Expanding Circle speakers, or vice-versa, and, furthermore, to maintain some mutual understanding, Outer or Expanding Circle speakers must employ a normative variety of English to be intelligible with Inner Circle speakers. However, pedagogically, there is a suggestion for English professionals to expose varieties of English in the ESL or EFL classroom. It is noted “that being exposed to several varieties in the classroom can help learners become aware that the success of communication with other English speakers does not necessarily rely on the [expected normative] forms of English they produce” (Suzuki 2010: pg.146). Suzuki (2010) also highlights the lack of teacher awareness, during teacher training programmes, in relation to the diversity of English and the potential effects (ibid. pg.146-151) and she recommends that preparing teachers, as well as learners, for the diversity of English would encourage understanding and appreciation of non-standard varieties of English for both the teacher as well as the learner (Suzuki 2010: pg.152-153). There is additional ambiguity, within South Korea, in classifying a ‘native’ or ‘non-native’ speaker of English, as there could be some countries which use English as an official language, such as in India or Singapore, which may be perceived with less ‘prestige’ due to their ‘endonormative’ variety of English. A news article in early July 2008, from the Philippines, stated that those eligible for a Korean E2, Foreign Language Instructor, Visa to teach English in South Korea include “the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Ireland” (GMA News 2008, www.gmanews.tv) due to their ‘exonormative’ English policy. However, a South Korean news article which was published at the end of 2008 stated that English speakers from the Outer Circle “from India and other countries that use English as an official language will be able to teach at public schools from the following year” (The Korea Times 2008, www.koreatimes.co.kr). This demonstrated that there was some recognition, from the South Korean government as well as parent groups, with particular English speakers from the Outer Circle becoming more acceptable to teach English. Does this demonstrate a greater awareness and acceptability for the diversity of English? Well it is a positive step in the right direction but, as Shin (2007) pointed out, “the NS as an ideal teacher legitimizes the substitution of language politics for racial politics in ELT” (ibid: pg.79). Shim (2002) recognised that within Korea, there was “a strong preference for American English and a unanimous unwillingness to participate in a programme that would introduce them to non-native English varieties” (in Jenkins 2007: pg.101).

Further Reading

Card, J. (2006) Appetite for language costs S Korea dear. London: The Guardian. Available from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2006/dec/15/tefl (accessed 4 April 2011).

Demick, B. (2002) Some in S. Korea Opt for a Trim When English Trips the Tongue. LA: Los Angeles Times. Available from: http://articles.latimes.com/2002/mar/31/news/mn-35590 (accessed 20 April 2011).

GMA News (2008) RP to Korea: Let Pinoys teach English in schools. Manila: GMA News. Available from: http://www.gmanews.tv/print/106224 (accessed 28 April 2011).

Harris, R. (2005) Roadmap to Korea: Everything you ever wanted to know about the language 2nd Edition. Hollym: Seoul, Korea.

Higgins, C. (2003) ‘“Ownership” of English in the Outer Circle: An Alternative to NS-NNS Dichotomy’. TESOL Quarterly, 37(4), pp. 615-644.

Jenkins, J. (2007) English as a Lingua Franca: Attitude and Identity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kachru, B. B. & Nelson, C. L. (2001) ‘World English’ in Burns, A. & Coffin, C. (eds) Analysing English in a Global Context. London: Routledge, pp. 9-25.

Kang, S. W. (2008) Non-Natives Can Become English Teachers. Seoul: The Korean Times. Available from: http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/nation/2008/12/117_36881.html (accessed 20 April 2011).

Kirkpatrick, A. (2007) World Englishes: Implications for International Communication and English Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Krashen, S. D. (2011) Stephen D Krashen: Dealing with English Fever. Available from: http://www.sdkrashen.com/articles/fever/index.html (accessed 22 April 2011).

Medgyes, P. (1992) ‘Native or non-native: who’s worth more?’ ELT Journal, 46(4), pp. 340-349.

Park, J. K. (2009) ‘‘English fever’ in South Korea: its history and symptoms’. English Today 97, 25(1), pp. 50-57.

Shim, R. J. (2002) ‘Changing attitudes toward TEWOL in Korea’. Journal in Asian Pacific Studies. 12(1) in Jenkins, J. (2007) English as a Lingua Franca: Attitude and Identity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Shim, R. J. (2009) Plenary: Empowering EFL students through teaching World Englishes in IATEFL 2008: Exeter Conference Selections edited by B. Beaven, April 7-11 2008. IATEFL: Kent.

Shin, H. (2007) ‘English Language Teaching in Korea: Toward Globalization or Glocalization?’, in Cummings, J. & Davison, C. (ed.) International Handbook of English Language Teaching. Springer: New York, pp. 75-86.

Song, J. J. (2011) ‘English as an official language in South Korea: Global English or social malady?’ Language Problems & Language Planning, 35(1), pp. 35-55.

Suzuki, A. (2010) ‘Introducing diversity of English in ELT: student teachers’ responses’. ELT Journal. 65(2), pp. 145-153.

Widdowson, H. G. (1994) ‘The Ownership of English’. TESOL Quarterly, 28(2), pp. 377-389.

1 ‘English fever’ was a term coined by Krashen in 2003. It is used to suggest an “overwhelming desire to (1) acquire English, (2) ensure that one’s children acquire English, as a second or foreign language” (http://www.sdkrashen.com/articles/fever/index.html, 2011). English education in South Korea has also been referred to as a ‘national religion’, a ‘craze’ or has a ‘cult-like status’ (Harris 2005: pg.172).

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5 thoughts on “English Language Teaching in Korea – Guest Post by Martin Sketchley (@ELTExperiences)

  1. Martin, regarding publication, have you tried The Round?

    As someone who considers himself a native speaker, if only for the fact that he speaks no other languages other than a second language (Spanish), but, at the same time, not having the “right” physical features nor a readily identifiable “British” accent, I’ve been facing this “discrimination” for as long as I can remember.

    The sooner these countries (and the search for “native” speakers phenomenon occurs everywhere, not only in Asia) realise that a “native” speaker is not necessarily a better teacher and that knowing International English is far more valuable than just BrE or AmE, the better the world of English Teaching will be.

    Even changing the label “native” to “L1″ is a step forward; I reckon.

  2. Firstly, Vicky thank you for letting me have the opportunity to write about my experiences and thoughts of English language teaching in South Korea. It was an incredibly educational journey for myself and it is an honour to share my thoughts on your blog.

    Chiew, I know that small rural schools would discriminate to employ a white, blue-eyed and blond-haired boy/girl. Anyone that would appear Asian in appearance (or is not the right ethnicity) would not been given the opportunity to work in some schools as parents or adult learners would desire to be taught by Native Speakers and this model of L1 does not correlate with their wishes. It is an unfortunate situation in Korea, and the best teachers I assume are those that understand both Korean culture/language and have a good understanding of the language that they are teaching. In this case, it would be a NNS.

    Nevertheless, whilst working at Wall Street Institute Korea, their policy on employment was to appoint teachers based upon their experience of English language teaching rather than the appearance of potential language teachers. I had the pleasure to work some incredibly professional teachers and learnt a great deal in such a short time.

    Finally, thank you for letting me know about The Round (http://the-round.com/). I shall look at this in further detail.

    • Hi Martin!

      Thank you so much for writing such an informative piece for the blog. It is always very interesting to see how English teaching is different from country to country.

      Chiew, thanks so much for the comment and for your recommendation of The Round to Martin!

  3. As someone who taught English in Seoul from 1998 – 2003, I can relate to much of what you’ve written here–qualifications, attitudes towards white native speakers vs non-whites, government policy–and can add that the contracts at the school I worked even altered for ethnicity, despite native language. A colleague of mine, Canadian-born mixed Korean and Irish, had to hide the fact that his mother was Korean so that he could get the native-speaker contract, a much more attractive outcome.

  4. I have also taught in South Korea (Bundang) and it was an eye opening experience in more than one way. In terms of education, I was blown away by the Language School system (where I taught) and how the majority of the population (in my area) spoken not only 2 languages but were working on their 3rd or 4th. The countless hours children spent learning was also astonishing. In my experience I did see many of the benefits to the commitment of learning, students were successful and achieved many of the goals that were put in front of them. I did however, see many things that made me very sad such as the endless memorization tests and disinterest in teaching how to comprehend what students are learning. For instance, memorizing a conversation has nothing to do with HAVING a conversation in English. This was evident when during my travels I came upon a school trip and the students only knew how to say what they memorized from a conversation they were tested on in school.
    What I found very interesting was the treatment that I and my fellow non-Korean teachers experienced. After my arrival (and the 16 hour flight) I was basically left to my own devises with very little provisions. The homey welcome to our country and school that I anticipated did not occur at all. The treatment of the blonde-haired-blue-eyed was quite the opposite and when I realized this I began to question the system that I was now apart of, who do they recruit and why? Most of my co-workers were in their early 20′s and just out of college and I realized why because if they were seasoned teachers (like myself) then they would be trying to actually TEACH using strategies outside of memorization.
    When this hit me it then took the experience for what it was worth and decided to drink the kool aide while I was there and enjoy Asian experience until it was time to go home.

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