Written by Christina Eun Rho ETA’09-10

The quaint marriage vow, “Till death do us part,” is acquiring a new meaning in South Korea. With English as the predominant global language and South Korea’s growing desire to build upon the world’s fifteenth largest economy, a surge of young South Korean students are studying overseas, either alone or with their families, to immerse themselves in English and gain a competitive advantage in the globalized job market.

Across Korea, television shows, movies and pop artists intermittently use English to poke fun at using, fusing, knowing or not knowing English. “The Talk of Beauties,” for example, features various discussions and debates between South Korean television icons and international expatriates living in Korea. Not only has the show garnered high ratings throughout the years (it first aired in November 2006), but also spurred catchphrases commonly imitated by its viewers. All in all, many South Koreans seem determined to learn English at any cost.

Eager parents have thus developed the tendency to send their children abroad to English-speaking countries as early as elementary school, reasoning that the earlier they go, the more easily they will be able to master the language. As a result, countless families have been separated for prolonged periods of time. Hence, terminology such as “wild geese families” and other related expressions — from “eagle fathers” (those who are able to fly back and forth between South Korea and their families abroad) to “penguin fathers” (those forced to stay grounded in South Korea for years before reuniting with their families because of financial limitations) — are proliferating in a nation already obsessed with English.

In addition to its citizens, South Korea’s government frequently approaches the English language as if it were an idealized goal. In 2006, for example, the Ministry of Education spent $10 billion on English education, indicating the importance English holds in Korea’s political, economic and social landscape. [1] Such a national emphasis on English has encouraged the flourishing of language immersion as well. According to the New York Times, approximately 40,000 South Korean school children were living abroad with their mothers solely for the purposes of learning English in 2008. [2] Likewise, language villages such as the English Village Paju Camp, one of many overseen by the Gyeonggi English Culture Foundation, immerse students in an English-only environment and are growing in popularity all over the country. Moreover, South Korean president Lee Myung-bak’s 2008 proposal to establish English-only education in every Korean elementary and secondary school raised heated national debate before being ultimately rejected.

In addition, the emphasis that many prestigious universities and business conglomerates place on English is evidenced by their application requirements — namely TOEIC, TEFL and TOEFL  scores. Just cruise down the aisle of South Korea’s Kyobo store (the equivalent to Barnes and Noble in the U.S.) and the section devoted to study books for these tests is hard to miss.

What I find most interesting about the English phenomenon, however, is the approach that some South Koreans take to learning the language. I am both awed and worried by the intensity of their dedication. While I am impressed by how resolutely my students study, I also fear the consequences of being too resolute. As a Fulbrighter who teaches conversational English to Korean high school students, I frequently encounter pupils who know a plethora of challenging vocabulary words but cannot use them in their proper context. My students are also excellent at translating SAT like English passages into Korean, indicating their high level of reading comprehension. However, the very same students strain to talk to me aout what they did over the weekend. They are often so caught up with grammatically structuring their words or are afraid of saying something incorrectly that they frustrate themselves and ultimately give up before saying anything at all.

In addition, many students think of English as nothing more than a pathway to gaining economic or educational advantages. Some of my students have studied in New Zealand, South Africa, America, London or Hong Kong for a year or more, while others ask me to recommend places to study abroad. When I ask them why they want to attend an international school, they answer, “To be better at English so that I can go to an elite university” or, “An education from abroad with native English speakers will help me prosper at work.” While there is some validity to this idea, the preoccupation to succeed often prevents students from enjoying the cultural aspects of learning English as they mire themselves in semantics.

As a Korean-American who is both bilingual and bicultural, I find that speaking English well does not require perfection. For me, English is a cultural symbol of my birth and upbringing in New York City — itself a microcosm of our multiethnic, international world. English, at least in the U.S., is a flowing conduit of linguistic and cultural change. This process has led the U.S. to the forefront of the globalized world and, as a result, promoted English as the international lingual franca. Granted, I do not fully understand the struggles of those who are learning English, nor do I claim to be objective in asserting that people should not regard English only as a means to an end. However, I still believe that students should learn English primarily to better communicate with the international community, and only secondarily to gain prestige or pursue higher social status. Language is more than striving to achieve precision; it is an integral part of communication and a means to promote a richer dialogue.

In this light, I encourage Korean students to study abroad, but only after high school or college in order to improve their English skills and gain insight into its cultural influences. This would prevent families from separating themselves for extended periods of time solely for the purpose of improving language ability. Marriage vows are sacred not only for newlyweds, but also for the family as a whole. Learning English should not add to a family’s inevitable struggles and concerns. After all, what would you think if you heard the following disclaimer during a weeding ceremony: “Till death do us part — except for the couple of years when we separate while our children leave the country to study English?”

[1] The World Factbook 2009. Washington, D.C.: Central Intelligence Agency. 2009 <https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/fields/2195.html>.

[2] Onishi, Norimitsu. “For English Studies, Koreans Say Goodbye to Dad.” The New York Times. 8 June 2008. 10 June 2008 <http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/08/world/asia/08geese.html?_r=1&oref=slogin&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss&pagewanted=all>.