By Ahn Hye-jeong
In this article, I will further elaborate on the article published in The Korea Times on June 9. Particular attention will be paid to the development of English as an international language coupled with the skills required to become a proficient English speaker in today’s world.
English is a foreign language in South Korea. It does not perform any official function as a language. However, the cultural and social importance of English is notably more significant than that of any other foreign language. A high level of English proficiency is often associated with a more prestigious social status and professional and academic success.
The Lee Myung-bak administration also re-emphasized the importance of learning the English language by setting up a dichotomy of ``English- fluent” and ``English-poor” nations. The government simultaneously claimed that the English proficiency of any nation or individual is a central factor in promoting both the individual’s and nation’s status and success.
South Korea is well known for its dedication to learning English. The term, ``English fever” indicates how much emphasis Koreans put on English learning. South Korea is one of the largest consumers in the English education market spending over $10 billion a year on this alone. In 2007, more than half of the total number of applicants enrolling for TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication) were Koreans and approximately 124,000 Korean applicants enrolled in TOEFL (Test of English for Foreign Language) making this group the clear majority of applicants.
I sincerely believe that the nation’s dedication and commitment to the English language could be the key to successful learning. However, due to the restrictions placed on English teachers’ nationality requirements, Koreans’ exposure to a wide variety of English speakers is severely limited. This restriction hinders the Korean people’s ability to understand the real sense of English language as it is used in international contexts.
In addition, English learning is only understood as a means of emulating so-called ``native English” speakers by copying their accents and pragmatic conventions. This way of learning English, however, does not effectively equip Koreans with the necessary skills in order to communicate in international contexts.
English has gained the glorious status of ``an international lingual franca.” This status has been attained due to the language’s dominance in a variety of international economic and cultural arenas and the ever increasing number of English users from diverse international cultural backgrounds. More people use English today than any other language in the history of the world. Perhaps 380 million people speak English as a first language and more than 1.5 billion people use it as a second or foreign language.
When the English language arrives in any particular country where the locals do not passively absorb it, but rather, they alter some of its features in order to better suit local needs. This allows the community to project local cultural values and identities which they pride. This process, together with the dramatic increase in the number of multilingual competent English speakers has expeditiously given birth to different forms of English.
This phenomenon has further re-conceptualised English as a language with multiple grammars, vocabularies and pragmatic discourse conventions. Some experts in sociolinguistics argue that the use of English in the modern world is not necessarily connected with ``native English speakers” and English is no longer used to express or introduce ‘native speaker’s’ cultural norms and values.
In the face of the rapid development of English as an international language, proficient English speakers are, therefore, people who can communicate in English across various cultures, are willing to understand various cultural systems, and who are capable of participating flexibly in intercultural communication. Native English speakers, in particular, whose proficiency is associated with ``a mono-lingual mindset,” are not necessarily able to teach others to become effective English speakers in varying international contexts.
In order for Koreans to develop these communication skills in English, I urge the Korean Government to acknowledge the required English skills necessary for the development of English as an international language in a globalized world. Therefore, it urgently calls for the fundamental re-assessment of the way English is perceived, learned and taught in Korea. The government should focus on promoting and increasing the nation’s awareness of the real sense in which English is being used in international contexts. This can be achieved by providing more opportunities to Koreans to experience broader exposure to a wide range of English users and English language usage. The government should also emphasise the importance of developing Koreans’ ability to employ effective international/intercultural communicative strategies.
Finally, some food for thought, do you think, the Lee Government really empowers Koreans by strictly exposing them to so-called “native” English speakers?
The writer is a Ph.D. candidate and an instructor in English as an International Language in the Faculty of Arts at Monash University, Melbourne, Australia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.