Time to take fundamental measures
Korea’s annual spending on English education is estimated at 22 trillion won and the lion’s share of this is judged to be private expenses shouldered by households. To our regret, however, the level of Koreans’ English proficiency doesn’t seem to be high, raising the possibility that English skills don’t always match how much you spend.
Yet a report released by the Korea Development Institute earlier this week shows that the so-called ``English divide’’ is striking in our society, depending on income and region.
According to the report entitled ``Equity and Efficiency of English Education Spending,’’ only 20 percent of students from households earning less than 1 million won a month receive private English lessons but the figure jumps to 70 percent among students whose families earn more than 5 million won a month. Households who pull in over 7 million won a month spend 10 times more on English than those who earn less than 1 million won.
The report is based on a survey of 238 elementary school children living in Seoul, Incheon and Gyeonggi Province.
Clearly, there is an English divide according to whether children live in the affluent Gangnam area or not. About 50 percent of children living in Gangnam begin learning English before they enter elementary school, while 40 percent of students living in non-Gangnam districts do so from third grade. There is not a single child in Gangnam who doesn’t receive extra-curricular English education, whereas 13.6 percent of children not living in Gangnam don’t receive private English lessons.
Disparities in English studies lead to gaps in English test scores and children’s income. A 1 million won gap in parents’ income was equivalent to 2.9 percentage points in the English part of the state college entrance exam and 16 points in the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC). Employees who outscore their colleagues by 100 points on TOEIC earn 1.7 million won more a year.
Given that the shadow of polarization between the haves and the have-nots looms over English education, the government should come up with fundamental measures to narrow the English divide. Specifically, the government should expand free after-school English classes and English camps during vacations for students from low-income families and remote rural regions.
However, questions linger on whether this could bring the desired effects, taking into account parents’ deep-rooted mistrust in public education. Nearly one third of private education expenses are devoted to English and there are still a good number of ``wild-goose fathers’’ who live alone in Korea having sent their families to countries such as the United States just for their children’s English education.
Businesses, for their part, need to lower the weight given to English in hiring employees, given that excessive investment in English is a waste of money in society as a whole.
One thing clear is that the state-managed National English Ability Test, which will be introduced this year to replace TOEIC or TOEFL, should not be an occasion to deepen the English divide.