Problems faced by English learners in Korea Korean students of English face a


Korean students of English face a myriad of problems when attempting to learn the language. From social stigma about embarrassing oneself in public, to having to deal with a wholly different alphabet, Korean students have an uphill battle from the word go (or more appropriately - apple). The Korean language uses a combination of Chinese characters and a phonetic script called Hangul. For a Korean student of English, one of the first obstacles to overcome is the learning of a wholly different alphabet. Furthermore, many of the sounds in the English language are not present, or only have approximate equivalents in the Korean language. The sounds for 'r' and 'l' are a prime example of this ' the equivalent Korean sound is somewhere between 'ruh' and 'luh' and students often find it difficult to distinguish between or pronounce either. There is also no 'f' sound in the Korean language, they tend to use the 'p' sound instead. The difference between 'b' and 'v' is also difficult for Korean students, as is the difference between 'th' and 'd'.

Many Koreans believe that their inability to pronounce these sounds stems from physical differences between Asian and western tongues. Some mothers even go so far as to put their children through surgery to slice the skin below the tongue, in effect lengthening it (they somehow overlook the fact that children of Asian descent growing up in English speaking countries generally have no problems with their pronunciation). Another quick fix that some Korean students swear by is to lather the tongue with butter to make it more supple.

Grammatically, the Korean language is also structured quite differently from the English language, causing numerous errors when students attempt to translate directly from their native tongue. Word order is often greatly different to English, for example, the statement 'I went for a walk yesterday' takes the form of 'Yesterday walk went' in Korean. The subject of the sentence is often inferred from the context and is un-stated.

Modern Korea retains a lot of its Confucian traditions, especially in relation to filial piety, respecting elders and dedication to study (or more accurately the desire to become successful through study). These values have led to an education system that rewards rote memorization and dissuades free thinking. Many children are forced to embrace English as a second language from an early age, and over the years either learn to love or hate it. Their entire school life, beginning from early primary school, is focused on their university entrance exams, and some students have their path mapped out by their parents (which schools to go to to get the best references) from kindergarten. The English component of these exams focuses exclusively on reading and writing skills, and conversation is seen as an unnecessary dalliance. This imbalance (especially noticeable among older students) leads to serious communicative problems and many students have great difficulty expressing themselves with any degree of fluency.

Socially it is frowned upon to disagree with your elders in Korea, and in a classroom of mixed age students this can lead to some serious problems. During group discussions, older students tend to dominate, and younger students often hold their tongues in fear of embarrassing their elders with their greater fluency, or out of social conditioning. For women the problem is also confounded by the dominance (less pronounced these days, but still a very strong factor) of men in Korean society. In classes of mixed age and sex it can be very difficult to find topics that everyone feels comfortable talking about.

One final problem faced by learners of English in Korea is that the quality of English education is often sub-standard. Many English institutes hire teachers based solely on their skin color, with little or no regard to experience or qualifications. Mothers want to see Caucasians teaching their kids regardless of their abilities. For the learner, while they may be gaining substantial benefits by being exposed to a foreign teacher, they are being cheated of their rights to a decent education by an overly competitive market run by institute directors out to cash and make a quick buck. It is much cheaper for them to hire a university graduate (in any field) than a qualified teacher.