Class and Cosmopolitan Striving: Mothers' Management of English Education in South Korea

Article excerpt


This article considers the practical and symbolic value of English in South Korea. We argue that English works as an index of South Korea's and South Koreans' cosmopolitan striving in the global order. We assert, however, that the values of English diverge across the class spectrum. We thus examine the life of English and cosmopolitanism through the narratives of three mothers with distinct class positions on their management of their children's English after-school education. We consider the mothers' interest in and commitment to their children's-and in some cases their own-English education as an inter-generational gendered project. We examine the ways in which mothers' management of this after-school English education speaks to their own class mobility (or maintenance) and cosmopolitan strivings. The article asserts that English works simultaneously as both a local and global sign, and that nationalism and cosmopolitanism are not contradictory.

[South Korea, class, mobility, English language, education, cosmopolitanism]

English has long been a class marker in South Korea: namely, knowledge of and comfort with English has been a sign of educational opportunity, and for some of the experience of travel or study abroad and of contact with foreigners in South Korea. Echoing many scholars, we appreciate "English" as an "ideological vehicle" because it has value that exceeds its practical use (Francis and Ryan 1998:27; see also Kachru 1982 and Olivio 2003). This said, however, the practical mastery of English is an increasingly valuable commodity throughout the world. As David Crystal (2003:4, 6) and others have powerfully asserted, it is arguably the world's first "global language," a language used by more people than any other language and one with a "special role that is recognized in every country." South Korea offers a case of the ascendance of English not as a first language (e.g., the United States, India), but as a powerful foreign language.1 Indeed in South Korea today there is a veritable English language mania.2 The size of the English education market in South Korea, for example, is estimated at over 4 trillion won per year (about $3,333 million) and the expenditures on English study abroad adds an additional trillion won (about $833 million).3 Furthermore, by 1997 already 70% of children in Seoul were participating in the English education market.4

In this paper we consider the practical and symbolic value of English in South Korea. We are particularly interested in its symbolic value as an index of South Korea's and South Koreans' cosmopolitan striving in the global order. We call particular attention to English as a sign and site of cosmopolitan yearning because this aspect of "English" can be obscured by the more obvious instrumentalities of English learning and mastery. By cosmopolitan striving, we refer to the desire to become "citizen[s] capable of living at home in the world." (Anagnost 2000:412). Thus the project of English in South Korea today speaks simultaneously to the escalating global power of English; to its class value (i.e., mobility); and to cosmopolitan striving. We examine these projects through the narratives of three mothers on their management of their children's English after-school education.

The ethnographic data in this article is drawn from Park's two years of ethnographic research on mothers' management of their elementary school children's participation in South Korea's burgeoning private after-school education market (sakyoyuk sijang). The English private after-school education market (yongo sakyoyuk sijang) for young children has been booming since the mid-1990s, especially after it was announced in 1995 that English would become an elementary school subject. This English after-school market for children offers a highly stratified and diversified menu in terms of both format and price. English after-school programs include private and group tutoring (kwaoe) with Korean tutors or native English speakers; specialized English institutes (yongo chonmun hagwon); worksheets (haksupchi)5 that teachers visit the home to distribute, collect, and grade; and internet lessons. …


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