Going Global in New Millennium; English: A Practical Tool in the Digital Age

Korea Times (Seoul, Korea), February 18, 2000 | Go to article overview

Going Global in New Millennium; English: A Practical Tool in the Digital Age


The evolution of globalization is a reality that South Korea must embrace - wholeheartedly - if it hopes to evolve into a competitive nation in the new millennium and beyond.

``English has, in the 20th and 21st centuries, become the international language par excellence. English, whether we care to admit it or not, has a dominant position in science, medicine, computers, information technology, telecommunications and the Internet; in research books, periodicals and software; in transnational business, trade, shipping, and aviation; in diplomacy and international organizations; in mass media entertainment, news agencies, and journalism; in youth culture and sport; in education systems. As such it is the most widely learnt foreign language.'' (Robert Phillipson, Linguistic Imperialism, p. 6 [1992]).

If such a statement is even half-factual, and if South Korea's ambitions are to propel itself into the forefront of the marathon of globalization, it is vital that she establishes a very high level of communicative English speakers among her citizens. In so many words, South Korea needs to learn English as a communicative tool in order to be a successful player on the global stage of information technology and the Internet, which are aspects of the ongoing digital revolution, of which English is the primary language.

While South Korea has had trouble developing a practical English language program, it has certainly been successful in developing a high level of expertise in the electronic and semiconductor sectors. This success has been due, in part, to the Korean educational system, which stresses learning and memorizing information for standardized tests in order to enter schools of higher learning. Such educational methods train students to memorize great quantities of information in the form of facts, figures, and statistics. The ultimate goal of such methods isn't necessarily negative as the educational system requires students to memorize grammatical facts about English in order to take social status exams.

Memorizing facts for a standardized exam isn't altogether unproductive. If someone wants to enter disciplines that require memorizing mathematical formulae, this system is very helpful and useful. However, if a person wants to use static facts to create something new and dynamic, this person's creativity is paralyzed by the educational system that stresses memorizing facts for tests instead of memorizing facts in order to apply them to new contexts of learning and problem solving. To be sure, one of the reasons why South Korea has excelled in the electronics sector is simply because it has successfully trained an army of students who can memorize large quantities of data.

No doubt this educational system of memorizing facts for standardized tests has had profound implications on how Koreans study and learn language. Such an approach is known as English for Standardized Tests (EST). In such an educational system, language, here English, is merely taught for standardized tests, not for practical communication. While EST is practical for taking Korean standardized exams, it is impractical in developing English speakers who are able to communicate on a relatively high functional level. It is worth pointing out that in the context of EST, only two language skills, reading and writing, are developed to the detriment of listening and speaking. While EST trains students how to memorize grammar, rules and reading comprehension, it has, for all practical purposes, developed a dysfunctional language learner. EST has developed patterns of learning that are extremely difficult, but not impossible, to reverse.

During a recent conversation with a colleague, we were discussing some of the weaknesses Korean students have in learning English as a practical tool. We agreed that while Korean students have been trained to memorize English grammar for standardized tests, most Korean students don't really know how to use English grammar in a practical and functional manner as they continually revert to the Korean grammatical structure when attempting to communicate. …

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