English used very little by S.Koreans despite emphasis on importance

Posted on : 2011-12-14 09:49 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Expert says correlation between English ability and higher income levels results in polarization in jobs
 Seoul (Photo by Kim Myoung-jin)
Seoul (Photo by Kim Myoung-jin)

By Choi Won-hyung

The Hangeul Culture Union, under president Go Gyeong-hui, and the Hankyoreh Language Research Institute (www.hanmalgal.org) recently conducted a study on language use among South Koreans. The sample group included 1,000 adult men and women aged 25 to 54, selected at random in proportion to their distribution among seven regions of the country, sex, and age. This marks the first study to determine the actual overall use of language in everyday life by South Koreans.

The most salient finding was the vast gulf between social expectations for English competence and actual use of the language. Participants were asked how often they spoke or wrote English sentences beyond beginner-level greetings or read English texts over the past year. The most frequent response was "never," given by 20.3% of respondents, followed by "about two or three times a year," given by 20.1%. This means that over 40% of survey participants selected the lowest English usage categories.

In response to a question about how often they had communicated with foreigners in English while working over the past year, the most frequent response was "never," given by 37.8% of respondents, followed by "about 10 minutes," given by 16.7%.

When asked when they were typically compelled to use English, the most frequent response, given by 40.1% of respondents, was "never, apart from logging in on the Internet or writing an email address." The next most frequent response, given by 25.2%, was "when searching for or translating English documents on the web." Only 11.9% answered "when engaging in verbal consultation, presenting, lecturing, or making a proposal."

The findings indicate that English is used relatively little in daily life compared to the degree to which it is emphasized in South Korean society. However, differences did emerge according to profession. A clearer tendency to emphasize one's own English ability was observed with higher income levels, greater amounts of English study time, and greater amounts of time spent communicating with foreigners, and frequency of English use was found to be proportional to academic attainment and income level.

"We can see that English ability is serving as a mechanism for polarization in jobs, while polarization in jobs is fixing polarization in English ability in place," said Lee Geon-beom, a policy committee member at the Hangeul Culture Union, which spearheaded the study.

One interesting finding was the overwhelming number of negative responses regarding the use of English ability as an evaluation standard in employment or academic admission. Some 26.4% of respondents said there was "no need to emphasize [English ability], since it has little to do with general work abilities," while 17% said there was "no need at all apart from some duties," and 11.1% said the inclusion of such standards was "a bad system that merely leads to wasted money in private education and testing."

Another 34.1% showed a lukewarm attitude toward the standards, with 22.8% calling them "meaningful as a measure of commitment" and 11.3% answering they "should be included because they represent the general trend."

Observers said the findings may lead to questions as to the appropriateness of English ability testing as a widespread standard for employment and promotions. In particular, negative views were voiced by 57.7% of respondents in professional positions, who have a higher percentage of actual English use in their duties. In contrast, responses calling English ability a "meaningful criterion" were primarily given by those outside the organizational system, including 31.3% of students and 33% of the self-employed.

Some 62.3% of all respondents responded negatively to university classes where students are taught in English, with a higher than average rate of negative response among professionals here as well.

In response to a question on the greatest problem area with English education in elementary, middle, and high schools, 62.3% of respondent cited the "focus on college entrance preparation," while 14.9% gave "the large difference in abilities among students."

Please direct questions or comments to [englishhani@hani.co.kr]

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