Seoul Man: 12 Months in Korea – #4: The Business of Knowledge – South Korea

The Business of Knowledge
September 2002

2pm. Oedae Hagwon. Sosa Dong. Bucheon city. Korea.
On the fourth floor, 15 crying, moaning, bleeding, shouting, laughing students are crammed into a tiny room, all there to learn a language most will never use. All forced to recite English expressions ranging from the banal (“How are you today?”) to the ridiculous (“Is Minhee handsome?”). They will read textbooks littered with grammar and spelling mistakes. They will learn about candy cane and baseball. They will sit exams, produce plays, memorise stories, compete in quizzes and do homework; all in the vain attempt to learn English. Yet meet any of these students in 20 years time and most will not be able to mutter more than a few perfunctory English sentences.

While this might seem like an overly cynical attitude on my part, anyone that spends more than five minutes in a hagwon will realise the sole motivation is the making of money. This reality is as blatant as it is tolerated and no one (the teachers, the students or the parents) seem to care. The Korean teachers are in the main overworked, over-stressed and underpaid. That they are not churning out future English laureates is of no great concern. As for the foreign English teachers, well most seem more interested in what bar they will be frequenting on Saturday or what channel is showing premiership football. Whatever great intentions they bring with them through customs are soon drummed out of them by the reality of working within the hagwon system.

This was illustrated to me a few weeks ago. Every two months the foreign teachers in my hagwon have to fill out evaluation sheets on every student, grading things like attitude, pronunciation and reading. Two of the forms I filled in were handed back by the students’ home room teacher. She wanted the D’s changed to C’s and the C’s changed to B’s, despite the fact that even she admitted that the two students in question were basically little shits. Naively I wondered aloud why the grades had to be changed only to be told by the teacher that if any student left her class she would lose out on 22,000 Won a week, basically $40 if both students left. Far better to give out bogus assessment forms than for the Korean teachers to be out of pocket.

So for all the government’s high-filutin’ plans about being the technological hub of the region with the most talented, linguistically savvy workforce, the reality is that these plans are being sabotaged at the most basic level. The incident also illustrated to me why so many Koreans have so little English. Despite this, Korean parents pile their kids off to these hagwons (essentially grind schools that teach everything from English to taekwondo to math) so they don’t have to deal with them. With most Koreans working 12 hour days it’s no wonder really. But while hagwons might be effective as glorified creches, as places of learning they leave a lot to be desired.

The ineptitude that runs through these places is only matched by the quasi-military streak that is rampant. Physical punishments are commonplace. Walking down the corridor I am often greeted by the sight of 4 or 5 nine year olds kneeling down, facing the wall with their hands on their heads, Camp X-ray style. Many teachers bring canes into the classroom. At first thought these were simple pointing devices until the sound of wood hitting flesh told me otherwise. Another teacher, on hearing my complaints regarding a particular 16 year old girl asked why I hadn’t simply put her over my knee and spanked her. While no doubt an appealing punishment for many male English teachers, I politely declined to use this tactic.

The lack of discipline so often demonstrated by the students boils down more to tiredness than to anything else. Nine year olds are not made for 10 hour days; having been in school since 8am is anybody really going to learn anything at 7pm? From an early age kids are taught that quantity, not quality, is of most importance. Throw enough shit at the fan etc…Unfortunately, when the quality of teaching, textbooks and overall course outlines are so poor nothing really sticks.

This laziness and unprofessionalism permeates all aspects of Korean society where the English language is concerned. Visit any of the magnificent palaces dotted throughout central Seoul and a cursory read of the English information boards will illustrate this. The signs are littered with the most basic grammar and spelling mistakes. Even the sign for the car park entrance was spelt ‘entrence’. While these might seem like small errors surely someone in dynamic, forward looking Korea should have spotted them?

The English language media is just as bad. Switch on Arirang TV, the main Korean English language station and you will be greeted with annoyingly moronic presenters grinning inanely and spouting gibberish, much of it nonsensical and barely understandable. Their website is also littered with mistakes. Again, this might not seem important or have anything to do with the hagwon system but the basic lack of professionalism is the same. The laziness that pervades Korean society, manifested on the likes of Arirang TV and in Seoul’s main tourist spots is ingrained at an early age in the hagwon. Shortcuts and cost cutting are the order of the day and as anyone who has tried to learn a foreign language will testify, there are no shortcuts.

And in reality, the likes of myself and my fellow expat teachers are part of the problem. Should unqualified teachers like myself be allowed to teach? Probably not. Where else can you walk into a job with no relevant qualifications at all? In a nearby school one of the American teachers used to be a bounty hunter. He teaches kindergarten. And that, I think, illustrates the problems facing Korea’s English language industry in a nutshell.

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