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[Jieun Kiaer] Could better English education boost Korea’s birth rate?

By Korea Herald

Published : March 11, 2024 - 05:24

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I read recently that the average birth rate per woman in South Korea has fallen to 0.72 despite $270 billion in government incentives.

Although there are undoubtedly multiple reasons for this, as someone specializing in language education, I began to question whether English language teaching might be a contributing factor.

The expression “English Fever,” has often been linked to the well-known phenomenon among South Korean parents who traditionally perceive education as the pathway to success in a nation without natural resources.

“Gireogi appa” or “goose dads” is one of the most poignant Korean-origin expressions. The term describes migrating fathers who work and live separately from their families, often abroad, to support them financially. It can even be common for mothers and children to seek education overseas, particularly for English language attainment.

However, rather than breaking up the family unit, many parents opt to enroll their children in English kindergartens. Of all subjects, English emerges as the most expensive educational investment for parents. Last year, Statistics Korea reported that parents paid an average of 123,000 won ($93) per month per child for English education. It appears learning English isn‘t merely a choice for families; it’s nearly an obligation, placing on them considerable financial strain.

Despite the substantial financial investment, improved English proficiency doesn’t always follow. Often the pressure to learn English is accompanied by a heightened inhibition. In 2021, I authored a book entitled “Young Children‘s Foreign Language Anxiety: The Case of South Korea,” revealing that South Korean children exhibit the highest foreign language anxiety globally. This is partly to do with how language is taught. English proficiency in kindergartens primarily revolves around examination, rather than fostering opportunities for speaking, writing or language application.

Some children are even punished for occasionally speaking Korean in their English language classroom. More concerning still, is if parents endorse rather than object to this form of discipline. Children raised in such an environment begin to feel betrayed if their mother or father put education before their well-being.

Even if they might master good English, it is surely more important to maintain trust in the family. It has been shown that the use of Korean in learning English does not hinder but enhances English language learning, as a conducive and supportive environment is more important than classroom discipline for alleviating language anxiety.

As English learning becomes more global, it becomes ever diversified, inviting contributions from languages and words from around the world. Hence, enforcing an ‘English-only’ classroom is not only ineffective but also outdated.

My office in Oxford is just 10 minutes away from the red post box at 78 Banbury Road, where the renowned lexicographer James Murray (1837-1915) worked as the primary editor of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) from 1879 until his death in 1915. He received thousands of letters from the general public all contributing new words to the dictionary.

At a time when the British Empire was at its height, Murray seriously questioned the identity of the English language. He asked, “Is the English Language the language of Englishmen? Of which Englishmen? Of all Englishmen or only some? ... Does it include the English of Great Britain and America, Australia and South Africa, and those most assertive Englishmen, the Englishmen of India,…….(who) write chits instead of letters, and eat kedgeree and chutni?”

Yes, in its most comprehensive sense and as an object of historical study, it includes all these; they are all forms of English (Murray 1911:18). Now, many Korean words such as “oppa,” “nuna,” “chimaek,” “mukbang,” along with many more, are even in the Oxford English Dictionary. With this in mind is it not time to reconsider “English-only” classrooms?

Currently, the prevailing notion is, ‘the earlier children begin learning English, the better their proficiency will be.’ Often, Korean parents, on arriving at their English language Kindergarten, will hear that they should have started earlier. However, based on a large-scale MIT study, Dr. Joshua Hartshorne suggests, “If you want to have native-like knowledge of English grammar, you should start by about 10 years old. We don’t see very much difference between people who start at birth and people who start at 10, but we start seeing a decline after that.”

Of course, language learning greatly differs with each person, but introducing English to children aged 6-7 isn’t late at all. More concerning is if the wrong pressure and fear tactics are imposed on parents. How we encounter English is much more important than when we encounter it. If the encounter is positive and joyful, children will naturally learn and master it over time. Conversely, if the encounter is anxiety-inducing, it will be detrimental.

The well-known language pedagogue Michel Thomas introduced sofas rather than desks for teaching languages -- to make learners comfortable. The key to language learning lies in enjoyment. Particularly for young children they should feel at home first with English and start enjoying it -- speaking confidently -- without feeling pressure to speak correctly with so-called “perfect” English. I think this is possible even without attending expensive English kindergarten.

It’s important to cultivate confidence in language acquisition rather than fixating on memorization. A Korean proverb resonates here, “Even if you have many beads, they‘re only a treasure if threaded together.” More emphasis should be on using English rather than accumulating grammar and vocabulary. Foreign language anxiety not only hampers language development but also cognitive and social growth in young children. Who knows, if government resources for incentivizing the national birth rate are redirected toward shaping healthy English kindergartens, we might be more effective in achieving both?

Jieun Kiaer

Jieun Kiaer is a Young Bin Min-KF professor of Korean linguistics at the University of Oxford. -- Ed.