Thoughts on Korean English Education
Lee Kwang-hee, Department of English Language and Literature
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Although English is not an official language in Korea, it is still considered a mandatory part of education from primary to college. Especially because English exam scores have become a basic requirement for jobs or any other program applications today, gaining competency in the language is now a competition for Korean students from an early age. Lee Kwang-hee, a professor in the Department of English Language and Literature and a current member of the board of directors at Korea Munhwasa (한국문화사), a renowned publishing company in Korea, has shared his life story and thoughts on this phenomenon.
Lee’s deep affection for English began in his college years at Hanyang. With his profound love for the school, Lee completed all his bachelor's, master's, and doctor's degrees at Hanyang University, all in the department of English Language and Literature. According to Lee, his choice of department was not due to his passion but because his highest score was in English, which made him think he had a talent in it. However, life as a student in this department completely changed his path. “You don’t learn how to speak better English in this department. Rather, you learn about the literature and human language, which is part of our life and instinct. In other words, you study about life and human nature, while using English instead of Korean,” said Lee.
Despite his skills and competency, Lee had not always planned on becoming a professor from the start. According to Lee, his life as an English department student was always unclear, especially as the Korean economy was at its lowest point at that time due to IMF. Luckily, Lee found some recruitment advertisements for English academies and decided to apply to become an English teacher. However, he had to face constant rejections as he was quite young, and HYU was renowned more for its technology departments than language departments. “In the end, my desperation got me through. I was finally teaching in one of the academies, but because I wasn’t getting enough students or teaching bigger classes, I was barely surviving with the minimum wage,” said Lee.
Fortunately for Lee, he was able to quickly gain his popularity and recognition as an English teacher after substituting for one of the bigger classes. With this turn of events, he quickly became one of the high-earning, popular teachers that taught classes everyday. There were endless calls for him, and at one point, he thought he was living the best life. However, years had passed, and Lee was constantly feeling a void that could not be filled. One day during a class, he realized that he had become a simple technician and a parrot that teaches students on how to solve questions, rather than why they work that way.
With a recommendation from his professor, Lee went on to obtain his master's degree at HYU. “I remember why I fell in love with learning English. Learning a language is like developing a whole new world in you. A language has its own system and mechanisms like science, and one should be able to utilize it with intuition. I realized that that is what English education in Korea has been lacking. When I'm teaching, I mostly see students that are simply trained to speak English. They don’t speak the language because they truly understand it. Students treat it like it’s some sort of simple technical equation because that’s what they’ve been trained to do their whole lives, and this applies to all languages being taught in Korea.”
To the current situation, Lee added that the intellectuals are also at fault. “I think that this kind of problem exists because the studies and realizations that us intellectuals have remain in our own league. There needs to be better communication among the language intellectuals as educators and students." Lee commented that it would be the best if those with a language degree from universities become teachers at English academies and pass on what they have learned in universities to their students. With this in mind, Lee has created an online study platform called the Brown Study in hopes of creating an open, digitalized platform with all kinds of study materials in the language and humanities field that anyone can access. This way, even professors who have retired or any other intellectuals can leave their work online and teach the students who wish to truly learn more than just the simple technicalities. “I hope this can become a communication outlet for both students and intellectuals. I believe that as long as you’re always intellectually curious and keep an open mind, you will always succeed,” said Lee.
Park Joo-hyun firstname.lastname@example.org
Photos by Lee Jin-myung
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