English Only in South Korea's Teaching Towns
AFP, PAJU, SOUTH KOREA
Wednesday, Apr 05, 2006
"English! English!" said Nathan Glensne, an American teacher, gently scolding a Korean schoolgirl who broke rule No. 1.
Speaking Korean is banned in this English-only village that has sprung up somewhat incongruously from the paddy fields of this rice-growing region north of Seoul as part of a linguistic experiment pioneered in South Korea.
"The rule is to speak English," said Chicago-born Glensne to his shy and giggling pupils as they shuffled between their kitchen tables and his desk to ask in English for cooking materials to make Mexican nachos.
"Sometimes the kids are a bit sneaky. They go behind the teacher's back and tell their friends something in Korean."
The Paju English village is more than a language theme park. It is a real village of bricks and mortar modeled on an English village where hundreds of people live, eat, sleep, shop and learn.
It sits on a 277,000m2 plot of land, the world's biggest English immersion camp, boasting its own brewery pub, bookstore, bakery, restaurant, bank and theater along a main street that leads to a big domed-city hall.
Electric trams run through the main boulevard, which branches off to classrooms and houses to accommodate 100 teachers and 70 staff from various English-speaking countries and 550 students. Korean is outlawed and even written signs are banned.
"We wanted to create an environment where students feel they left Korea behind," said Jeffrey Jones, head of the Paju camp.
Jones, former head of the American Chamber of Commerce in Korea, said Koreans really need a change to their English education which focuses too much on grammar, reading and vocabulary.
"They spend a lot of time learning English. They can read probably better than I can, but they have trouble speaking," he said. "One of the things we do here is we break the wall of fear. They learn not to be afraid and they learn to speak."
Tens of thousands of young Koreans head overseas every year in the quest to speak a language that is valued in a country that relies heavily on foreign trade.
In an attempt to reduce or even reverse the outward flow, and to provide an alternative to people who can't afford the trip, English villages are sprouting across South Korea.
Ten such state-subsidized villages have already opened nationwide since 2004 and at least four more expect to be up and running soon.
Jones said the village allowed its Korean residents to talk in their native tongue only twice a day over meals while forcing them to speak English the rest of the time through a tight student-teacher ratio.
The exotic village environment appeals to many Korean students. "It is really wonderful to have first-hand experience in English," said Kim Su-jung, 14, one of 200 middle school girls on an 80,000 won (US$82) week-long program.
At the bank, Lim Chan-ju beamed after completing an assignment to withdraw US$20 using English only with the American clerk.
"I don't think my English-speaking capability has suddenly improved a lot here. But I feel English now is more interesting and I am more comfortable with it," Lim said. "I hope I can come here again."
The GyeonggiProvince government, owner of the Paju camp, pioneered the mammoth immersion language program in South Korea by building the first English-only village in Ansan on the country's west coast in 2004.
It spent 85 billion won (US$86 million) in building the Paju camp and set aside 15 billion to 20 billion won to run it, said Kim Joo-han, the executive director supervising the program.
Students appear to be keen to acquire the skills needed to succeed in a highly competitive South Korean society.
"Korean students are very eager. They have a lot of enthusiasm. I think there's a lot of pressure to learn English," said Tara Hornung, a 28-year-old Canadian teacher.
In South Korea, students begin learning English in third grade, aged nine, and continue all the way to college. It is common for students to spend extra hours on English at private institutes after school.
Many choose to go abroad, usually with their mothers, while fathers stay behind in Korea to finance their costly overseas tuition.
A total of 192,200 South Koreans were studying abroad last year, according to the Ministry of Education, 60 percent in English-speaking countries.
The real figure could be considerably higher, experts say, because some go abroad without an education visa.
Foreign study costs Koreans billions of dollars, according to the government.
Local media put the figure at around US$10 billion per year, but the Bank of Korea estimates the figure conservatively at US$3.37 billion last year, up from US$1.07 billion in 2001.
"It would be much bigger if the undeclared small amounts of remittances were included," said Lee Sun-deok, an official handling current account data at the bank.
Parents view it as money well spent. English proficiency has become increasingly important for Korean job seekers. Interviews conducted in English are common at big-name companies like Samsung Electronics, Hyundai Motor and LG Philips.
But a visit to the English-only village comes cheaper. A four-week English village program costs 1.4 million won, while a three-week language course in the US or Canada costs at least 5.1 million won, according to YBM Sisa Overseas Education Service, which plans overseas education trips.