Why Koreans Struggle to Speak English

The news is out and nobody is surprised. This month EF Education First published the English Proficiency Index survey. Both the Korean and international press were quick to react to Korea's poor English ability when compared to 59 other countries.

The Korea Herald proclaimed English proficiency in Korea unimproved, while the Wall Street Journal pondered How to cure South Korea's English fever?

In a similar vein, a 2010 article in the Korea Times, Korea ranked number 1 in the world in money spent on English language education and 121st in English speaking ability. Japan has similar disconnect between effort and effect.

On the other hand, also in 2010, in an educational ranking of developed countries, Korean 15-year-olds ranked first in the world in Math, and third in the world in Science.

Why do Korean students perform so well in Math and Science, and so poorly in speaking English? Well, in math class, they give math tests. In science class, they give science tests.

Simply put, what gets tested gets done, and communicative speaking ability is not tested. Thus – surprise – there is little communicative ability.

In general, most university freshmen classes contain advanced students, but beginning speakers. They have had 10 years of grammar-focused, teacher-centered English education. The three high school years are generally “test English”, that is, English courses geared to passing university entrance exams. In all those 10 years, students have had none or very few communicative classes, or communicative tests. Thus, their communicative rank of 121st.

Despite huge investment and educational zeal, the English language skills of Korea’s adults have not improved and have remained at a moderate level over the past six years... - Korea Herald

The problem is not that students in a Confucian society are reluctant to speak. If given an interesting topic that they know a lot about (Me), opportunity (class time), and incentive (speaking tests), they are effusive speakers, as are all teenagers. In consequence, a lot of speaking requires a way to test a lot of speaking. Communicative classes require communicative testing.

7 reasons why communicative tests are necessary

1. Communication is in our genes, not grammar. Grammar is computer code. The human brain develops in children as language develops. Stop messing with mother nature. Grammar-based tests are used because it is easy to mark right or wrong, not because it improves communicative speaking.

2. Good grammar comes after a lot of speaking, not before. It is a result, not a precondition.

3. Communicative ability will flow only from communicative tests. What gets tested gets done.

4. For teenagers and older, speaking a foreign language is a skill.And mastering any skill requires this ratio: 10% instruction, 90% practice.

5. What is the purpose of your class? To prepare them for another standardized English test, or prepare them for life?

6. Most Korean students are advanced students, but beginning speakers. Step aside and let them speak. Beginners in any skill who do a lot, improve a lot.

7. The engine of speaking improvement is speaking.

The restriction, the bottleneck, to improving speaking ability is speaking tests. When speaking is tested, grammar-graded speaking tests result in more grammar study, and memorizable role-playing speaking tests result in more memorizing. Other indirect testing measures such as describing a picture have little authenticity and less impact. Speaking ability can be tested en masse over the Internet. While all these testing methods may provide an accurate measure of something, that something is nothing like authentic communication.

Check out part 2 of this article here: English Speaking Assessment: How to Give Transcribed Tests.                                                                                                             

Gunther Breaux

Gunther Breaux came to Korea in 1996. He's an associate professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, teaches English conversation, has an MA TESOL and is the author of several popular ELT books. Email: plangbro@gmail.com Websites: jazzenglish.com & talk-or-walk.com

6 thoughts on “Why Koreans Struggle to Speak English

  1. Che

    The main thing presupposed here in this article is that South Koreans should be learning English. Oh, should they learn English? They already have Korean. Clearly the reason people’s English isn’t improving is that they don’t practice it. 99% of extracurricular linguistic interaction is in Korean. So where is this concrete ‘need’ for English? Mainly the South Koreans with improving communicative competence are those who go on exchange to English immersion contexts; i.e., the richest ones. Aside from that we’ve got the homogeneous ethno-racial national ideology which is simultaneously telling the Korean native speakers, “Hey you need to learn ‘authentic English’, but at the same time only speak English to a ‘foreigner’,” foreigners being those conspicuously identifiable racially-non-East-Asian members of South Korean society. Clearly communicative competence shouldn’t be tested: no part of English should. English should not be a requirement within the meritocracy. The people should definitely rage. However, they don’t. Classic hegemony. Kick out all members of society who can’t speak Korean, and get the reunification with the North on! Go back to the real hermit kingdom! (And ‘Confucian’- not ‘confusion’-society).

  2. Michael

    Dear Mr Breaux,

    “Simply put, what gets tested gets done.”

    Really? Is it that simple?

    While your solutions to Korea’s perpetually disappointing results with spoken English offers may result in improvements, (e.g., greater emphasis on communicative testing), the overall strategy of (yet even more) testing neglects the realities of learning a foreign language in such a relatively homogeneous (culturally, linguistically) society. In this sense, the Korea experience with English stands in stark contrast to those countries once colonized by Great Britain (e.g., Singapore) or European countries, for which multilingualism is a practical, everyday fact.

    Educational results in Korea ultimately determine one’s life career/social outcomes. Since English represents such a large component of one’s socio-educational ‘capital’ there, speaking it in public automatically exposes issues of class and privilege, something Korean society and the govt’s historically egalitarian educational policies are rather sensitive to. This is a major reason written/listening tests are so highly favoured. They are also easily scored, leaving little opportunity for ‘insider grading.’

    You mentioned the need for ‘authenticity’ in language learning. I absolutely agree. Unfortunately, as one who spent 13 years teaching ESL and TESOL methodology at the university level in Korea, including SNU and HUFS, I can tell you that there was very little appetite for change where it had to happened most–at the public school level. Our ESL teacher trainees (HUFS English Education majors, no less!) had the hardest time trying to access teaching practica where the goal was to expose middle/high school students to authentic English communication. Of course, beyond the social discomfort of a young ESL teacher trainee causing the staff ESL teacher to ‘lose face’ in her own classroom, more generally, you have what I found to breathtaking institutional and cultural constraints (enduring Confucian values), where classroom teachers (and students mothers paying close attention!) were often more focused on test-driven methodologies and results. And at the university level, there was little (if any?) attempt to ‘convince’ public schools of the importance of socializing existing teachers and students into more communicative methodologies.

    The difficulties that Koreans continue to exhibit with learning any foreign language can be traced to an underlying ideology of language (see Joseph Sung-Yul Park’s 2009 book: The Local Construction of a Global Language: Ideologies of English in South Korea), which is strongly tied to ethnicity. This speaks to persistent ethnocentric tendencies in Korea, which are of course understandable, given Korea’s history, but which nonetheless creates a resistance towards the wholesale appropriation of a foreign language. Of course, when I say ‘language,’ I also say ‘culture,’ since the two cannot be separated. Language without culture is reduced to a decontextualized ‘code,’ like mathematics (or grammar), which of course is much more easily mastered.

    On the other hand, considering the enduring and historically valued role of ‘testing’ in Korea (see Andrew Finch’s work), it may be the best (least worst?) ‘local’ solution for improving the situation there.

    Good luck!

    Michael J. Trottier
    PhD Candidate (TESOL)
    Dept of Language and Literacy Education
    The University of British Columbia

  3. Daniel lafontaine

    Mr. Breault:

    While I agree with your idea in a very strict sense, “What gets tested gets learnt”, it presupposes that the Korean teachers can speak English. I have seen in my 14 years experience here in Korea that that is a huge assumption.
    Personally, to fix the Korean problem, one needs to keep trying your way but at the same time go to a certain degree towards understanding the brain. The brain and especially memory retains more when used in a whole manner. By that I mean Koreans after learning words which is important and learning grammar which is important, need to create, to produce language. Nowhere in this system do they do this. The student needs to “own” English and at the moment, he can’t since he is always learning and never creating anything.
    I get student to create random sentences when just starting. I get them to continue to create sentences when they reach conversation books by continuing the conversation. I also teach cultural idioms and so forth to adults so they feel they are still learning while getting them to speak. I make sure the learning environment is geared to learning and not testing since many times students are tired of testing. I have had many students tell me they are tired of testing and they are not even ten yet.

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  5. Chris Rodriguez

    Proof that Korean students can speak English. Korean High School in the countryside. Students learned how to write a project proposal, present in English and do a Q&A.


    Speaking tests would help but not achieve the real goal you’d want because I’ve judged speaking competitions and it’s obvious that a lot of those kids just memorize something that their parent or teacher or tutor scripted for them. You need to challenge students to be spontaneous.

    –Chris Rodriguez

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