I worked in two private after-school language academies in South Korea from 2007-2009, and I also have worked at three vacation-time English camps hosted by Korean universities. The students at these schools, especially those attending the overnight camps, represent Korea’s moneyed class whose drive for success and well-honed sense of competition have become world famous. While I was working at these schools, I would occasionally hear friends of mine who worked in the public school system comment on how easy it was for them to recognize those students who attended supplementary classes from those who didn’t. Now that I find myself on the other side of the glass (i.e. working in a public school), I realize how accurate their statements were.
My co-teacher has said that English in particular highlights the inequalities inherent in the Korean educational context. Many children begin to learn English from a very early age, perhaps even attending an English-only preschool or kindergarten. It is likewise not so rare to find children who were sent to study for six months in the Philippines to improve their English, or who moved with their mothers to Canada, Australia or New Zealand for some period of time to develop their language skills in an authentic setting. None of this is cheap, so these avenues are closed to a large portion of Korean society. Therefore, when children begin formal instruction during their third year of elementary school (roughly age 9), some children may be facing up to six years of catch-up in comparison to their most advanced classmates.
This gap is only exacerbated by certain classroom inevitabilities. Oral communication is an obvious goal of language education, so when the teacher engages the class in natural conversation, the students’ end of the conversation is naturally dominated by the more advanced students. The students are certainly as aware of the gap as the teacher, if not more so, though they may be ignorant of the larger causes and ramifications of the gap. Therefore, if the teacher consciously attempts to focus conversation on the struggling students’, he is in effect putting their inabilities on public display. He is then faced with an undesirable dilemma: allowing the gap to grow, or putting the struggling students’ relative weakness under the microscope of the advanced students’ gaze.
Unfortunately, there seems to be no good answer to the issue as long as the moneyed class continues to seek full English language fluency for their children. To a certain extent, they can’t be faulted; my experience abroad has led me to believe in the importance and usefulness of English as an international langauge (which I was lucky enough to be born into). The ultimate solution lies in improving public education to the point where a regular upbringing is sufficient to obtain English language skills, as is the case in countries such as Norway, Sweden, Singapore and even the Philippines. For South Korea, however, that reality is decades away, and until that time the gap can only widen.