China, South Korea face familiar woes in English quest


Special To The Japan Times

Japan isn’t alone in its struggles with teaching English. China and South Korea have experienced similar frustrations, but their responses and results have been quite different.

It’s easy to compare the three nations because of their similarities: English is completely different from their native languages; they’ve all had limited immigration and haven’t been completely colonized by an English-speaking Western power; and all three currently share low birth rates (though China has had an only-child policy that is just starting to be relaxed).

The most obvious difference between the three countries is scale. China’s population is 1.35 billion while Japan and South Korea’s are 127 million and 50 million, respectively. This is relevant to the number of English speakers education systems are producing — all three have a high-stakes college entrance exam on which English is a required subject. In 2013, 9.12 million students sat China’s exam, the Gaokao, 650,000 sat Korea’s College Scholastic Aptitude Test (CSAT) while 570,000 sat Japan’s National Center Test. Furthermore, one of the requirements for an undergraduate degree in China is passing the College English Test (CET); in 2013, 9.38 million students sat this exam.

English-language education is fraught with deeper undercurrents of language protectionism and national identity.

“Culture-specific values and beliefs (associated with English) may clash with values and beliefs espoused by a language learner’s native culture,” says Guangwei Hu, a professor at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, and an expert on English-language curriculum in Asian countries.

Hu argues that when prominence is given to English in the curriculum, it can come at the expense of other subjects, from basic literacy in the native language to progress in the advanced sciences. In response, starting in 2016, Beijing will not only reduce the weighting of English and increase that of Chinese on the Gaokao exam, but students will also learn English from third grade rather than the first grade of elementary school.

Where is the incentive to learn a foreign language when it is not spoken outside of the classroom in wider society? Hu says a nation’s English proficiency is dictated by whether society perceives and accepts English as a public good. It appears Japan has not.

English-language acquisition also goes through waves corresponding to economic development. In the case of China, Hu says, “Mastery of a foreign language was viewed as vital to meeting the needs of opening up and reform, speeding up socialist modernization, developing students’ intellectual power and raising the level of educational quality.”

Jason Ricciardi is a foreign native English-speaking teacher who teaches in China and previously taught in South Korea. He says the students he has encountered have had an immense appreciation for the English language.

“Everyone wants to speak it,” he says. “If there is a group interested in speaking English, they just get together on random nights and foreigners come. They are building their own clubs and English corners.”

Ricciardi says he felt a similar broad appreciation for English in South Korea, but can’t say for sure if it still exists in Japan.

“Maybe the English fantasy has died out in Japan because they have already secured their position in the global marketplace — Japan surpassed that point,” he says.

Per-capita GDP growth in 2012 reflects Ricciardi’s hunch. According to the World Bank, China’s, Japan’s and South Korea’s were 7.3 percent, 2.1 percent and 1.6 percent, respectively. Japan is also considered a developed economy, while both China and South Korea are considered developing economies by the U.N.

The number of students entering U.S. universities supports this conclusion. Since 2009, China has sent the greatest number of students of all nations — 235,000 in 2012. South Korea ranks third after India, having sent 70,000. Since Japan’s peak in the late 1990s, when it led all other countries, it now ranks seventh with 20,000.

“Because China has just opened its doors in the last three decades, going abroad to further one’s studies is still the dream for many families,” explains Anwei Feng, the author of “English Language Education across Greater China” and a professor of language education at the University of Nottingham in Ningbo, Zhejiang Province.

Gaining social status is another incentive to learn to speak English, according to Hu.

“English proficiency has become a highly valorized form of cultural capital with strong exchange value in China,” he says.

Feng agrees with this sentiment: “A lot of privileged jobs and lifetime opportunities depend on how successfully you did in your English tests in universities.”

Japan is different in this aspect, though, according to Ryoko Tsuneyoshi, professor of comparative education at the University of Tokyo and author of “Communicative English in Japan.”

“In Japan, despite an increased emphasis on English language, being elite is not linked to speaking English,” she says.

The general trend has been to lower the starting age of compulsory English language education in a push for higher levels of attainment and improved pronunciation.

China’s Ministry of Education moved the start of English learning to third grade from junior high school in 2001. However, schools in China’s major cities have been teaching English from first grade since the ’90s. As noted earlier, some cities and provinces in China are countering this trend by raising the starting age.

In 1997, South Korean elementary schools started to teach English from third grade. Japan was the latecomer, beginning English classes in fifth grade as of 2011.

How English is being taught appears to be a common problem. While all three countries now encourage communicative language teaching (CLT) and teaching English through English (immersion) over the well-established grammar-translation method, its effectiveness is questionable.

According to linguistics professor Hyun-Sook Kang of Illinois State University, CLT originated in the ESL (English as a second language) context in the United States, not as EFL (English as a foreign language), as should be the case in Asia. For ESL learners, they hear the language all around them in greater society. Hu believes that mandating a single teaching methodology without taking into consideration local needs and characteristics is a major concern.

“Endeavors to transplant Western language teaching methodologies without giving due attention to the local pedagogical ecology have not met with expected success,” he says.

At the university level, all three countries are offering more classes using English as the medium of instruction. According to Paul Jambor, assistant professor of education at the College of Education at Korea University in Seoul says 35 percent of all undergraduate courses are taught in English and that number is set to increase to 45 percent. Several top universities will soon offer all courses in English only.

In 2001, China’s Education Ministry stated that within three years, 5-10 percent of undergraduate courses would be conducted in English, with the minimum goal of 20 percent thereafter.

It appears Japan is making a similar push with its Global 30 Project, though to a lesser degree, with many Japanese universities offering degree programs in English. Last year, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that within three years, eight national universities would hire 1,500 researchers from around the world, with the medium of instruction presumably in English. However, there has been criticism that this has been all talk.

In South Korea, when English became a compulsory subject in third grade, Korean teachers were trained quickly. In Seoul, 32 percent of all elementary school training was in English by 2004. This has not happened in Japan, where Japanese teachers are required to teach English but have not been trained to teach it.

At the same time, to increase the number of foreign native English-speaking teachers (NESTs), Japan implemented the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme in 1987, and South Korea the English Program in Korea in 1995. Both initiatives aim to improve English and promote cultural exchange.

In both countries, the general hiring of NESTs has been criticized for bringing untrained, inexperienced teachers into the classroom.

“They are just inviting anybody,” says Jambor of the South Korean situation. “The turn-around rates are crazy — teachers drop off like flies. A very small percentage are qualified to be teaching.”

Maybe this is why municipalities like Seoul have cut back on hiring NEXTs, with English teaching to be shifted entirely to Korean teachers. In Japan, on the other hand, Abe’s economic revitalization plan included a proposed increase in the number of JET teachers from 4,300 to 10,000 in 2012.

Likely due to its size, Feng says China’s situation is much different.

“In terms of policy-making, there does not seem to be as much favoritism toward native speakers of English in schools as in other places, such as Japan and Hong Kong.”

Though NESTs exist, Chinese English teachers are trained internally.

“A large number of English teachers are trained at Normal Universities (teaching colleges),” Feng says. “Foreign-language schools or universities also have English departments. So when teachers go to university, their specialized area is English.”

High levels of English can be achieved through private investment — while 30 percent of overall spending on education comes from private sources in Japan, in South Korea the figure sits at 40 percent (both are well above the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development average of 15 percent). Furthermore, 75 percent of all South Korean students attend hogwan (private cram schools), where English is considered more important than mathematics and Korean.

The South Korean phenomenon of “wild geese families” is also becoming more common. This is when a single parent, usually the mother, takes her child overseas to study in an English-speaking country — while the father remains at home, working in order to pay for the experience.

To reduce such gaps in English-language study, it is rumored that the South Korean government is considering a plan to impose restrictions on private schools, preventing them to start English-language education earlier than the fourth grade of elementary school. The government has already imposed a 10 p.m. curfew on its hogwans to curb the country’s “education fever.”

In China, too, Hu says English education can perpetuate inequality.

“Today, there is English-medium instruction for a variety of subjects [such as information technology, chemistry, mathematics, geography and music] at all levels of the school system,” he says. “There is growing evidence that this form of English provision in China affects students’ subject learning and perpetuates/accentuates educational inequalities in China by making English a service to the privileged, the rich and the elite.”

In South Korea, as in Japan, teachers teach to the college entrance exam that tests only reading and listening with multiple-choice questions. In China, however, the Gaokao has reading, listening and writing sections. Also in China, the CET that must be passed to graduate has an additional speaking section.

Similar to Japan, in South Korea there are issues of fairness if writing and speaking are to be included in the CSAT college entrance exam. The present multiple-choice format precludes subjective grading.

“There is no spoken component because the ideology is that everyone should be equal and should be tested using the same method,” Jambor says.

Hu says that for true advancements to be made in English-language education, programs must be “sensitive to the social, cultural and historical context in which teaching takes place — an ecological approach jettisons the assumption about the existence of a universally appropriate and effective methodology.”

For sure, each country is unique, but there are lessons to be learned. China got serious about English in 2001 when it was awarded the Beijing Olympics, as happened in South Korea in 1988 with the Seoul Olympics. Now, Japan has its window of opportunity in the lead-up to the 2020 Games. Let’s hope that in six years’ time, we can put to rest the discussion about whether Japan is serious, too.

Send comments and ideas on this topic to community@japantimes.co.jp.

  • Hui Chen

    I am a Chinese student studying abroad in a U.S college now. I think reading about the differences and similarities with regard to learning English in South Korea, Japan and China is quite intriguing. Like the author mentioned, every college student who wants to graduate from colleges need to take the CET exam. For people who want more than just graduating, (say a job in a Fortune 500 company), they go much further than just acing the CET exams. I have met more and more students transferring from a Chinese university to an American university and the age of studying abroad has become younger and younger. In China, just being able to speak English is not enough, often, whether you have a “funny”accent when speaking English is a symbol of social status. In my view, though, at the end of the day, English, like any other language, is just a tool for communication. The school systems shouldn’t value it above subjects like maths and Chinese and training students’ critical thinking and creativity. Those skills equally valuable for students in the future. Also, making English a very important subject also makes students forget their own culture, language and the countless literature works associated with their culture. And schools need to pay more attention to that!

  • Aminat

    My friend forwarded me this article. I grew up in Nigeria and I actually started learning English when I was 1 year old. The school system is actually conducted in English. So anyone who had formal school education, even public ones. But because Nigeria has over 200 languages (tribe languages), it makes sense to have English as a unifying language. However, it does lose the cultural effect in my life.

  • kyushuphil

    Teru Clavel relies a bit much on this Singapore guy, Guangwei Hu.

    This reliance hurts the reporting, because whenever Hu opens his mouth, such polysyllabics ensue as to occasion wonderment at English abstractedness.

    At one point, Hu vexes at “[E]ndeavors to transplant Western language teaching methodologies without giving due attention to the local pedagogical ecology.”

    We don’t need to translate from English to English to get Hu’s point, because all quotes from him make the same point — that English rides in as “Ugly American” to all local cultures.

    Even if Hu’s right (sadly, I must admit he is), why not turn around this defensiveness? Why not feature more in local cultures as key parts of English learning?

    Right now the main tone in learning English, in too many parts of Asia, is either a superbly blithe childishness, or a humanly dead and trivialized impersonality.

    Instead of this, why not feature the cultural places local students with some vitality inhabit? This may be old-culture poems, novels, and essays some students love — and it may be more contemporary pop music groups, clothing styles, transport fashion, food popularity, techno, movies, and styles of buildings and landscapes that are reality for many.

    Yes, English is invading Hu’s “local pedagogic ecology.” Can’t we enjoy that — or well fight over that — in English that’s a bit more human, vital, and local?

  • RaRa

    One of the most critical points you pointed out in the article was what Hu argues, saying “when prominence is given to English in the curriculum, it can come at the expense of other subjects.” I assume that as requirements for English exams increase, students would not have sufficient time to study other subjects such as their native language and math/sciences which could be considered as important as English. As China has attempted, this situation should be avoided. Once bilingual students graduate from college and start working, most of them especially ones work at global firms start to realize how they are not even perfect writing or speaking languages they think they know. In my experience, people who are considered to be bilingual often face difficulties especially in both writing and speaking properly by changing ways while taking TPO (time, place, occasion) into consideration. Improving English education in all of the three countries has been definitely necessary to survive in today’s global world; however, at the same time, policy makers should not make the burden of other critical subjects onto students lighter. What China has done could produce more of high-quality bilingual students, and Japan and South Korea should follow their ways, I think.

    • kyushuphil

      It’s not either-or, “RaRa.”

      If English joins curriculums to up individual human motivation for the truth, and for the truths of individuals connecting with others and their cultures, everyone will benefit by better invocations of, references to, and study of history, literature, and more, much more.

      If, on the other hand, English gets taught by rote, by regimentation, by trivialized and infantilized subject matter, then you’re right — it’s all “either-or” with all the other courses taught that way, too.

  • Dave Jones

    I’ve worked at multinational companies in Beijing and Tokyo and clearly the English focus in China, at a young age and more broadly in society, dramatically outstrips that in Japan. Part of this has to do with a one-party governmental system where there’s a clear directive from above … and also people are just so hungry to gain tools to look outside of China and improve themselves. In Japan, the status quo is so comfortable … Anyway I agree with many of this article’s points, and actually I’m optimistic about Japan’s desires here. Of course, how Japan improves this is going to be a big challenge even as the govt talks about internationalization/openness ahead of the Olympics.

  • Mia Cooper

    Hire more native speakers,maybe?
    I know I’d teach English in Japan, South Korea or China if I had the qualifications.

    • mzeiya88

      How about just hire qualified English teachers, native or non native. I don’t think they can ever have a 100% native ” English, American, Australian, Scottish, NewZealander” accent. I’m from Africa for example and i’m 100% fluent in English, was taught by an African, been through the US university system with no problem. Everyone has an accent.Even US has regional accents. South African whites sound like Africans. Ever heard an Irish speaking English?
      Most Japanese when they speak will speak it with a Japanese accent. The whole point is grasping, speaking, and starting to study it early + good teachers from all corners of the World. Even in many US Universities English Depts you find professors who weren’t born native English speakers, but they are good.
      Many English teachers in Japan & Korea are tourists who started teaching English to make ends meet( or rather its the easiest job to get in Japan& Korea for English speaking foreigners). Some are good and many are terrible, or not really into teaching, thus end up being bad teachers.

      • Mia Cooper

        I’m American and I speak English very well. I’m also pretty good with Japanese, I don’t speak it with an American accent. I agree that they should start teaching English at a very young age. Teach the classes in English, and only English so that the students will HAVE to use it even if it’s only in class. That’s how I was taught Japanese. I wasn’t allowed to use English in class. I also feel that a lot of English teachers aren’t willing to learn Japanese or Korean or Chinese which can be helpful. I agree with the whole “bad teacher” aspect as well.

  • Gordon Graham

    I noticed you said “coming” to Japan, which means you are in Japan. I guess it’s not that bad afterall, eh Happy?

  • Gordon Graham

    PS. If you have the proper qualifications ie. a Japanese teacher’s license you do, in fact, get remuneration equal to that of your Japanese counterpart. As a teacher at a private school in Saitama I can attest to enjoying full benefits, a good salary and full bi-annual bonuses. If you only have a BA from your native country what do you expect?

  • My theory is that the extent to which students are eager to learn English is strongly related to the availability of high-paying jobs that do not require it.
    This explains why countries with a large domestic economy (Japan) are less eager to learn English and also predicts that Chinese students on average will grow less eager as the country gets wealthier. Korea’s domestic economy (as exposed to their export economy) is probably not large enough.
    I have also checked with Google keyword tracker (which tells you the popularity of search keywords) and I find that Japanese and Chinese use a lot of domestic words for looking up scientific terms whereas Korea uses a lot of foreign words. Basically it seems that you can find scientific or medical jobs in Japanese and China which mostly use the native tongue for technical terms, whereas Koreans have to use English.

  • mzeiya88

    My point is many native, and non native English speakers know how to teach the language and pronunciation correctly. On the Japanese English part i meant all Japanese will always speak English with a slight Japanese accent, that doesn’t mean they should pronounce words incorrectly. I know they have difficulty pronouncing Ls and Rs.

    I was taught by Non native English speakers up to high school and know how to pronounce English words correctly. My teachers pronounced the words correctly. Some didn’t but we could figure out ( due to regional accents, some tribes have the pronouncing L & R problem). You have to be a smart kid. We also supplemented our knowledge by personally watching cartoons, reading comics, watching movies, dramas, comedies, news, reading novels (used to read those huge novels before the internet was popular), and many more. So there has to be a personal effort. When i was a kid i used to be the chief supplier of comic books in my hood, i used to read so many comics. Kids were always looking for me to borrow my comic books.

    Even here in US i have been asked, many times by so called native speakers to help spell out words for them. Also just speaking to folks here (both white & Black), you hear a lot of wrong usage of words.

    Also i think Japanese need to realize that the solution lies within Japan. Foreigners will not land in Japan and just magically make Japanese kids fluent in English. If kids in Ghana, Kenya, and even Zambia are taught by non native English speakers and can grasp the language, i don’t see why it should be so hard for the Japanese.

    If i was the head of the ministry of education i would just go to Kenya and use their formula to teach English. Instead of trying to magically trying to make their students native English speakers which will never happen. I thing their solution is similar to those found in non native English speaking countries.

  • Jim

    I’m struck by Prof. Hu’s statement, “a nation’s English proficiency is dictated by whether society perceives and accepts English as a public good,” which suggests that MEXT or other Japanese government agencies can only do so much to promote or improve English education nationally. I wonder how Japan’s English proficiency was during the economic miracle years, say from 1960 to 1990. It may be that Japan’s economy developed without having high English proficiency, so English education isn’t valued as highly in Japan now as it is in China and South Korea.

  • Gordon Graham

    I’ve been employed “insecurely” for the past 15 years (the first 5 years of my 20 here, I made painstaking efforts to learn the language enough to get a teacher’s license). I’m married with two children and am a welcomed member of my community in which I dutifully contribute my time and effort when called upon. As a hockey coach I’ve been treated with respect and dignity and have been awarded with the gratitude of players, parents and fellow coaches alike, which was hardly the case in my native Canada. In my experience when you put forth an effort with humility and respect, you get rewarded with respect in return.

  • Gordon Graham

    My advice to those considering teaching English in a Japanese school is to be prepared to invest a lot of time and effort if you wish to succeed. If you have a BA in psychology but don’t know what a subjunctive clause is, don’t expect to be heralded as the savior of the English department of your school upon arrival. Also, consider that there have likely been a few before you who when met with blank stares of incomprehension had thrown in the towel and merely gone through the motions while sulking and mewling about “the system” or how “racist” the Japanese are. It would also be a good thing to keep in mind that in whichever school you are there will be several Japanese teachers who have taught there 10 years or more yet are still considered part-time teachers even though they have a full-time schedule (what racist policy is holding them back, I wonder). You have to earn your respect and your voice here. Teaching is not merely a job but a full time commitment that requires you to sacrifice much of your own time. Once you become a full-time teacher, expect to spend 7 days a week at your school. That’s what the full-time Japanese teachers are doing (unless of course you expect to be afforded special status by dint of your shock of blonde hair and twinkling blue eyes). If you are not prepared to make such a commitment then you may call it racism when you are overlooked for a promotion to a full salaried position, but what it is in fact is culture…If you are unable or unwilling to accept the culture of commitment and deference then don’t be surprised when you are afforded no commitment in return.

  • Matthew Jellick

    In Korea, the government is indeed phasing out native English teachers, and similarly, since the provincial offices are an extension of that same government, they too are drastically cutting back. Perspective? Within Chungcheongnam-Do, 76 positions are being cut, including Middle and High Schools. With an MA in Teaching and over eight years experience, I can move to a University position or relocate to another country, but as a truly good educator, I am not being retained here. While this sweep certainly does get ride of the “childish or irresponsible ones”, it likewise affects those of us who do in fact view this as a profession.

  • Gordon Graham

    My experience has been that the Japanese teachers I work with are far more dedicated and work much harder than the “drone” foreigners who have passed through our high school and junior high school over the past 15 years. And, yes, I do put in a lot of overtime but it’s a profession I enjoy not a job, besides unlike your friend I’m allotted 6 weeks of paid vacation in the summer, two in winter and two in spring. I don’t know of many jobs that offer 10 weeks paid vacation a year. As far as your ad hominem claim goes, my point is simply that a BA is not qualification enough for anything other than a teacher’s assistant or “eikaiwa” position (which are entry-level positions requiring no experience and are paid as such). In fact, a Masters in anything other that Education is also insufficient. To expect to be offered a full time teaching position simply on the basis of being a native speaker is somewhat naive. With the proper qualifications, however, the door is hardly shut.

  • Kochigachi

    North Korea don’t employ any native English speakers but they scores better than S.Koreans and Japanese, so what’s up with this?

  • Mia Cooper

    I agree.

  • Shakura333

    Does my own experience need to be validated by anyone else? If compassion does not come from people victimized, does it come from one who promotes such victimization?! It is “a superbly blithe childishness” to believe that some “old-culture poems, novels, and essays some students love … more contemporary pop music groups, clothing styles, transport fashion, food popularity, techno, movies, and styles of buildings and landscapes” provide the solution to all the thorny issues of teaching and learning English. To quote Benjamin S. Bloom in response to your recommendation on the use of quotations, this comes close to being the “equivalent of snake-oil remedies, fake cancer cures, perpetual-motion contraptions, and old wives’ tales” that, to paraphrase your earlier posting, trivializes culture impersonally!

  • Tommy Lobotomy

    Depends on the institution. I’ve taught at Japanese public universities for over 20 years. Some are extremely xenophobic, others–like my current school–have greatly increased number of tenured native-speaker staff. In my English dept. of 12, 6 are full-time, tenured native speakers of English. But all of this has happened in past 5 years.

  • kyushuphil

    Yes, you did, Shakura.

    You open your latest wondering if you resisted the many positive ways people may better be open to each other — while in that posting of yours you’d specifically listed, and scoffed at, the value of students learning to quote by:

    1) old-culture poems, novels, and essays,
    2) more contemporary pop music groups,
    3) clothing styles,
    4) transport fashion,
    5) food popularity,
    6) techno,
    7) movies,
    8) and styles of buildings and landscapes.

    These are all positive strategies, Shakura — I’ve gotten superb results by them helping students see themselves as well as others across cultural borders in five different countries.

    Remember, Prof. Hu’s abstractedness kicked off your odd defense of the indefensible — as if you’ll eagerly ridicule specific strategies any day for the sake of the abstract. Go on defending. It may be instructive to others how, as Orwell said, one lost in abstractions becomes blind to facts — as you cannot now see how your scoffing at specific strategies keeps you not only blindly cynical, but now, too, full of such trite cliché as that by which your latest posting concludes.