Learning 'banned' English in S. Korea

English may be banned in the first two years of primary school, but that's not stopping nine-year-old Rachel Kim from learning it.

Thrice a week, the Primary 2 pupil goes to a private English institute after regular school and spends two hours there learning to read, write and converse in English, her second language.

She enjoys the class at TTR Academy in Mokdong in south-western Seoul because she finds it fun to read stories and answer questions posed by her teacher, whom she described as nice and funny.

"I also speak English at home to my parents, but they cannot speak well. Sometimes, I tell them they say the wrong thing," she said in fluent, unaccented English.

But she, along with many young pupils, is having to learn the language after school hours because the South Korean government bans the teaching of English in the first two years of primary school, both public and private.

The reason given is that early English learning - particularly intensive learning - would erode Korean roots.

The ban was upheld by the Constitutional Court over a week ago, after some parents - in late 2014 - filed a petition with the Court against the Education Ministry, claiming the 2013 ban violated their children's right to education.

They also insisted that there was no hard evidence to prove that intensive English learning affected a child's Korean-learning ability.

The Court in its ruling said the ministry's decision was reasonable. As children start learning Korean in the first two years of public education, teaching them English at the same time could "hinder developing students' Korean proficiency while causing other problems to English education", it said.

The court also said the ban was aimed at preventing parents' "excessive zeal over private education for English" that has caused intense demand for private English education.

Official data shows that South Koreans spent 6.5 trillion won (S$7.3 billion) on private English education in 2012, about 34 per cent of the total of 19 trillion won spent on private education; and that three out of four children attend these after-school classes.

English education, first taught by missionaries in the 1880s during the Chosun dynasty, was broadened to public schools after the 1950-1953 Korean War.

Public primary schools first started teaching English in 1997, but only from Primary 3.

But from the late 1990s, private elementary schools and kindergartens started offering intensive English learning classes. This refers to the use of English as the medium of instruction for all subjects except for the Korean language.

The English-learning craze further caught on in the 2000s during Mr Lee Myung Bak's tenure as Seoul mayor (2002-2006) and president (2008-2013). He stressed the need to strengthen English education, saying the language was a necessary skill in a globalised world.

In 2004, the authorities opened an English Village in Paju city north of Seoul as part of broader efforts to raise standards of English in the country. The village offers short-term English immersion courses in a live-in environment.

A U-turn came in 2013 when the Education Ministry imposed a blanket ban on English lessons for Primary 1 and 2 pupils of private elementary schools, in line with existing regulations for public schools.

The ban triggered angry protests from some parents who felt it was unfair as it did not apply to international schools.

There were also concerns the ban would end up driving students to after-school hagwon (Korean for tuition centres). TTR Academy is one such English tuition centre.

There are 77 private primary schools in the country, some charging more than 10 million won a year in tuition fees. For comparison, there are around 5,800 public primary schools in the country.

To get around the ban, some private schools reportedly started to hold their English classes in the afternoon, after normal school hours.

Arguing against the ban, Mr Peter Ahn, director of TTR Academy, said intensive English learning from an early age produces good results.

Children who attend the academy's English kindergarten for six hours a day pick up the language at a faster rate compared to those who go for after-school lessons three times a week for textbook-based learning, he added.

"Those acquiring two languages at the same time may seem more confused, but that's because their brain is working extra hard at double the capacity compared to other people. But once your brain adjusts to it, it's not something that you forget or lose," he said.

Businessman Kim Jae Jong, 41, who spends 1.2 million won a month to send his six-year-old son to an English kindergarten, also disagreed with the ruling.

"If the government wants to ban English in private schools, then they should provide a proper English education in public schools. It's their responsibility.

"We live in such a globalised environment, how can we communicate with the outside world and foreigners if we don't know English?"


This article was first published on March 7, 2016.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.