The Troubling English Obsession in South Korea: How Foreign ESL Teachers Can Be Part of the Solution


As of 2013, there are thought to be nearly 20,000 first-language English speakers working for public schools and privately owned language programs (hagwons) in South Korea.  Korean parents regularly shell out as much as a third of their household income to get their children in an after school program with these foreign instructors.  As a result, hagwon profits have soared, surpassing US$7 billion in 2009.

As of 2013, there are thought to be nearly 20,000 first-language English speakers working for public schools and privately owned language programs (hagwons) in South Korea.  Korean parents regularly shell out as much as a third of their household income to get their children in an after school program with these foreign instructors.  As a result, hagwon profits have soared, surpassing US$7 billion in 2009.

For parents, English fluency is seen as an essential aspect of their child’s success in hyper-competitive, 21st century Korea.  For better or worse, they are often correct in this assumption.  Standardized English proficiency tests, such as the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language), serve as gatekeepers for the upper echelons of status and achievement in Korea.  It is common practice for top universities and employers to discriminate based on TOEFL performance, admitting/hiring only those with top percentile scores.  As a result, parents are heavily incentivized to guarantee that their child reach English proficiency.  Indeed, failure to do so may very well relegate the child to a significantly disadvantaged economic outlook in adulthood.

On a national level, the willingness to invest heavily in the acquisition of the English language is telling of a powerful cultural shift towards westernization and globalization.  Still, while it is tempting to say that the emphasis on English is simply a bi-product of Korea’s ongoing push for relevance and clout in the modern world, such a claim would be an oversimplification.  In fact, Korea’s English obsession, and focus on education in general, has as much to do with its past as with its present or future.

Confucianism, the driving force behind Korean values, made its way to the peninsula by way of China over two millennia ago.  Included in the moral philosophy of Kong Fuzi (aka Confucius, 558-471 BCE) is the idea that one can (and should) improve him/herself through education.  While the influence of many aspects of Confucianism are diminishing, the emphasis on learning seems to be an exception.  The extreme approach to education in present day Korea is very much a reflection of persistent Confucian values.

As it would happen, the Confucian attitude towards education lent itself fittingly to the 20th century context.  In the wake of the Korean War (1950-53) and the subsequent partition of the peninsula at the 38th parallel, South Korea was a third-world nation in physical and psychological ruin.  With infrastructure destroyed, families divided, and a dire scarcity of natural resources, the prospects for Korean people were grim on all fronts.  However, despite the odds being stacked against them, a handful of visionary leaders saw knowledge as a way out of this struggle.  Just as education is often recognized as a way for individuals to overcome circumstance, so it went on a national level in 1950′s South Korea.  Education was underscored as the means through which Korea(ns) could transcend struggle.  The people bought into this message, and the result was nothing short of phenomenal.  In what has been dubbed “the miracle on the Han”, post-war South Korea rapidly ascended from poverty and destruction to become one of the most robust economies and well-educated societies in the modern world.  Clearly, the education-centric approach had worked on an economic level.  But at what cost?

The South Korea of 2013 is as advanced democratically and technologically as any East Asian country, but the atrocities of the Korean War and decades of brutal Japanese colonization that preceded it remain a stain on the national zeitgeist.  Living in South Korea, one gets the impression that its people, much like their ancestors, view life as inevitably and necessarily rife with struggle.  The result of this resilient stance is a willingness to subject oneself and one’s children to ridiculously long work/school hours and a crippling stress load.  Perhaps not surprisingly, South Korea’s suicide rate is consistently in the top two worldwide.

The problem with “English Mania” and the role of ESL Teachers as part of the solution…

The national obsession with English is merely one aspect, albeit a critical one, of a larger societal push towards global recognition and respect.  That South Korea aspires to be bi-lingual on a national level is admirable, but it is easy to make the case that they have gone too far in their efforts to meet this end.

As a middle school hagwon teacher in 2010 and 2011, I often experienced considerable doubt with regards to my purpose and value in Korea.  I had moved to Korea to become an educator, but in time began to feel more like an administrator of cruel and unusual punishment.

In general, there are three types of students at a middle school hagwon.  First, you have the kids who are completely out of control. They spend their time punching their friends, chatting, and/or throwing paper across the room.   On the opposing side of the coin are the kids who are simply too exhausted to function.  These students spend their time drawing, staring off into space, or sleeping.  Each of these students is a predictable result of drastic overwork. Finally, there are the students who remain engaged and consistently devoted to their studies, despite the mounting expectations and pressure placed upon them.  The first two types of student were very frustrating to deal with, but I did my best to understand where they were coming from.  The third group made the entire experience worthwhile, but the fact that they even existed was always astonishing to me.

If ESL teachers in South Korea are to look in the mirror in any truthful manner, it is necessary to recognize that we play an active role in a system which provides minimal results at an extraordinary financial and psychological cost.  Twelve year old students should not be saddled with 60+ hours per week of schoolwork, but they are, and will likely continue to be regardless of whether or not the importation of foreign ESL teachers remains common practice.

The focus, especially for hagwon teachers, should be to integrate a push for English language proficiency with an overall effort at harm reduction.  It can hardly be denied that Korean kids are overworked and underplayed.  Thus, it is our responsibility as teachers to counterbalance this discrepancy by making our classrooms as stress-free and fun as possible.  Not only will kids learn more under these improved conditions, they may regain traces of a proper childhood in the process.  How can we create such an environment in our classrooms?  I believe these three simple rules can go a long way.

1. Minimize homework.  Korean kids have enough already.  And given that their school grades will always take precedence over hagwon marks, it should come as little surprise that the effort put forth on hagwon homework is generally the bare minimum.  Assigning homework does more harm than good, and often only serves to contribute to the already crippling stress load on the students.

2. Play more games.  No, I’m not talking about hangman.  Scour the web for creative ESL games and you will certainly find them to be abundant.  Borrow ideas from other teachers or invent your own games from scratch.  Done right, games are an extremely effective way to foster learning and encourage fun.

3. Fight the system.  Hagwons generally try to make you think that there is only one acceptable way of doing things.  More often than not, it will be painfully obvious that their approach to education is misled.  After all, hagwon owners are generally non-English speaking capitalists, rather than passionate ESL educators.  If you are being asked to teach in a way that you know to be counter-productive, push back against the system in any way that you can.  Focus on the well being of the students, rather than the bottom line of the hagwon.  That said, hagwons can be resistant to change and intolerant of disobedience, so approach your efforts at reformation with caution.

A choice…

For better or worse, the “English Mania” movement is in full effect in South Korea.  To be sure, we foreign teachers have a central part in all of this, but it is entirely up to us what kind of role we play.   We can do everything in our power to improve the lives of our students, or simply adhere to  the usual psychologically and physically destructive policies.  Either way, we get paid.  For those hoping to leave Korea a slightly better place than they found it, I believe there is a moral imperative to do the right thing.


Andy Baxley is a teacher, writer, and photographer living in Seoul.  For more of his work,  please check out his blog at The Nomad Diary.

Filed under: About Korea, Andy Bax, ESL, Teaching Tagged: English as a foreign or second language, English language, hagwons, Korea, South Korea, teaching, TOEFL

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