Why Indians speak better English than Koreans

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These days Teaching English in South Korea is considered one of the hottest jobs as compared to other Asian countries like China, Japan etc.  The government is spending a lot of money in recruiting native speakers and making this nation very affluent in English. English is taught predominantly by native speakers. And most of the public as well as private institutions prefer English Teacher from native speaking countries like US, UK, Australia, New Zealand etc. Koreans spend a lot of money in learning English. But still you wont find many Koreans who could speak English fluently.

These days Teaching English in South Korea is considered one of the hottest jobs as compared to other Asian countries like China, Japan etc.  The government is spending a lot of money in recruiting native speakers and making this nation very affluent in English. English is taught predominantly by native speakers. And most of the public as well as private institutions prefer English Teacher from native speaking countries like US, UK, Australia, New Zealand etc. Koreans spend a lot of money in learning English. But still you wont find many Koreans who could speak English fluently.

The other day I met this girl in a parade who had stayed in New Zealand for like 2 yrs for studying English but she was not very confident about her English Speaking skills. Trust me she spoke good English but she was not very fluent. I strongly feel that as compared to her (and other Koreans) we Indians speak better and fluent English that too, without staying in any native English Speaking country.

I meet Koreans who have spent years in countries like Australia, America etc.  yet they pause while speaking because they are forming sentences in their mind. It is very common in Korea to find people who have spent life abroad just to be surrounded in an English Speaking environment so that they get more exposure to the English speaking crowd and that helps them improve their command over English Language. But they still stammer in English.

I have also met Korean families where the kids with their mom live and study in a native English speaking country and the dad would work in Korea and send money to support the kids education abroad. All this only for the sake of English.

So the first question which comes to my mind is that why is it that these Koreans who after having so much of an exposure to the foreigners and after having traveled so much still struggle when it comes to speaking English where as we Indians with very less exposure to foreigners and with no native speaking teachers to teach us speak much better English than Koreans.

And the answer is obvious for any Indian who is staying in Korea. Media and Education. Both play a very important role in our English education and we will look at them one by one.

  • Mostly 70-80% of the schools and colleges in urban India and almost 50% of the schools in rural India teach subjects in English, except for languages. Which is not very common in Korea. Most of the Koreans I have met study their subjects in Korean and study English only as a language subject in schools and colleges.
  • In India mostly 70% of the nation reads the newspaper in English. And there are so many of them to chose from. You visit any random newspaper vendor in India and you would find that the count of English magazines and newspaper surpassing their local counterparts. Koreans also have newspaper in English but they are mostly targeted to the expat community. 99% of the Koreans would prefer to read newspaper and magazines in Korean. Only if the media stops or limits the printing of newspaper and magazines in Korean will they do some good for the people of their own country.
  • One thing I like about Indian Movie channels is that they display English movie with English subtitles. So it becomes easier for us to enjoy the movie and not get lost in the accent. Apart from that most of the Indian music channels as well as radio stations have VJ/RJ who host the shows in English. The youth in India is well fed on English media, where as in Korea you walk in to any cinema for watching English movies and you will find it with Korean Subtitles. Which I do not blame keeping in mind the current circumstances else people will stop watching English movies. And if at all the DJ/RJ will start hosting their shows in English then they will lose their fan following soon.
  • Now this is an extremely important step to do if the Korean government wants to help the upcoming generation with their usage of English. It should stop translating academic books as well as fiction in Korean. Walk into any bookstore in Korea and you will find books and books in Korean. Even the bestsellers like Harry Potter, Twilight etc are translated in Korean. In any normal Korean book shop only around 20-30% of the section is allocated to English books. Whereas in India if one walks into any bookstore like landmark or crossword, one will find books in English only. Bookshops in India cater to all kinds of readers from technical to academic to fiction to non-fiction to self-help books (but in English).

It is all about the exposure and the right exposure for that matter. No matter how many native speaking teachers you recruit. No matter how many countries you visit or work or stay. No matter how many private tuitions you do. No matter how many English songs you listen to. No matter how many foreign friends you hang out with. No matter how many English Movies or Sitcoms you watch (with Korean subtitles) you will improve you English only if you READ. Read as much as you can in English dedicatedly. Read books, read newspaper, read articles, read blogs, read magazines, read manuals, read anything and  everything you can put your hands on. The more you read in English the more it will stay with you in your mind and will come automatically to you when you are talking or writing.

Yes I do agree that watching English movies and sitcom,  having foreign friends and other things do help. But not as much as READING. Why do you think we Indians can speak better English than Korean? Because, we are forced to read. There are many schools in India where teaching happens in local language but in Colleges the subjects are taught only in English. So it is mandatory for us to read and write in English. The only way I improved my English was by joining a library during my vacation. I used to read and read a lot in English. And Korean as I see is a nation of very good readers. People in Korea love reading. So henceforth if you have to chose a book for reading make sure it is printed in English.

Most of the English Movie DVD’s available in the market come with English Subtitles for people with hearing disability. Knowing English but not understanding the accent and pronounciation can also be considered as a disability. So next time when you are watching movies, make sure that you watch it with English subtitles and not Korean Subtitles. These subtitles are like floats to help you swim. Once you can swim on your own then you will discover many new oceans to conquer in English.

On a side note, since Korea itself is not a native English speaking country it should look at the learning strategies adopted by other developing and non-native countries like India, Philippines, Malaysia (as mentioned by Joseph Dart) and incorporate their best practices in its education system, rather than just recruiting native speakers as teachers. Given an opportunity, any certified teacher for whom English is a second language would be in a better position to teach from his / her experience of learning English. And for native speakers TESOL or TEFL does a good job in teaching them the difficulties faced by non-natives while learning English or any other language. So if someone takes out time to get certified as a TESOL or TEFL certified teacher, it shows his / her commitment towards teaching English to non-native speakers. Having said that Korean Government should also give equal weightage to both native speakers as well as qualified/certified teachers from India and Philippines.

Thanks for your time.
Brijesh Bolar



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