You spik Inglish to me pliz?

Korea has a hunger for learning English, and it says plenty about how Koreans see themselves and the world. A whole industry has grown around this desire, with the public school system failing the adequately scratch the English itch and the subsequent growth of private langauge schools, known as Hagwan. Generally staffed by native-English speaking 20- and 30-somethings, the schools work well for both teacher and student. With demand outstripping supply, foreign teachers without a qualification can earn good money and live not too far from the big cities.

But why the obsession with learning a foreign language which is only of very limited use on the strets of Seoul or Busan? Part of it is the South Korean education obsession. Parents put unrelenting pressure on their children to learn, beginning at a remarkably young age. The noble notion of education as a good in itself is largely lost, and instead education becomes a highly functional means to an end. Initially, that end is a quality university, which makes a huge difference in a society when the old-school-tie (or in this case, university hoodie) is still unashamedly a ticket to success. Ultimately, education is the key to material success in life, and a spot on the corpoate ladder. English forms just a small part of the nation's obsession with learning.

The other big factor is English as a means of engaging with the rest of the world. At present, South Korea is a recepticle of internationalism rather than a participant. This country is home to hundreds of thousands of expatriots in all walks of life, with a sophisticated expat network to satisfy those needs. Major global events often come to these shores, most recently the World Cup soccer - the strong legacy of which makes it look like it just finished yesterday. Going the other way, however, SKers are only just starting to make an impact abroad. A large part of that is the language barrier, which prevents people here from engaging on equal terms. With Korean being a great tool if you wish to do business in Seoul, Pyongyang, Carnegie or with the bald bad guy in the Bond films, but not too many other places on this planet, English skills are crucial.


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