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Eureka: South Korea: education, multiculturalism and economy
by Joseph Gatt
2018-03-09 09:54:17
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South Korea in Q & A format.

Question: South Korea spends billions of dollars a year on education yet South Koreans seem to make little progress in English ability. Korean teachers put the blame on native teachers while native teachers blame Korean teachers and some of the blame seems to go to the students and the government. Now what is going on?

koreaneduc1_400Answer: Simple. The Korean language is a “context sensitive language.” This means that Koreans use different grammar, but more importantly speak differently depending on who they are interacting with. If someone's older, they usually initiate the conversation. If someone's younger, they are technically not allowed to initiate conversations or make suggestions to older people. Praise goes to the elders, criticism to the younger. You can ask a younger person how their day went or how their date went, but you can't ask that to an older person. Talk with strangers is limited. Books could be written about Korean as a context sensitive language. That is in Korea you clearly define a relationship first, then you adapt your language and conversation.

Now when it comes to reading English Koreans tend to do rather well, because reading is not context sensitive. But when they meet a non-Korean person they tend to freeze, because the relationship is not clearly defined. Even at English speaking tests Koreans can do well because the relationship is that of a test taker and a test giver. But with the average Jack or Joe, Koreans can have trouble clearly defining the relationship, so they tend to stay very quiet, giving the impression that their English skills are rather low. In some cases, some students see no point in learning English as they feel English is outside their comfort zone of clearly defined relationships.

Another factor is South Koreans have created a myth around the English language that exists in few other countries: a mixture of classes related to English test taking and job interviews in English. Conversation classes exist, but have their flaws. First it takes time for conversation teachers to clearly define the relationship with their students. Second administration tends to interfere with the concept of English conversation by testing conversation excessively. Third Korean teachers tend to be downright belligerent with their students, which does not facilitate learning the language. Native teachers tend to be considered guests in the classroom, and are expected to behave as such. Dress well, tell jokes, teach lightly, don't be too serious, tell stories, entertain the kids, don't ever yell at the kids, and let the Korean teachers do the testing. Of course if the teachers ever show intentions of staying in the country for too long, they will be treated like the guest who wants to settle at your house. Everything will be done for them to get kicked out, either by firing them directly or by driving them crazy until they quit.

Question: 3% of the Korean population is migrant workers. That's a small number for all the anxiety surrounding the migrant population. Why is so much ink being wasted discussing migrant workers?

Answer: there used to be a rather cheesy sit-com with a catchy intro song called “Charles in charge” about an au pair, Charles, who babysits teenage children while attending college and living with the family. Now the show's not called Pembroke in charge or Powell family in charge and the whole show revolves around the au pair who lives with the family, not the family itself.

As I said before there are three ways to deal with immigrants and immigration. There's treating them as children, as guests or as roommates. In South Korea immigrants from wealthy countries who have their wealthy country as a safety net tend to be treated like guests, and those from not so wealthy countries tend to be treated like children. Even the terminology differs. Immigrants from Europe, North America and Australia are called expats, and those from South Asia are called “migrants” even when they hold white collar positions.

So European migrant workers tend to be treated rather well until they start showing signs that they want to stay. As soon as a European migrant learns the language Koreans tend to see that as a sign the migrant should leave, because the equivalent would be your guest using your washing machine or putting stuff in your fridge without your permission.

As for migrant workers from South Asia, the philosophy is that there are millions of volunteers for Korean jobs so they bring some of them, use them, and then send them back to their countries and bring others. Now you see the problem with this mentality is that factory work, construction work or farm work, regardless of the nature of the job, have a few skills you need to pick up. Factory workers also need to learn how to operate the machines. And when you bring new workers every year, you need to teach them to use the machines all over again, you get tired of teaching them, and you start yelling at them instead and the vicious cycle goes on.

Question: So how should Korea deal with their migrant workers?

Answer: Take this as punditry; I'm not trying to influence the Korean government in any way. First you need to assess the need for migrant workers. Right now the need seems to be focus and centralized around companies and fields based in ghost towns where Koreans would not dare venture. Or failing factories that struggle to hire Korean workers because of late wages and high turnover rates. Stable factories and fields tend to easily find Koreans who will work for them.

In Korea as in China the real estate market was a mess. Real estate prices kept going up, thousands of investors wanting to make their millions invested in building everywhere, including in ghost towns. Factory owners saw the opportunity as the price of the land dwindled in ghost towns to buy factory land in such areas. Since the areas are not accessible by transportation, have no restaurants, grocery stores or facilities, Koreans never work at such factories, so migrant workers are hired instead. Since migrant workers have nowhere to go they tend to be overworked, underpaid, wages tend to come late if at all and such factory owners know they have nowhere to go to complain.

As for the migrant brides or wives, let's just say that in South Korea, a novelty over the last 20 years, South Korean women won't marry you if you have a fat balance in your bank account. South Korean women expect their husbands to be to have fat bank accounts, housing ready for marriage life and a good bank balance to pay for the kids’ education. Migrant wives expect none of that, and end up marrying men who would not have otherwise married Korean women. Since men tend to be pressed into marriage, they choose migrant wives which are found for them by brokers. They tend to marry naive women from South Asia who often have little education and that's a recipe for disaster when assimilating to a new culture.

Some countries use quotas for migrants, other countries have complicated tests and point based systems to prove that you can assimilate to your country of adoption. South Korea seems to have both, but the story in Charles in charge is that the Pembrokes and the Powells could do all kinds of crazy things and get away with it, but Charles had to be flawless in his behavior and any dent in his behavior would cause trouble. Koreans are the Pembrokes, Charles is the migrant.

Final question: Growth in South Korea seems to have slowed down significantly in the last 20 years or so. How can economic growth pick up again?

Answer: To answer this question you need to understand what the social contract was in the 1970s and 80s and what it is today.

In the 1970s and 80s the social contract was cheap labor, very productive labor, humble CEOs who put the company first, weak currency against the dollar to facilitate exports, loyal export partners in foreign countries, mainly Japan and North America, full job security for workers, government-sponsored loans in line with government objectives for growth, that is the government would suggest a market, grant loans that were guaranteed, and check to make sure you were getting the work done. Yes there was corruption and nepotism, but the kind in a few thousand dollars.

Today the social contract is expensive labor which is not very productive, pompous CEOs with salaries sometimes 150 times higher than the average worker (when most CEOs made 10 times the average worker in the 1970s and 80s) strong currency, high internal debt to encourage local consumption because exports are sluggish, no job security for workers, high number of mid-career level workers who tend to consume very little, high number of mid-career level workers who don't marry and have children, no more government guaranteed loans, and in some cases conspicuous sex, drugs and rock n' roll consumer tendencies in the youth, when in the old days the youth would either study or at worst play football or soccer. Corruption and nepotism, in the millions of dollars, sometimes in ways stranger than fiction.

So the question is how do you go back to the old ways? That's for Koreans to figure out, or we can talk about it over coffee, but I must warn you I'm no big fan of clearly defined relationships or context-sensitive language use.

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