English education policy in South Korea is a seemingly-neverending source of contention. President-elect Lee Myung-bak’s presidential transition team (대통령직 인수위원회) has been making one proposal after another to reform the nation’s ESL classrooms, so with his inauguration being today, let’s take a look back at what’s been said about the possible directions the new government will go. Back on Hangul Day, in November, the then-presidential candidate said it might be a good idea to teach Korean history and language classes in English and got himself roundly criticized as being “like the Japanese imperialists”. Since then, however, the ESL trends have gone in precisely that direction: after his election education boards across the country have moved for more English-only instruction. Seoul is experimenting with English-only math and science classes, English teachers in Gangwon-do are being told they must do more lecturing in English, and as president-elect Mr. Lee restated his desire to see more English-only classes — in fact, every single high school English class starting in 2010 — and last week saw Seoul National University come back to the man’s original proposal by bringing in American scholar Eugene Park to teach a Korean Studies course exclusively in English. As president, of course, Roh Moo-hyun also stressed the importance of sound English educational policy but not to the same degree — and considering that his policies failed to achieve one of their most prominent goals, a reduction in spending on hagwons, they, well… failed. I don’t think that is entirely his fault, though — Korean parents seem to take any excuse to spend more money on hagwon English lessons whether the current government is seeing English as more or less important. With the new government poised to expand the importance of English education, hagwons are being swamped with new students just as they also cope with a shortage of foreign English teachers caused by more restrictive visa rules. So, of course, all of this is great news for English hagwons, and for the foreign teachers who work there.

After the announcement of the government’s decision to strengthen English education, the market for English lessons for children has gone up slightly. The new government’s roadmap of English immersion, tests of English ability, and early English education beginning in first and second grade is lowering the age of first English learning.

We are at a kids’s English hagwon in Hwanggeum-dong, Suseong-gu, Daegu. At this “English Kindergarten” 10 kids, ranging in age from 4 to 7, are in the middle of an English conversation about “winter life”. Their parents want them to have English immersion lessons taught entirely by a native speaker, heedless of the expensive fees which go from 500,000 to 800,000 won per month.

Jeong, the owner of the school, says, “for a while there was a pause due to the stagnant economy but recently the importance of English is being emphasized and students are increasing again. With the trend towards English immersion parents think that age four to six is the best time to learn to speak a foreign language naturally.” Attention is on the growth of hagwons in the Seoul area. With headquarters in Seoul, hagwons like P, M, S and so on have name recognition and since the second half of last year have set up 7 to 8 branches in southern Daegu and10 to 20 in Daejeon. These hagwons, proud of the high-quality educational services they offer through differentiated programs, offer lessons 10-20% more expensive than those of other Daegu-area language hagwons and parents are beating down their doors. They were originally created as language hagwons and are now preparing “English kindergartens”. In southern Daegu recently there are a handful of new language hagwons with attached kindergartens.

English lessons are exploding in department store culture centers. This spring semester department store English lessons are taking aim at parents with titles like, “Ballet Lessons in English” and “Musicals That Teach English”. Park Jin-heung, director of the Daebaek Plaza Culture Center (대백프라자 문화센터), said, “the program is very popular for its special nature of using more games and fun activities than other language programs. We’re in an age where whatever you do English is needed.”

The kids education market is already saturated and the population of children is shrinking, so psychological pressure on parents is causing an uptick in the market for kids’ English lessons. Jo Jun-hyung, chair of the Daegu Foreign Language Association (대구시 외국어교육협의회) said, “because the age of English education is being lowered and English is being more emphasized in school, parents are worried. But programs that just give you an ‘English experience’ are not going to give significant result towards mastery of English.”

But not everybody thinks all of this political emphasis on English is such a great thing. Poet Kim Heung-suk has harsh words for the new president’s thoughts, from the proposal that English speakers be exempted from military service to altering how English words are written in Korean.

During my lifetime English has been my livelihood but recently it is becoming wearisome. English is being politicized. When I look at the policies promulgated by the presidential transition team I feel distrustful of their announcements. The masterstroke of them all is the proposal that young men who speak English well can teach in public schools rather then serving their military duty. Society is becoming stratified by the measuring stick of English, with those on the wrong side of the English Divide having to take up arms in the military, which will give rise to discontent with their homeland.

When I look at the statement by transition team chair Lee Gyeong-suk, I’m left with the thought that there will someday be trauma and pain inflicted by English. A few days ago at a public hearing I wasn’t sure whether to feel hurt by hearing the example of “orange”. What is the meaning of saying, “if the orthography of English in Korean isn’t radically altered it will be hard to speak with the pronunciation of a native”?

The principle here is that English orthography can be changed for our convenience to avoid pronouncing English with a Korean accent, but is that going to make us sound like native speakers? Does chairman Lee think that writing “orange” not in English but as 아린지 or 오렌지 is really going to make for better pronunciation? People who speak English well live in London, Manila, Melbourne and other places too, and have different accents so what does chairman Lee think native-speaker pronunciation to be?

A friend living in a foreign country was once mortified when the foreigners there asked, “your country, why is it having a war over English?” We aren’t America or London or a colony of an English-speaking country, so my friend had no good answer when asked why we have to study English just in high school and then be able to communicate in it.”

People who think that if Korean citizens can speak English well it will help attract foreign tourists would do well to look at nearby Japan. Tourists coming to our country can’t get good information about it and there isn’t good information about things that tourists like — the problem isn’t our English ability.

If there are foreigners who want to learn our language but can’t because every Korean around them can speak English, of course there are also people whose responsibilities include communicating with foreigners and want to show off their English ability and don’t use interpretation. Diplomacy is war conducted through language so appearances are just as important as the content of what is said, but if you get the English disease your judgment is clouded.

The transition team says it wants to change the framework of English education and reduce the burden of private lesson costs by having all English classes taught in English from 2010, and will do so by making a “tremendous investment” in the training and education of English teachers. Korea is already a world leader, known from every English-speaking country from America to Africa as having the English disease, what a “tremendous investment”!

With the market for those private lessons increasing the way it has been, there is no way to change the framework of English education. It isn’t just English but we see the same thing in other subjects. Rather than making a worthless investment or dividing young people, they should bring teachers in from private lessons to the public schools.

From the presidential transition team to the parents of schoolchildren, everyone should pay attention. There are many things in the world more important than English and schools have more to teach than English. First of all they teach how to speak our language, and who we are as a people, and English won’t be too late. Language is an ability, and no ability is useful unless used. I’m doubtful of the highly-paid transition team’s intention to mass-produce English ability. An ability that is already abundant.

The Joongang Ilbo also charges that Lee is reckessly promoting new policies without having considered them sufficiently, which sounds about right for a guy whose nickname is, after all, “bulldozer”.

Update: President Lee apparently doesn’t think his campaign promises were such hot stuff, after all.