English is the world’s language. For those who wish to compete in a global economy, English literacy is a crucial stepping-stone to success. But for many, the economic promise that English proficiency offers creates an overwhelming incentive to get ahead, despite incredible short-term costs.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in South Korea, where the government has gone as far as to outlaw the teaching of English in early education for the sake of preserving its own native language. But despite the official ban, nearly 96 percent of Korean kindergartens offer English (all private – South Korea does not have public kindergarten); the demand for early exposure to the language is simply too high.
The rampant consumption of English education extends beyond the classroom itself, as native English speakers have begun to exploit a burgeoning black market for private tutoring, which can command rates as high as $75 per hour. It is officially illegal for foreign visa holders to give private tutoring lessons in Korea, but foreign nationals often earn as much with their coveted status as native English speakers as they can in a conventional job.
It is unclear as to whether or not this early exposure to English is effective, as South Korea ranks near the bottom when it comes to English-language proficiency in east Asian countries. This could be due to the fact that, despite the prevalence of English instruction, these illicit hagwons (cram-schools) are effectively unregulated. Apart from concerns regarding improper hygiene and lack of lunch programs, these schools are also not required to hire certified teachers. Not only are these schools incredibly expensive, many of them are total shams.
On its face, this seems like an unnecessarily bad situation. As with any black market, all the Korean government needs to do in order to protect mothers from wasting money in illegal, often-ineffective early English education is lift the ban on teaching English in kindergarten; this would allow for increased oversight and improved education. It would likely lower prices as well. All of this begs the question: Why did South Korea ban early English education in the first place?
The answer seems to lie in a cultural phenomenon that has something to do with the Internet sensation, Psy.
As South Korea has become one of the most wired countries in the world, it has also become incredibly Westernized. And not just in language preferences. One need look no further than K-Pop, South Korea’s heavily industrialized, heavily Westernized (it’s currently fashionable for K-Pop stars to wear American flag-based clothing) take on American pop with Koreanglish lyrics, churned out in bite-size music videos styled in what this NPR piece calls, “the YouTube model,” to see the steady encroachment of American mores/values in South Korean culture.
Since songs premiere on TV and on YouTube in South Korea, unlike premiering on the radio in the United States, the music industry in South Korea has become adept at manufacturing songs that are seen, as well as heard, lending themselves to being watched on an iPhone or laptop before they are listened to in a car. This means using (Western) slapstick and sexuality to deliver (Western) driving beats and synthesized sounds. And, since they’re largely circulated online, they’re marketed to a (Western) global online audience. K-Pop megastar Psy’s new viral video, “Gentleman,” is a caricature of the most basic American distractions: prank, sex, rinse, repeat. It’s like his breakout hit, “Gangam Style,” except with more English, more misogyny and a simpler dance:
The first time I watched it, even the ad that played before the video was for a prank show.
While the average consumer loves Psy, it’s easy to see why those who would seek to preserve South Korean culture might be tearing their hair out. As developing countries, well, develop, they run the risk of assimilating with the industrialized world to the point of homogenization. The more of the Western, industrialized world they let in, the less room there is for traditional language and culture.
Children can only learn so many languages; do they learn the languages and dialects of their grandparents, or do they learn popularized, marketable languages that will help them economically and allow them to keep up socially when their friends are going nuts over Psy’s latest hit? While self-interested individual citizens choose the latter, many governments in developing countries see an incentive to resist, to preserve native culture.
For example, the government of Bhutan heavily regulates tourism, imposing a per-day tourism tax (between $200 and $250 per traveler per day, depending on the season) and sending a guide along with foreigners who enter the country, in an effort to minimize the influence of outside cultures. By limiting the number of Westerners who enter, they limit the number of native citizens who can capitalize on their presence by catering to their interests. (The Soviets used to try the “guide” trick too.)
But Bhutan is an exception that proves a larger rule: Almost no developing countries regulate tourism in this way, and the ones that don’t, such as Indonesia, have seen a gradual homogenization of culture as tourism-based economic activity lends itself to English-speaking citizens who can relate to Western outsiders. Dialects such as Balinese and Sundanese are slowly but surely giving way to English as Indonesian children’s second language; while non-traditional, English is simply more practical. In Australia, a more developed example (indicative of where other countries may be heading), only 20 of its 250 originally-spoken languages are still alive today.
South Korea’s ban on early English education seeks to protect the Korean language in the face of what looks like an impending wave of English-speaking Korean children. The South Korean government seems willing to sacrifice an economic edge for the sake of cultural integrity. But South Korea’s citizens aren’t willing to go along; they refuse to have their culture legislated and they insist on raising a generation of children that can go to American colleges and listen to Americanized music.
If a black market for English can teach us anything, it’s that the proverbial “cultural-customer” is always right, especially when their government thinks they’re wrong.