South Korea hadn’t stopped English from coming, it came just the same

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.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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  • Sarah

    It’s nice to see articles about South Korea, but this one doesn’t seem to keep up. It reads like “I found some statistics on the internet and I cobbled together an article filled with my opinions, even though I’ve never lived in South Korea.” There are no quotes from actual people for example. The thing that really gets me is that you seem to think somethings come from America or are being done for Western audiences when really you don’t know.

    “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

    This piece is filled with assumptions.

  • Naja pallida

    Nope, I ended up at a smaller state school, where they were more welcoming. :)

  • I hope you didn’t end up at Stanford NP. I was very lucky. In the 70’s University was so much more affordable. I made it through with full tuition scholarships and jobs at the Univ. I don’t believe I’d ever have such an opportunity in this day and age.

  • Yep, My Iranian students were delightful.well bred, and years in advance of their peers. Most spoke fluent English. Chinese, Japanese, and Philippine students had great difficulties in communicating, but were more literate in composition.

  • Do I ever know that story.

  • I’ve read that people who claim to “speak” English only speak enough to get by in their job. It would be especially difficult for someone whose native language is from another language family. Of course, the one-language, one-culture world Anglophonia is aiming for will nullify this.

  • Isn’t the ISV based on Latin?

  • I’ve seen memes (feline and otherwise) translated into (or even originating from) other languages.

  • I speak English natively and I’ve never seen an economic advantage. I’m still poor as dirt and have worse Internet access than most South Koreans. But regardless of whether the necessity of English literacy is real or anglophone arrogance, the South Koreans are right to fear the hegemony of the United States.

  • Swami_Binkinanda

    Or is this a Korean version of the Aristocrats joke lampooning Korean yuppies and princelings in similar fashion to Gangnam Style?

  • Indigo

    Oh, good! Now we have Koreo-trash to fit into the social paradigm with Euro-trash.

  • Indigo

    Mmm . . . bacon!

  • Sweetie

    One thing about the misogyny bit… It seemed to me, although I ignored the lyrics as much as possible, that the visuals depicted misandry, as Psy’s behavior and appearance were quite repellent. I always find it amusing when an unattractive man (both in appearance and behavior) is positioned as being in a superior role, in comparison to the women he is objectifying. While many clearly buy into that, I find it droll.

  • Sweetie

    After suffering through the incredible mediocrity of “Gangam Style”, I vowed to never again subject myself to anything from “Psy”.

  • Jon green

    Check the links if you think I was loose with my research.

  • It’s not that new. Way back in the stone age, when I was teaching astrophysics at A&M, my boss came to me and “suggested” that I change the grade of our foreign students (at that time, they were mostly from Iran and kin to the king). I told him that if he wanted to bump up everyone’s grades, that was called grading on a curve and done all the time. But if he wanted to show special treatment for just a handful of student, he needed to put his fingerprints on it — I wasn’t willing. That was at the end of the spring semester. I wasn’t there in the fall…

  • MyrddinWilt

    Al Qaeda is really a rejection of modernism rather than an Islamic movement.

    Culture gets more homogenized as people reject inane bigotries and idiocies. ‘Western culture’ has only existed 20, 40 years in the West. Go back to the 1950s and the US, UK were a different world and almost all of Europe was under dictatorships (not just communist, but also the Fascist ones that Thatcher liked so much).

    Rising living standards for the masses are considered threatening by some in the Mitt Romney class, particularly those that are hangers on. Bin Laden’s mother was a fourth wife, treated like a concubine by his account.

    Trying to stop the flood of English language culture is going to be impossible in the Internet age. Governments can decide to be on the slow track or the fast track, their peoples are choosing to be part of the International culture regardless of what the elites want.

    After all, what is not to like about a culture centered on cats, bacon and an infinite quantity of hardcore porn?

  • Paul Yeager

    I’m quite sure that some facts in this article are distorted. The most glaring is that, in Korea, only schools that call themselves “kindergartens” are supposed to follow a specific curriculum that does not include English. A school that calls itself a kids’ academy can have English programs.

  • Jim Olson

    Well, yes. They are all full-ticket students with no scholarships. Please understand, they are all earnest learners, and generally nice people, and some of them eventually master enough English to do ok, but too many of them simply do not ever learn enough advanced English to be able to take written exams or write a decent thesis or dissertation, and require extensive editorial help.

  • Is Psy trying to resurrect some bastardized-hybrid version of Hammer Pants?

    Talk about fugly.

  • Naja pallida

    When I first applied to UC Berkeley as a foreign student, back in the early 1990s, they basically told me that they wanted proof of all my tuition fees up front, in a special account, for a full four years of a degree program. Not sure if they still do that, or if it was just something they told me to do, but I certainly didn’t have ~$60k in a bank account that I could just lock away for as long as I was in school. Made me take stock and shop around more for a school that was more reasonable.

  • Gangdumb style!

  • Absolutely right on and it’s not just Korean students. In California increasing preference is given to foreign students, who pay 3x the usual fees and are overwhelmingly unprepared with adequate English proficiency to proceed sufficiently in the sciences and medicine. The coddling of these students by administrators is lowering standards at an alarming rate.

  • Jim Olson

    I have taught Korean graduate students who have supposed to have passed the ESL exam to be admitted to the program. Their command of written and spoken English is lacking, to say the least, and they are generally unprepared to be in the program.

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