Readers of Language on the Move will be familiar with South Korea’s English fever, the sweeping zeal for learning English. Parents enrol children in English medium-preschools, arts and sports classes, nursery schools with native-speaking English staff, toddler gyms with English speaking trainers, or hire English-speaking babysitters to talk to their baby in English. Pregnant mothers read an English storybook, attend English medium church services or listen to online English courses for prenatal education in hopes that their foetus will hear and absorb English. Some parents drag their child to a clinic to have tongue surgery, snipping the membrane under the tongue, on the assumption that they will then be able to pronounce the r-sound better.
In short, Koreans are obsessed with English, particularly with native-like fluency and accent.For Koreans who have limited English skills, English proficiency means native-like accent and fluency and the key to this is starting early and being around English speakers. Children’s study abroad, jogiyuhak, is the perfect embodiment of the belief in early exposure in a native environment. While it is often said that Korea’s examination-obsessed education system and intense competition is another reason for early study abroad decisions, the overarching goal is to achieve a native level of English proficiency. More precisely, their ultimate aspiration is to add perfect English to their presumably impeccable Korean.
My first encounter with an early-study-abroad student dates back to the days when I was doing my master’s degree in TESOL as a ‘late’-study-abroad student in Sydney. It was for the first time in my life I was sitting in two hour-long academic lectures in English and I missed much of the lecturer’s instruction. I thought that my problem was normal for an adult international student from Korea who had hardly experienced such a situation before. After the class, I went up to another Korean student, I’ll call her Jenny, and said, in Korean, of course: “It’s hard to understand the lecturer, isn’t it?” Jenny’s response was surprising, “No. I’m used to listening to lectures.” Oh, was this only my problem? To my relief, she added that she had completed her bachelor degree in Australia. Yeah! I was not abnormal after all!
Later on I found out more about Jenny’s background. She had come to Australia at age 16 and had joined a private high school as a boarder, spending a total of eight years in Australia before starting her master’s degree. Soon I started to notice that Jenny often missed the point of an argument or presented irrelevant ideals in informal discussions with other Korean international students. It was obvious that she frequently did not understand the subject of discussions. In addition, she did not understand some words that we were using in discussions, which we had learnt from books or through formal education. These language problems in her ‘mother tongue’ presumably resulted from the fact that she had been absent from the Korean curriculum and other Korean literacy contexts. So, there was a formal Korean register she either forgot or had never learnt.
This observation led me to ponder the role of literacy in language development. The absence of Korean education during jogiyuhak would mean an interruption to the development of formal and literate varieties in Korean.
Well, you might say that stunted Korean is the price Jenny had to pay for her high level of English. However, it did not take long before I found out that, even if listening to a two-hour lecture in English was not arduous to her, her level of understanding of the class contents was not enough to fulfill subject assignments. Jenny often had to ask her Korean classmates, including myself, about concepts and terminologies and she sought assistance with her assignments. I should acknowledge that she wasn’t hiding her difficulties and was straightforward enough to tell everyone that she wrote her essays by cutting and pasting from other texts and that her boyfriend helped her.
Jenny’s struggle with academic English reminded me of Cummins (2000), who argues for the need to distinguish conversational fluency from academic language proficiency, noting that despite their seeming fluency in English, the level of migrant students’ academic achievement is usually far behind their local peers. He suggests that the students may attain age-appropriate levels of conversation fluency within two years. However, it takes at least five to seven years to reach grade-level academic proficiency in English. Furthermore, this does not necessarily mean that migrant students eventually catch up to grade norms after five to seven years. Rather, during that time of language learning students’ academic performance is most likely impeded due to language barriers. This long period of language impairment of migrant students has significant implications for their overall academic development and their preparation for the worlds of employment and citizenship.
My own PhD research on Korean students’ early study abroad and bilingualism in Australia sheds further light on these issues. Many of my research participants reported that they were constrained to select learning areas such as Mathematics and Sciences in which reading and writing was less demanding compared with humanities subjects. So, ironically, early study abroad placed a severe constraint on pursuing language-related areas of inquiry: those who might have had more aptitude for heavily language-dependent fields in the humanities and social sciences were not able to pursue those areas of study in English. Consequently, their choice of careers in Business and IT was linguistically constrained.
To put it differently, early study abroad seems to be more favorable to those with an aptitude for and an interest in these less-language-dependent areas.
On the other hand, the language barriers and impeded adaptation can also mean that early-study-abroad students lose interest in studying. Some of my participants accordingly were regretful that they had come to Australia where they felt they had been transformed from academic high achievers into students with no interest in academic work.
Overall, early study abroad or submersion into English monolingual education in an English-speaking environment seems to entail the under-development of linguistic repertoires in both languages. Most participants revealed that they felt that neither language was fully developed or that they were not as good as a native speaker of either language. This resulted in a sense of confusion and feelings of discomfort. Consequently, they reported difficulties in interactions with speakers of both languages and a sense of not knowing where to belong.
Sending children overseas is costly but many Koreans believe that early study abroad will bring their children advantages outweighing those enormous expenses. While the assessment of the outcome is an individual one, as young adults many of my research participants, whether they continue to reside in Australia or have returned to Korea, struggle to find their place – maybe more so than those who never left?