Warning: Global English may harm your mental health

About ten years ago an overseas student from South Korea who was about to fail a unit I was teaching left a suicide note under my office door. She described herself as a “loser” who – in contrast to other overseas students – hadn’t got enough English to cope with her course. She wrote how “guilty” she felt that her English wasn’t better and how her she had “betrayed” her parents with her poor English, as well as other people who cared for her, including myself as “a nice lecturer.” While it had never occured to me to consider any of my students’ English in terms of “betrayal,” I was deeply shocked and tried to help in whatever small way I could. I know that she survived this particular bout of depression, butI don’t know what has become of her since as she withdrew from university shortly after and left Australia. I found the experience harrowing and I’ve often thought of her over the years. Her English had, in fact, met the university’s admission standards and so it was not her factual proficiency level in English that was her problem but her belief that her English was not good enough coupled with unrealistically high expectations as to what her English should be like. I hope that she has been able to rid herself of her obsession and found happiness in some non-English-related walk of life.

I was reminded of this young woman when I read a paper about Korean early study abroad students and their families in the current issue of the International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism. The author, Juyoung Song, writes about a “Korean education exodus” with more and more children leaving South Korea temporarily for chogi yuhak (“early study abroad”) in the USA and other English-speaking countries. In 2006, 29,511 Korean elementary to high school students pursued education visas, with around half of these of elementary school age. Furthermore, these numbers do not include children who accompany their parents, i.e. where the reason for the visa is some parental activity. Overall, more than 40,000 Korean children seem to be living abroad in order to pursue an early English education and to acquire that “perfect accent.” The typical pattern is apparently for these children to be accompanied by their mothers while the fathers stay behind to support their children’s foreign education. So widespread is the pattern that there is a special term for this type of family formation: kiregi kajok or “geese family” – like geese, they fly every now and then to see each other.

When I was a child my father, who worked as a construction worker, was often away from home for extended periods and I remember well how much I missed him. Consequently, I’ve always considered the early separation of children from their parents a particularly poignant aspect of labor migration. It had never occurred to me that economically secure parents would choose separation because they thought it was in the best interest of their children. Isn’t it amazing that the allure of English is such that people are willing to trade close family bonds for high levels of proficiency? Not only family bonds as a matter of fact, one of the mothers in the study is quoted as being upset about the fact that her young daughter’s best friend during her study abroad year in the USA was another Korean girl and that they spoke Korean with each other. This mother felt cheated of her investment into her daughter’s English proficiency.

Happiness for the mothers interviewed by Song was tied to a good return on their investment as measured by their children’s English proficiency, and particularly their accent. One mother had this to say:

English is the place where you can see a close correlation between the money you spend and the improvement of children’s learning. The more you spend, the more efficient the learning. Yes, especially when the children are young, the amount of money spent in their English education is visible, which makes me happy. (p. 30)

Sounds like a special brand of shopaholic to me – learning English as a particular form of consumption addiction! Seeing that in 2002 the South Korean English language teaching industry, excluding chogi yuhak, was worth around 3 billion USD according to an LA Times report and assuming that that figure has undoubtedly grown since then (according to Song, chogi yuhak figures grew seven times between 2000 and 2006), the comparison with a drug market feels not entirely inappropriate. The craze for English is such that there is even a market for plastic surgery, lingual frenectomy, to supposedly improve English pronunciation.

A language learning market that looks pretty saturated can only continue to grow if addiction is built into the system. How do you become addicted to language learning? Make the goal seem magical and, at the same time, impossible to reach! That is where the other language ideology identified by Song comes in: linguistic self-depreciation. Apparently, for all their investments into English language teaching and learning, South Koreans feel that their English is terrible and that English language teaching in the country is hopeless. One mother spoke of herself as a “frog in the well” because of her poor English; another one said her husband had only “two words of English” – the man with the “two words of English” worked as a researcher at a US university, mind you.

Being in thrall to an English language teaching industry that is so rampant that it makes people value proficiency in English more than family relationships and that is geared to instilling a perpetual sense of inferiority is surely a recipe for great profits on the one hand and significant mental health risks on the other. Sadly, the recipe is not restricted to South Korea but – with variations – seems to be working well in many places around the world.

ResearchBlogging.org Song, J. (2010). Language ideology and identity in transnational space: globalization, migration, and bilingualism among Korean families in the USA International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 13 (1), 23-42 DOI: 10.1080/13670050902748778

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
  • I see this everyday in Korea. I think another thing that drives the English industry is hyper-competition to succeed. Studying English outside of Korea is a way of getting around the traditional route of graduating from Korea’s ‘Ivy League’ schools like Seoul National University, Korea University, and Yonsei University.

  • steven

    for some people language isnt just a means of communication, it is a status symbol, a passport to a better life – real or imaginary

    • A.F

      If you learn a language you become a creator of opportunities. If you recognize and see these opportunities then yes, it is a passport to a better life. This applies for any language in general not only for English.

      Even though today everybody is striving to learn English mainly because it is the so called ”official business language”, I think that we are sometimes missing the point what business is really all about. It’s about connecting people. The main tool we use to do so is language. Although learning English does create the opportunity to communicate, there are no feelings attached to it when doing business with non native English speakers. See http://www.language-united.com/language-in-business.html

      “If I’m selling to you, I will speak your language; if I’m buying, then you must speak mine!”
      -Willy Brandt, former German Chancellor-

  • Vahid

    “The recipe is not restricted to South Korea but – with variations – seems to be working well in many places around the world.” Even in a country like IRAN, which lacks a well-established political relationship with the West (and therefore difficult visa processes), we can find more and more children leaving IRAN temporarily for early study abroad with their aim being ‘proficiency in English’. I was not aware of the high number of such students before the day two years ago when I visited an exhibition in Tehran which was exclusively devoted to such companies and their services. The number of such companies outweighed what I had imagined before. And if a lot of companies offer services to those who want to send their children to foreign countries in order to learn English, the business should not only have a lot of customers but should also be lucrative.

  • Andrea Mattos (Brazil)

    This is good food for thought… What are we teaching when we are teaching English?

  • xiaoxiao

    Yes, we have also been investing a lot in English teaching in China. We have very expensive international schools in big cities where all the teachers are native English speakers. A lot of well-off families try their best to get their kinds in there in order to receive “genuine internatioal or English education”. Also we have foreign language schools in every provincial capital city where English is the major language. A symbol of success for the kids in their studies should be their proficiency in English. But how much do they know about their own native language–Chinese?

  • Angela Turzynski-Azimi

    While I am not qualified to speak about South Korea, I would like to comment on “linguistic self-depreciation” in the context of Japan. We should beware of taking at face value a person’s claims that their (or their partner’s or child’s) English skills are poor. While those of us raised in Western cultures may perceive such statements as self-depreciation, it may be more accurate to regard them as a form of modesty which does not necessarily reflect a person’s true opinion of their abilities. It is common to hear even the most talented of people express themselves in this way concerning their own abilities or those of anyone closely related to them. I wonder if the example of the South Korean woman claiming her husband had almost zero knowledge of English yet was able to function in an academic environment in the U.S. can be attributed to a similar cultural norm?

    • Angela I think you’re right about Western misconceptions of statements of self-depreciation. In Japan for example it’s considered really arrogant to acknowledge your abilities in front of others. It’s actually a form of politeness to say something self-depreciating about not only yourself but also your in-group. My favourite cliche in this vein is the Japanese husband speaking of his wife: “She’s not beautiful and she’s a terrible cook”.

  • Angela Turzynski-Azimi

    It might also be useful to consider how the notion of “linguistic self-depreciation” is impacted by a culturally ingrained emphasis on continually striving towards mastery of a skill, art form, and so on, with the figure of one’s teacher, the true master, a constant reminder of how far one is still falling short of perfection. This is perhaps especially evident in students of traditional pursuits. The savvy advertising campaigns of English language schools in Japan certainly exploit a cultural tendency, but I would question whether they are responsible for “instilling a perpetual sense of inferiority”.

  • Tommy

    I think Angelas absolutely right: Confucian concepts like severe self-deprecation and continual striving are much more powerful forces (given that they are 1000s of years old and completely culturally ingrained) than some sign on a shopfront.

    It is nevertheless fascinating to see the geographical separation of families English mania engenders, in light of Confucian-heritage culture.

  • This is not a phenomenon restricted to English language learning. During my time in Japan I have met a number of Chinese women and men who have left their spouses and children at home in China in order to study Japanese full-time. This is often linked with an economic motivation to continue studying at a university in Japan, which may then lead to a highly paid job in Japan or a good academic job back in China. In Asia, learning Japanese is also big business, although comments I have heard would suggest that it’s often the second choice after English.

  • Hikaru Genji

    My head hurts~