ROUGHLY HALF OF SOUTH Korean undergraduates lack English speaking proficiency, according to a recent survey conducted at a Korean university. While the extrapolations made from the survey data are questionable (the results of one university are not necessarily representative of the whole), the normative conclusion drawn from the outcome – that Koreans must study even harder – is indicative of a huge international double standard, and of a global societal ill.
English has become the “international language” – there’s no way around this. But too often have native English speakers taken this as their ticket out of learning a foreign tongue, while millions of students the world over are left to struggle with a daunting and seemingly lawless mess of English grammar and idioms. Though recent surveys show that enrollment in foreign language classes is up at American universities, I would bet a hefty sum that American proficiency in a foreign language is dismally lower than 50 percent (recent immigrants excluded). Even outside the U.S. there are problems; a recent Guardian article reports that British schools are ignoring language learning targets.
The other problem is that as university students in other parts of the world focus on their English-language education, they often lose sight of the importance of using their native tongue effectively; a Korean friend of mine said to me in a recent conversation that he’s noticed many of his friends pepper their speech with Internet slang and Konglish (Koreanized English), and give him blank stares when he uses more high-level vocabulary.
The drive to learn English has also likely limited Koreans’ options in taking up other languages – such as French, Chinese or Arabic – that English-speakers freely pursue. Americans, after their mandatory year of a foreign language at university, either opt out or continue if they have a passion for it; the rest of the world chokes down English because not doing so would threaten their chance at a successful life.
To call this an inevitable reality of globalization is a cop-out; this is a glaring disparity that must be addressed by making responsible changes to the educational systems on both sides.