The New York Times reports on the curious phenomenon of South Koreans sending their kids to English-speaking countries to study English. Don't think for a second when you're reading this that this is at all rare. In every single class I teach there is at least one student who has lived in Australia or Canada or New Zealand (usually Canada). Sometimes there are two or three. And these students have a definite edge over the other kids, at least when it comes to English.
The demand for English education in Korea is huge. There are about 300,000 of us native English teachers here (keep that number in mind when you read that Lee Myun Bak wants to add an additional 10,000). And part of the reason why the demand is so great is that there exists a sort of low-level desperation about English. Everybody knows that it's important, and everybody studies very very hard, but learning good English, the sort of English expressed on test scores, seems almost Sisyphean.
And the problem I see is that the high cost of education is driving a wedge between rich and poor. After-school kids are expected to go to private academies (which cost a lot of money) and these kids will do better in class. And so in the public school classroom, the bar is raised a little higher--perhaps so high that the kids whose families cannot afford academies or private tutors or trips to Australia will fall behind. I know in my classroom sometimes the only kids who can understand me are those who have been to America, go to two English academies a day.
And it's not like the kids who can do well are enjoying themselves. My students--middle school students--study so much that when I ask them questions like "What are your hobbies?" they tell me "Sleep." "Video games." Indeed, after the last vacation I asked my students: "What did you do?" and many told me "I went to Bangkok."---This is Korean slang for staying in the house all day. (Bang means room, and I think Ko means corner [I'm not sure.]) Anyway. The kids are being educated ragged. Without the freedom to let their minds play, get creative, rebel, create themselves.... Just so they can speak good English. Damn.