Many Koreans suffer 'English stress' and a few snap

The Korea-born gunman who killed seven people at a Christian college in California alleged he had been regularly teased by his peers over his poor English skill, and that might have made him snap.

It’s debatable whether this can explain his heinous action.

Back home, many of the Korean campus shooter’s compatriots suffer from a great deal of stress from advancing their English proficiency, although at different levels without going down the same extreme path as he did.

By many standards, Koreans seem more obsessed with being good at English than those in other non-English speaking nations. English proficiency is not only a requirement for landing good jobs, but still taken as a symbol of cultural and social status just as much as French wine and golf clubs.

“Koreans are obsessed with the idea that they should be fluent in English,” said Lee Byung-min, a professor at the English education department of Seoul National University. “The irony is that Koreans do not have many chances to speak English.”

Every Korean, from the kids in kindergartens to the pimple-covered high school students spend a lot of time taking English lessons at schools and private education institutes. A good English score is crucial for getting into better colleges and better jobs.

But after spending a lifetime devoted to English proficiency, do Koreans get a bang for their buck? The many college students who e-mail Korea Times journalists asking for help in their English class translation assignments suggest that the answer is probably no.

“I’m not sure why I should study English, as there is little chance for me to speak English,” said Lee Eun-kyeong, a 29-year-old office worker in Seoul.

Lee said she is now preparing for an English-speaking test, because she needs a high score to be promoted at her company. As employers believe traditional test scores in reading and listening aren’t enough to assess language proficiency, many companies have put more emphasis on speaking evaluations in recent years.

The nation’s top universities have also joined such a trend by expanding classes that are conducted entirely in English in recent years in attempting to “globalize” their education.

The obsession with English has been linked to tragedy. Five students from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), which has been at the forefront of the English lecture movement, committed suicide last year, igniting heated debates over such classes, with professors and students arguing that they caused unnecessary stress.

“Having English lectures is downright crazy,” said Choi Gwang-mu, a KAIST professor.

“Just because you learn a subject in English does not mean you are globalized. Students should have pride in their mother tongue. It’s wrong to force them to study in English.”

Experts also point out that Koreans are obsessed with the idea that they should speak English as natives by copying their accents and pragmatic conventions.

“It’s impossible for all Koreans to speak good English. There are only a few people who speak English fluently as native speakers, but that shouldn’t be a standard as it is too high to reach,” Lee from SNU said.

I agree with Korean people. Actually, i'm not a native and not good at english. Sometimes i'm stressed that i should speak english better than other people even i don't use english much at work. 

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