English Education in Korea: From Whence It Came

Written by Dr. David Shaffer

What do Imperial Japan, foreign missionaries, Peace Corps volunteers, and the USAID program have in common? Teaching English as a foreign language… in Korea.

Many of us may be informed about the teaching of English in the present-day Korean context – test-driven learning, the English Divide, being required from grade three through high school, supplementary hagwon classes, grammar rule and vocabulary memorization – but knowing a little about how these practices came about might give a bit of perspective to the present situation and even inform our classroom performance.

I select the end of World War II (1945) as our starting point, when the defeat of Imperial Japan and the division of the Peninsula led to the formation of the South Korean government and civilian services. During Japanese colonial rule, English had been taught in the few specialized secondary schools in Korea, but as the war effort increased and English was viewed as the language of the enemy, English teaching was discontinued. Post-WWII Korea found itself in a situation in which no English had been taught to anyone for nearly a decade and all the former English teachers (who were Japanese) had returned to Japan. At the same time, American military rule necessitated the influx of large numbers of military and civilian personnel. Many of these volunteered to teach English in Korea’s schools in their free time.

Soon, however, another conflict disrupted the fledgling English education attempts: the Korean War (1950–53). During this period, education was intermittent, if not completely discontinued, due to human resources being directed to the war effort and school facilities being destroyed. After the war, Korea lay in ruins. Before education could resume, the infrastructure needed to be rebuilt. International aid flowed in, much of it from the U.S. To support English education, hundreds of Koreans went to the U.S. for formal English education and teacher training. At the same time, USAID programs brought English teaching specialists to Korea to support English programs that were being started at the secondary and post-secondary school level.

One of these USAID specialists to Korea was Robert Maston, stationed in Seoul in the late 1950s and early 1960s to develop English teaching methods and materials. He was producing “pattern practice” charts, a key feature of the Audiolingual Method, in Korea even before the method gained popularity in the U.S. However, these new methods had little effect on English education in Korea (and soon fell out of favor even in the U.S.) with Korean teachers who had learned foreign language for years via the ubiquitous and long-lived Grammar-Translation Method. Teachers teach the way they were taught, as the saying goes.

But let’s be careful not to give these U.S. government initiatives and specialists like Maston more credit than they deserve. Mention needs to be made of the early western missionaries, predominately Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, and Roman Catholics, who came to Korea’s shores before the turn of the 20th century. In addition to churches and congregations, they established schools and hospitals. Today’s Yonsei University, for example, had its beginnings as a missionary hospital (1885) with a formal medical school opening in 1899. In the first third of the 20th century, mission schools began appearing outside of Seoul in population centers across the Peninsula. In their secondary schools, English was usually taught though their missionary teachers often had little training in EFL teaching techniques other than their native-speaker English skills. One missionary educator of note was the Reverend Dr. William Scott, who was using pattern practice-like techniques in Hamheung in the 1930s, long before Maston’s work in Seoul. After Japanese rule and the Korean War, missionary schools began to thrive again, and along with them, so did the teaching of English. While mentioning notable educators, Yonsei University, and the post-war period, we would be remiss not to note the American linguist (phonologist) Fred Lukoff, who was at Yonsei from 1957 to 1963 setting up a model English language program. Dr. Lukoff also developed numerous coursebooks for learning Korean.

It was also in the early 1960s that U.S. President Kennedy established the U.S. Peace Corps, and by 1966, there were groups of volunteers headed for Korea. The main programs that they were in were public health, and middle school and university English programs. Being a former Peace Corps/Korea volunteer myself, I may be a bit biased, but I think that it was the Peace Corps presence in Korea (1966–80) that drew the roadmap for today’s English programs in Korea. Peace Corps coordinated with the Korean government in placing volunteers in schools in cities and less populated areas throughout the country. Middle school teachers, especially, introduced co-teaching practices to their Korean counterparts. They also introduced the latest in teaching techniques: student-centered activities, such as pair-work, and language learning in fun ways, such as through song. But even more important than this, during summer and winter vacation periods, Peace Corps English teachers conducted in-service teacher-training programs approved by the Korean government. These training programs led to the creation of today’s city and provincial educational training institutes, and current EPIK programs in Korea in many ways mirror the Peace Corps’ English program blueprints of a generation earlier.

The 1980s were an explosive decade in Korea in more ways than one. Secondary and tertiary school enrollments ballooned; the number of colleges and universities skyrocketed; and hagwons were no longer banned, mushrooming throughout the country. These all had repercussions for English learning that are still being felt today.

The Author
David E. Shaffer is Vice-President of the Gwangju-Jeonnam Chapter of Korea TESOL (KOTESOL). On behalf of the Chapter, he invites you to participate in the teacher development workshops at their monthly meetings (always on a Saturday). For many years, Dr. Shaffer has been a professor of English Language at Chosun University, where he has taught graduate and undergraduate courses. He is a long-time member of KOTESOL and a holder of various KOTESOL positions, including First Vice-President and Publications Committee Chair. Dr. Shaffer credits KOTESOL for much of his professional development in English language teaching. He is also editor-in-chief of Gwangju News.

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