Note: Before continuing to read this response, I urge you to read the article on which it is based.

TOEIC Cartoon by Daniel Fraser Sourced from Munwha Experience My Response:

While I agree with the thrust of the article, that Korea’s corporate community places too much emphasis on English ability, more particularly English-language test results as a precursor to employment or promotion, I fear some of the arguments used are somewhat misleading.

Yes, current Park government policies may be detrimental to the future of English-language learning and instruction in South Korea, however, the article wrongly implies the government is this year responsible for cutting 2,500 native-speaker English teaching positions. While this number is intrinsically correct, the figure actually reflects the drop in such teachers from 2011 to April 2014. I am not defending the Park government or its policies but President Park did not officially come into until February 25, 2013, just over a month after her 2012 election victory.

Another misleading aspect is the notion that “universities have put very stringent requirements on native teachers’ employment, demanding either a Ph.D. or a Masters’ degree and several years’ experience.”

Again, this is technically true but such stringency begs the question, “Why?”

There are numerous factors at play for such requirements but one possible (probably the most crucial) factor rests within the ESL sector itself.

The teaching of English as a second or foreign language is an industry, an industry promoting not simply English-language instruction but a need (real or otherwise) for higher qualifications.

Such promotion involves education providers being led to believe (rightly or wrongly) higher qualified instructors translates to better taught students. This forces aspiring instructors into paying for qualifications that were once unnecessary (and are perhaps, even now, unnecessary). Enter ‘qualification creep’.

This enables the industry to churn out more and more publications for selling to students, instructors and institutions. Complicit in this are instructors, themselves; especially those within the universities or in higher positions within major, corporatized language schools.

clip_image002[5]Long-time critic of the ESL business, the late Amorey Gethinm believed academics profit from the training courses they effectively impose on would-be teachers of English as a foreign language. These courses, needless to say, are very expensive. But without them it is virtually impossible to get an anywhere near decent job in the global industry.”

He also believed, “There is a tacit alliance between three powerful vested interests which have nothing to gain from talking about these things, and much to lose.

“They are,” he wrote, “the teaching institutions (universities and colleges as well as private language schools and institutions like the British Council); the publishers who largely through the teaching institutions have a vast market for their textbooks; and academics who write many of the books for that same market and are paid well to keep persuading people their researches and publications are necessary to the health of English-teaching throughout the world.”

From this perspective, that higher degrees and such qualifications as TESOL TEFL, CELTA or DELTA certificates or diplomas are becoming an almost mandatory rather than an arbitrary requirement by prospective employers , may be viewed as the result of effective marketing campaigns by publishing houses and corporate providers of English language tuition.

An aside to this in Korea is that many of the domestic, but no less corporatized, providers (read language-school Chains) have an almost universal insistence that their editors and proof readers are themselves equally qualified or certified, often expecting to hold a Masters in English Literature or some other similar field. While such qualifications may be beneficial, they do little to enhance the practicalities of the language being extolled in the texts they edit.

While I agree with the article’s thrust that corporate Korea places too much emphasis on English ability, particularly test results as a precursor to employment or promotion I do not necessarily agree with the view that “[p]erhaps the government should have banned employers from demanding high test scores first, before making access to English education more difficult.”

ESL TextbooksIn its 2013 publication, The English Effect the British Council points out that, “English as the common language aids dialogue, understanding, trust and the brokering of business deals. Emerging economies and developing countries increasingly recognise the economic value of producing large numbers of skilled graduates able to communicate in English.” And while it refers largely to the UK but could quite easily relate to the Korean business word, one outcome of a 2012 international trade business undertaken by the British Chambers of Commerce indicates one obstacle to export growth, according to the more than 8000 respondents, is a language deficit within their organizations. The survey found that up to 96 per cent of respondents had no foreign language ability for the markets they served.

Test results are clearly not the ideal measure of an applicant’s or promotion candidate’s English abilities across all areas of usage. Nevertheless, given the manner in which the Korean education system focusses on tests over practical application of a subject it is not surprising that Korean firms place such an emphasis on an applicant’s TOEIC or some other test results.

Rather than perhaps banning employers “from demanding high test scores” perhaps the government might look toward going the route taken by Hiroshi Mikitani, the CEO of Rakuten, Japan’s largest online marketplace, who mandated in March 2010 that English would be the company’s official language of business. Having just opened an online portal in the UK the company is ranked number 17 on the Forbes’ list of the world’s most innovative companies.

Interestingly, however, is a reliance on standardized testing for employees seeking promotion. However, scores indicate the hard work is paying off with the average score on the Test of English for International Communication by improving 32% from October 2010 to June 2102. Yet according to The Washington Post results are hard to assess

Nonetheless, according to the Harvard Business Review, Mikitani was so serious about the language change that he “announced the plan to employees not in Japanese but in English. Overnight, the Japanese language cafeteria menus were replaced, as were elevator directories. And he stated that employees would have to demonstrate competence on an international English scoring system within two years, or risk demotion or even dismissal.”

However, the policy doesn’t entirely outlaw Japanese within the company and nobody has been demoted for falling short of English benchmarks.

By April 2012, according to the Wall Street Journal, Rakuten said 79% of documents, meetings and internal communications are conducted in English, an increase from 65% a year earlier, and that from July its employees will be required to use English in all internal presentations, documents and memos.

The WSJ also says that even though there was resistance by some, leading to resignations, the company decided to provide free English classes, offered time to study, and made clear that learning English was a part of their job.

Radical? Certainly, but as can be seen in this video it is working. It even allows them to employ non-Japanese English speakers.

This journalist and writer is available for hire.