Web boom in English-obsessed Korea

Web boom in English-obsessed Korea

By Park Ju-min / Reuters
Wed Sep 17, 2008 3:04 PM ET


Armed with the world’s fastest Internet and an even stronger desire to learn English, South Koreans are using the latest Web resources to master a language that is the economic and emotional focus of their education.

On any given day, students ranging from kids learning their alphabet to adults preparing for job interviews sign in on their Internet messengers, fire up their webcams and wait for English teachers to appear — from faraway continents.

They hope one-on-one chats with foreigners will help them fix pronunciation, get rid of native accents and feel more comfortable with a foreign language. The country’s official teaching methods, based on grammar exercises and vocabulary lists, have consistently failed to deliver such benefits.

South
Korea’s average score in the Test of English as a Foreign Language
(TOEFL) is below the world average despite having the largest number of
students taking the test.

"It is really nice to look at my
English teacher through the computer screen and feel like having a chat
with a new friend outside the country," said Oh Sun-young, who takes a
Web-camera English course on Skype with her Philippine instructor.

Web
English is the latest hit in South Korea’s booming English education
market, enabled by handy gadgets and widespread fiber-optics networks.

The
new service, along with more traditional conversation courses offered
by phone, is one of the fastest growing segments in South Korea’s
private English education industry, which is estimated at 15 trillion
won ($13 billion) a year — almost half of the country’s annual
education budget.

About 150 to 200 companies are in the market offering phone and Web English tutoring.

"Students
who are very inexperienced with English may initially find the classes
challenging, but within three months, there is a tremendous improvement
in most of the students’ speaking ability," said Tara McKibben, a phone
English tutor who has been teaching over seven years from the United
States.

KT Corp, South Korea’s dominant fixed-line and broadband
operator, provides a service called "Hello ET" cooperating with a South
Korean English education company.

"We provide Web-cameras to our
videophone English customers so that they can log on the website and
have live chat with instructors," said Kang Joo-hyun, a "Hello ET"
spokeswoman.

One-on-one conversation in English is technically
close to real-live talk, held in Web phone service such as Skype. A
message board opens adjacent to the conversation browser, so that
participants can check the spelling of a word or start writing if they
struggle to understand each other.

Internet portal SK
Communications runs "Spicus" which includes a job interview drill on a
video-chat platform. Applicants hand out their completed English resume
before the drill. An interviewer stages a simulation interview through
webcam, looking through resumes, and later provides feedback on logical
speaking and communication skills.

"Interviewers are former
officials in human resources department of big U.S. (companies) such as
IBM," Ryu Hee-jo, a spokeswoman for SK Communications, said.

CHEAP AND CREDIBLE

Good
English test scores and speaking skills are considered an indispensable
key for success in South Korea. In their quest for fluent English, a
great deal of wealthy South Koreans simply flee their country’s school
system and its rigid teaching methods.

South Korea ranks No. 1 in
the number of international students in the United States, ahead of
more populous India and China, according to U.S. Student and Exchange
Visitor Information System.

However, for those who cannot afford
thousands of dollars a month in learning English abroad or spare time
for look for meeting arrangements, video chat at home fulfills their
aspiration at much cheaper prices. A three-times-a-week Web English
course can be covered for about 100,000 won a month.

($1=1151.0 Won)

(Editing by Rhee So-eui and Derek Caney)

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