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Native speakers out of fashion

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Matt Salusbury explains how plummeting school enrolments and negative perceptions have made native speakers rarer in Korean schools

Native-speaker English teachers are becoming rarer in South Korea’s state-school classrooms. This decline seems to be driven primarily by plummeting school enrolments and the accompanying financial squeeze. But concerns over the ‘lower than expected efficiency’ of native-speakers teaching on public-sector English courses is also a factor.

English teachers’ association Kotesol reports that Korea has ‘among the lowest birth rates in the world’, with ‘schools closing’ and hiring of teachers ‘being reduced … at all education levels’ (see the October 2016 Gazette’s Asia supplement, page ii). Less funding for public schools nationally means ‘municipal and provincial offices of education no longer have enough money to recruit foreign teachers’, as Kim Joeng-keun, the Ministry of Education’s deputy director for teacher recruitment, told the Korea Times.

Within Korea’s public-school sector, the number of native-speaker English teachers has dropped almost 42 per cent since 2011, according to data cited by the Times. In the capital, the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education’s native speaker workforce is down 43 per cent on five years ago, while Gyeonggi Province (the area surrounding Seoul) has 63 per cent fewer native speakers in its schools than it did five years ago. Incheon – the port and airport for Seoul – has shed 71 per cent of its native-speaker teachers in the same period. As of early October 2016 there were just under 5,000 native English teachers working in the nation’s public schools, down from just over 8,500 in 2012.

According to Kotesol, the total number of English teachers across sectors – private language schools and universities, as well as public schools – is falling, with fewer than 15,000 E2 work visas issued nationwide for foreign English teachers from the ‘big seven’ English-speaking countries in 2015, down from 30,000 in 2008.

Back in 2008 then President Lee Myung-bak’s administration recruited native-speaker English teachers as national policy, while Seoul Metropolitan pledged in 2009 that all their schools would have at least one native-speaker English teacher.

Developments since then have rendered native-speaker teachers less necessary in Korea. Travel to English-speaking countries has become easier, and most parents are prepared to pay to send their children to after-school English clubs and hogwans (cram schools) to interact with native speakers (often in more informal settings) to supplement the more formal school English classes they receive from relatively bilingual Korean teachers of English.

But another consideration is a perception that widespread use of native speakers hasn’t been that effective. In the words of Kim Joeng-keun, the man from the ministry, putting ‘teachers with the right talent in the right position is more efficient than merely increasing the number of foreign teachers’.

An influential 2012 Seoul Metropolitan survey of well over 20,000 students and 12,000 parents showed that over half of students and 62 per cent of parent preferred ‘Korean teachers with high English-speaking skills’ over native-speaker English teachers. Lower-level students in particular found it hard to communicate with native speakers, which affected student motivation and confidence. An unnamed North Chungcheong Province Office official told Korea Times his province had drastically cut native-speaker English teacher numbers too, due to the ‘increasing availability of well-educated English-speaking Korean teachers’.

Some of the native-speaker English teachers seem to be moving into the hogwan sector. Robert Dickey, past president of Kotesol, came up with an estimate for the Gazette of the number of hogwans and private language schools teaching English who would consider hiring an expatriate at somewhere between 4,000 and 6,000 nationally, with most of these having a teaching staff of five or fewer. (This estimate’s based on the latest – 2014 – ministry figures.) There are also more opportunities for native speakers in the university sector, and Dickey estimates some 300 tertiary sector schools employ at least one expatriate teacher.

Pic courtesy: Watchsmart