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Korean English -

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Korean English

Broadcast: 29/03/2005

Reporter: Mark Simkin


SIMKIN: These South Korean school children are about to be taught a remarkable lesson. They're
being bussed to a village on the outskirts of Seoul where their native tongue is banned.

ENGLISH TEACHER AT VILLAGE: You have to remember one thing this week. It's English, English,
English OK?

SIMKIN: At the English Village you don't just learn the language, you live it. The village sees
itself as a passport to international citizenship. First stop is immigration. The object here, one
teacher tells me, is to make the children feel welcome, then scare the hell out of them.

ENGLISH TEACHER AT VILLAGE: What do you want to do in English Village? You're not sure. What is
your major, are you going to cause trouble while you're here? No answer hey? Well let's have you
stay and we'll see. Welcome to English Village.

SIMKIN: In this age of globalisation, international boundaries are being blurred. Partly because of
that, partly the cause of that, English is becoming the global language. Here in education obsessed
South Korea, the pressure to learn it is intense and the things some parents are doing to their
children, simply extraordinary.

The English Village is a cross between a theme park and a boot camp. They visit a mock bank
withdrawing the local currency which is used to pay for textbooks, food and entertainment but
what's given can be taken away. Anyone who utters a word of Korean is fined.

dollars. Oh look! I'm going to dinner tonight! Obey the rules. Do not make trouble.

SIMKIN: They spend between a week and a month here living in. The classes never really finish.
Every minute is spent learning, practising, perfecting the new language.

ENGLISH TEACHER AT VILLAGE: Not Korean. Not Conglish. English.

KOREAN FEMALE STUDENT : Regardless of what I want to become in the future, my parents always say
that I have to know English in order to be successful in any field. They say English is essential.

SIMKIN: For Koreans who find English a mouthful, there are more drastic options than the English
Village. Jin Sung Min is an oral surgeon.

DOCTOR JIN SUNG MIN: There is a thing called the frenulum under the tongue and when that is
attached to the tip of the tongue, it makes the tongue short, hinders movement of the tongue and
causes bad pronunciation.

SIMKIN: A supposedly simply operation makes the tongue longer, more flexible - better able to
handle tricky "l" and "r" sounds.

DOCTOR JIN SUNG MIN: So we cut this band and release the tongue and then the tongue can move

SIMKIN: And that's called "tongue tied"?

DOCTOR JIN SUNG MIN: Yeah right so we call it tongue-tied - just release this one. Like this we cut
this band and release the tongue and stitch this one.

SIMKIN: Doctor Jin insists he only operates on children who have a real medical condition but other
doctors have no such scruples, promoting the surgery as a short cut to better English

The practice is widespread enough to have prompted Korea's Human Rights watchdog to make a movie
warning of the dangers.

"Tongue-tied" begins with a mother and father embarrassed by their son's pronunciation.

KOREAN DOCTOR IN MOVIE : If you help me out I'll make you a cool boy, okay?

KOREAN WOMAN ASSISTING IN MOVIE : Do you want to be cool or uncool?

KOREAN DOCTOR IN MOVIE : Answer her. Do you want to be cool? Then help me out!

SIMKIN: What follows is horrific and according to Doctor Jin, fairly accurate. The film uses
footage from a real operation. Tongue surgery is so sensitive no one associated with the movie, not
even the Human Rights Commission will discuss it with the foreign media.

NOH KYUNG-SUN [CHILD PSYCHOLOGIST]: It's pure, just simple ignorance, yeah. A lot of Korean kids, a
lot of Japanese kids born in the States, United States are growing up there with, not have any
problem with English pronunciation. It has nothing to do with the tongue.

SIMKIN: Learning English is a national obsession. The focus ferocious, the competition cut throat.
The pressure begins before birth. Parents play English nursery rhymes to children in the womb. One
year olds have private tutors, four and five year olds are sent to English only kindergartens that
cost one thousand dollars a month.

KOREAN WOMAN : By the time my children are adults, I think English will no longer be a language
used by a limited number of people in specialist professions but will be used by everyone.

SIMKIN: This school is one of the good ones but for the most part South Korea's vast English
industry is unregulated and seemingly unstoppable. Wherever there's high-density housing, there's
high-intensity education. It's four o'clock. School's out, but the children are not heading home.
The vans are taking them to Hagwons, private cram schools.

English has been a compulsory subject in primary schools for a decade but the competition is so
fierce, few parents are satisfied.

There are tens of thousands of Hagwons teaching maths, science and English. According to some
estimates, 90% of all school students get private tutoring. The amount of money spent exceeds the
government's entire education budget.

YOUNG KOREAN BOY: I'm not sure why I like learning English but it's fun. It's good to speak

SIMKIN: By senior school though the fun has worn off. Many students go to a Hagwon before school,
another after it and another after that getting home around midnight.

DOCTOR LEE: Education has become a social disease. Education is not a normal situation, is become a
kind of private education industry, education is marketing. That is not good.

SIMKIN: Doctor Lee knows what he's talking about. He's in charge of the University entrance exam
and has real concerns about the system he's administering.

DOCTOR LEE: My term is Korean education is education abuse and education ignorance. When Korean
child is born, they cry I have to go to the Seoul National University. That is the one tendency, in
other words, parents are too much pressure to their children, make them go into the first priority
universities. They're preparing from the kindergarten to up to high school.

SIMKIN: Twelve years of schooling is assessed by a single eight hour test. Entire lives rest on the
results. In Korea your university has a huge impact on career, status, even marriage prospects.
It's the day the pressure cooker education system reaches boiling point. The nation's temples and
shrines are packed with praying parents.

KOREAN WOMAN: It's fair to say that the entire social structure of our children's generation
revolves around the name of your university.

SIMKIN: From five in the morning, younger students gather outside the school gates offering
encouragement. It's not just the students' lives that revolve around this day, the entire nation
holds it breath. Aeroplanes are grounded to minimise noise, many employees start work late trying
to ensure exam takers don't get caught in traffic. For those who are running late, emergency
vehicles are on stand by. The weight of a nation's expectations is a heavy burden. Every year
several students commit suicide after the exam.

KOREAN FEMALE STUDENT: After six years of preparation, it could feel futile walking out of an exam
when your life is determined in an instant. If you don't get the result you expect you could feel
the world was crashing down on you because society has different expectations of you.

SIMKIN: Every year thousands of children try to escape the pressure cooker by heading overseas.
It's the great Korean brain drain and annual exit is so huge it's known as the "wild goose"

YOUNG KOREAN GIRL : I want to make a lot of Canadian friends, learn English and learn about
Canadian civilisation. I'm happy about it but also a bit worried.

SIMKIN: Most of the children go to countries such as Canada, Australia and America where they can
learn English. The mothers go too, leaving the fathers at home to pay the bills.

KOREAN FATHER: I'll be a bit lonesome and will need to adjust but since this is necessary for the
sake of our family, for the sake of our kids, I think I'll be able to endure it.

SIMKIN: The number of Koreans studying abroad has increased ten fold in just six years. The
financial burden is huge. Each year the country spends more than two billion dollars on overseas
education. The emotional price is harder to calculate. This wild goose father has been separated
from his family for seven years.

KOREAN FATHER: A few days ago I got a birthday card, you know my family wrote on it for me and my
second kid wrote, you know I love you. It's the first time really they've said I love you. I'm
waiting for you, you know.

SIMKIN: Is all the money and pressure making a difference? I visited the set of one of Korea's most
popular TV shows to see if the countries English ability is improving. There are more than one
hundred programmes like this on Korean television. Apparently things are getting better but
proficiency is still poor. Surveys suggest Korea's English ability is among the worst in Asia.

HOST OF TV SHOW: We've got to have this English communication skills because... OK, for example Japan
has technology, China has population and resources, comparatively speaking we have little of
anything so one thing we can have is communication skills right?

SIMKIN: In a generation, South Korea has transformed itself from backwater to world beater. Per
capita GDP has increased two hundred fold in just half a century. The investment in education has
paid rich dividends but at what price? The hermit kingdom is so eager to reach out and embrace the
world, it's losing its sense of balance.