I’d like to tell you about one student of mine, just #onestudent. She is a 22 year old first semester student in the Graduate School of International Studies at the university I am currently employed at in the modern capital of South Korea, Seoul.
The student, Yeajin, told me she is enjoying most of her classes and her life in graduate school. She said some classes are challenging but the workload is manageable. She is not really sure what she wants to do when she finishes grad school but is thinking about working in an NGO or government agency. From my observations she is a very polite and sweet young woman. She seems hardworking and curious. My impression is that she is bright and thoughtful. She is not extremely outgoing or outspoken but will freely share her thoughts when asked. She is a pleasure to teach. I might be kidding myself but it seems to me that she looks more and more comfortable speaking at length in English every week I see her.
I am not about to take any of the credit for this, though. She is working hard and she has so much English around her and she uses English every day in her life and in other courses. She is taking courses like Global Economics and East Asian Security in English. In her coursework she has classmates from all over the world. She is enrolled in my course called International Discussion, which is a spoken fluency focused course talking about issues of concern to students like Yeajin and her classmates. As above, I think she is making great progress each week. I also think she started out in a good place for these improvements.
I am not an expert on such things but in terms of speaking I think she’d be in the 6.5-7.5 range on IELTS. I am pretty sure her TOEIC score will be above 900 soon if it is not already. I guess she’d have to be nearing in on C1. I think her TOEFL score is just on the verge of being high enough for her to able to study in US university without restrictions. I don’t mean to imply that these mean much of anything (or convey much of anything for that matter) but just want to give you, dear reader, an idea of this student’s level. She can handle complicated discussions and makes her points clearly. Her pace when speaking is not so fast but she is very good when she gets going. It does not require “undue effort” from a listener to follow what she is saying. Mistakes are minor and outright errors are rare. In short, it is easy to understand what she is saying. She is a strong user of English.
I am not sure if anything I have said here sounds very much out of the ordinary or is very exciting. Maybe her English abilities sound right in line with expectations for a student in an English medium graduate program. You might even be wondering why I told you all this, and I am not 100% sure either.
I guess this is where I should mention that Yeajin has never left Korea and is from the most sparsely populated and rural province.
I would say she is higher than her average peer in the grad school in terms of communicative competence even though she is in her first semester. In the first few weeks I found myself wondering exactly why she was so strong at English. So, I asked her. I might have said something like, “Sorry for this strange and direct question but why are you so good at English?” She seemed a bit surprised but calmly answered that she has always liked English and that she reads in English a fair amount (outside and previously to grad school work) and watches lots of TV and movies from the US. She also said some of her high school classes (like science and history) were in English as her school was designated as an international/foreign language school (this not the type with mostly international students, as more than 85% of her high school classmates were Korean). Accordingly, she had more hours of English than the average high school student. Now, she has lots of non-Korean classmates and has weekly private lessons focused on TOEFL with a native (please note the lack of scare quotes here) English speaking teacher.
Another reason I shared this is because I am sick of people talking about how there is such a massive dearth of English in Korea apart from the occasional English class. I am, of course willing to admit that Yeajin is not a typical student but I am not sure if the experts realize that students like her exist. Please kindly note the lack of scare quotes on the word experts. This is the result of a long and contentious internal monologue.
Where were we? Oh yes, EFL. Korea is an EFL situation. It seems to me so many people harp on about Korea being an EFL country or an outer circle situation they fail to see the whole nuanced picture. There is English out there. Just as an example, the young lady next to me in this coffee shop in Itaewon as I write this has just read more than half of a graded reader in the time it took me to aggressively but gently tap out these words. In past
rants posts I have expressed my confusion about terms like ESL and EFL and have also offered up some newer categories that might be more accurate and telling. What is my point? Maybe something about relying on labels like EFL too much. Yeah, that and not assuming students need to go abroad to improve their English or to have access to English.