If you really want to see where a lot of Korea’s disposable income goes just take a walk through a bookstore specializing in the sale of English language books, tapes, CD’s and other English-related materials.
It’s no wonder, given most people’s penchant for wanting to speak English better or for their children to learn English at an early age that the business of English in Korea is big business—15 trillion Won (around $15 billion dollars), by one industry estimate, a year. Although that figure is for private education, no doubt a good chunk of that is spent in bookstores on English books and other materials.
The other day, I needed to pick up a book for one of my classes and I went to what is perhaps the only decent English bookstore, English Plus in Daejeon. It’s a bit of journey—a twenty-minute walk to the subway station from where I live, followed by a thirty-minute subway ride (give or take a five or ten-minute wait for the subway to arrive at the station, and then finally, another fifteen-minute walk from the subway station to the bookstore. Like I said, it’s the only decent bookstore in Daejeon and worth every minute of the journey.
There is a similar one in Seoul that I used to frequent a lot so I kind of knew what to expect—in terms of the books and other English resources available. It’s been awhile since I’ve gone to a proper English bookstore and even longer since I bought any English books for my classes, so I was really looking forward to this bookstore visit.
I guess it had been awhile since I’ve been to a bookstore because as soon as I walked in I was surprised at the number of children’s language books as well as TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) and TOEIC (Test of English for Inter-national Communication) test preparation books in English and Korean. I swear more than three-fourths of the bookstore stock were these books and resources. Kid’s English books aside, in recent years TOEFL, TOEIC as well as IELTS (International English Language Testing) courses and test prep books have become the “magic bullet” as it were for testing, gauging, and assessing one’s language skills. In some instances, these tests have replaced language courses for learners just wanting to have their language ability assessed for studying overseas, admission to universities (of course, the TOEFL is required for gaining admission to US colleges and universi-ties), job placement and job advancement.
There are even Junior TOEFL and Junior TOEIC books for middle school and high school students. Get the kids hooked on TOEFL and TOEIC when they’re young I guess.
Is there a method to all this English madness? Well, for someone who has been teaching English in Korea since 1990, I would say that “individually” many people are speaking English better but across the board English proficiency, in terms of most people’s expectations is still low. In a Korea Times article last year, “Koreans re-corded an average score of 77 points in TOEFL last year, but it was lower than the world’s average of 78 points out of the full mark of 120 on the Internet-based test (iBT); their speaking and writing abilities remained relatively weak, according to offi-cials of Educational Testing Service (ETS), the organizer of the test.” Obviously that 15 trillion won is not well spent if many people are still scoring low on tests.
After I found the book I was looking for, I took some time to look at some of these English books for children as well as the TOEFL and TOEIC books. Some of the kid’s books looked quite good and I wouldn’t be surprised if most of the kids who use them will be able to speak English more fluently or upgrade the language skills that they already possess. Of course, it still takes a teacher to know how to use such a book and how, with their own teacher training to make the book work for their students.
As for the TOEFL and TOEIC books, I couldn’t tell which were better or which were not. They all looked about the same and if these books were used in a course, it would again take a teacher who knows how to make such a book work to teach the skills necessary to obtain such and such a score. I suppose if one was looking for a book for self-study the one that has “mastering” this skill or that skill in the title is the one that most would choose. That would probably be the one I’d choose.
It’s no wonder that so much money is spent on private English education when you take a stroll through a bookstore and see the books and resources that are available—all with the promise of better language skills and test scores. Navigating through this vast sea of English books can be treacherous with so many titles, approaches, and promises and one can only hope that the books that are bought and studied will pay off dividends in the end.