English in Korea


I was in Seoul last weekend for the 2nd Extensive Reading World Congress (video of our workshop coming soon).

Seoul is a great city, and I get the feeling I would become very fond of it if I lived there and got to know it well.

This time though, I was very surprised at the general lack of English. My impression of Korea is that it is a country that is really emphasizing practical English skills. I have visited a couple of leading universities in Seoul in the past and was very impressed with their curricula.

However, walking around the city, I found that very few people seem to speak English outside of hotels and the airport. Everyone was very friendly and I didn’t have any problems that couldn’t be solved with a smile, some sign language, and a ‘kam sa ham ni da’, but the lack of English proficiency surprised me.

Does anyone have more extensive experience of Korea? Is my impression accurate?

accurate. Though I think overall, the number of people with “high beginner” skills is greater than Japan (talking percentage of society), those skills are spread across the country rather than just in the biggest cities (my impression of Japan is the latter). Much focus on conversational English in elementary schools, more in middle schools than in the past, and most colleges and universities require a year of conversation classes. TOEIC is a mania here (using the Korean usage of mania), and average score here is higher than Japan. Unlike 10 years ago, most students are scoring 50-100 point higher on Listening Comprehension (L/C) component than Reading. Average R/C scores have declined slightly over the decade, L/C scores climbed over 50 points, if I recall correctly. Still, most students and former students are terrified of speaking in English outside the classroom, even when they understand.

Hi Robert
That might be it. Even the people who did speak English were excessively modest about it 🙂

forgot to mention. I’ve lived in Korea for 19+ years.

It’s been eleven years now, but when I took a week-long camping trip in Korea I didn’t notice a significant difference between the average English level there and that here in Japan. Interestingly, there were several times Japanese helped me communicate better than English did.

Hey Ryan
Yes, I found many people spoke Japanese instead of English… guess it might be more useful there!

I waited till I visited Korea last weekend to talk about this. I visited Busan to see a friend who moved there from Japan. I will say that the people that I spoke to had much higher English levels than anyone I have ever met in my four years in Japan.

I will admit I was with mostly younger people but their English was excellent.

Hi Andrew
Thanks for the comment. That is illuminating. Could you elaborate on their social/educational background?


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