English Is The Golden Tongue for S. Koreans

Some South Korean students spend their summers away from home in academically intensive private academies called hakwons.
Some South Korean students spend their summers away from home in academically intensive private academies called hakwons. (By Curie Kim For The Washington Post)
By Joohee Cho
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, July 2, 2007

SEOUL -- Just a week into his summer vacation, 15-year-old Min-Kyu Kim already has a tight schedule and ambitious goals: On this particular day, he intends to memorize 600 words of English vocabulary, solve 10 pages of SSAT math problems and take practice tests for English. He estimates the tests alone will take about five hours.

"I do what I have to do," he says, seated at his desk in a small room in Seoul. Nearby his mother prepares watermelon for an afternoon snack.

Min-Kyu has just finished 8th grade at Hillside School, a boarding school for boys in Marlborough, Mass. He says he is happy to be back for the summer in his home country, South Korea. But he is not quite back at home, which is a 90-minute drive south from Seoul in Cheonan City.

His temporary housing for the summer is a tiny studio in a Seoul neighborhood known for hakwons, private academies that teach prep courses for overseas exams including the SSAT, SAT, TOEFL, GRE and GMAT. Known for a Spartan style of education, the hakwons enforce study-till-you-drop policies, fine students for wrong answers and, in some cases, spank them.

"We don't have good prep schools in Cheonan," said his mother, Eun-Joo Kim. "I feel bad making him study like this during his vacation, but what can I do? It's for his future and he really needs to improve his SSAT scores."

Nothing gets you ahead in today's South Korea like mastery of English. So in recent years, rising affluence and an enduring Confucian love of learning have combined to create what analysts call an "education exodus." Last year, 24,000 South Koreans in the first to 12th grade left the country to study, more than triple the number who did so in 2001, analysts estimate.

Families who can't afford foreign travel have plenty to choose from at home: English-language summer camps, English-speaking babysitters, salons where pregnant mothers go in hopes that unborn children will absorb the English being spoken. And old-fashioned tutoring remains popular: According to the Samsung Economic Research Institute, Koreans spent $15.6 billion on English-language tutors last year.

With two teenage sons at private schools in the United States, Eun-Joo Kim has been spending about $210,000 a year for tuition, guardian fees, tutoring, air tickets and hotels. "If you compare it to money you'd be spending on hakwons while enrolled in schools in Korea, that's nothing," she said, calculating with her fingers.

"My friends raising their kids here sometimes spend even more on private tutoring after school. But their kids' English pronunciation is not native like my son's, of course," she said.

Banks are setting up study-abroad centers that offer such services as money transfer, investment consulting and school selection. Shinhan Bank, the nation's second-largest, more than doubled its centers to 160 in April. With restrictions on the purchase of property abroad lifted in recent years, more parents here are buying residences near their children's schools in foreign countries.

Airlines also are doing well by the trend. Flights from Los Angeles and New York to Seoul are booked solid well in advance, even with additional flights during heavy student travel periods.

"It's a war. If I can't get my kid on the flight on the days designated by his school, he's got no place to stay," said Kim Yang Ho, father of a fifth-grade boy attending a boarding school in Connecticut. "So I have to pull some strings or else put him on first class."

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