"Next!" barked Joanne Richardson, a bureaucratic-looking Canadian sitting behind a desk in a bustling hall marked "Immigrations." She beckoned to a timid looking 15-year old girl wearing a Mickey Mouse shirt.
"Good morning, what is your name?" Richardson, 27, asked using clear, enunciated English.
The South Korean girl beamed, suddenly excited at the sound of a language she has come to love through Britney Spears songs and Disney movies. "Hello, my name is Hu Jung Hee," she blurted out in brave but labored diction, "and I want to be a movie star! I know first I have to learn good English."
"Then you came to the right place," said Richardson, one of 40 native English teachers from six countries at this novel, government-funded language complex on a small island 40 miles southwest of Seoul. "Welcome to English Village. Enjoy your stay."
For South Korean students, that stay is five to 30 nights inside this three-month-old immersion compound, where young guests check into a hotel, shop, bank, order food, take cooking lessons, acting classes and even make short documentary films -- all in English.
First developed by officials in Kyonggi, a prosperous province of 10 million south of Seoul, five more English villages are sprouting up across South Korea, including an $85 million mini-town currently under construction 32 miles north of Ansan, which will boast a main street with Western-style store fronts and a small live-in population of native English speakers.
As tougher immigration laws make it increasingly harder for foreign students to learn English in the United States, immersion villages, according to experts, have promise beyond South Korea. The Japanese, for instance, have visited this English village and may implement the idea.
In South Korea, which is on the peninsula that, for centuries, was known as the "hermit kingdom," the language villages mark a quest for a competitive edge in a nation that is one the most technologically advanced in the world.
Educational experts say South Korea has been embracing English training with aggressiveness and creativity. South Korea ranked first last year in the number of students taking the standardized Test of English as a Foreign Language. More than 86,000 South Korean students took the exam last year, eight times the number in France and almost three times the number in China.
The push to learn English is coming from public and private sectors. Last week, for instance, developers broke ground on an eight-year, $15 billion international economic free zone near the port of Incheon. Developers hope the zone will house a bevy of foreign and domestic technology and finance companies. Envisioned as a sort of mini-Hong Kong with its own tax and legal codes, the development is projected to lure a white-collar workforce of 70,000 residents, virtually all of whom will speak at least two languages.
South Korea's top companies, Samsung and LG.Philips, have begun conducting job interviews partly in English. Philips is gradually moving toward an English-only corporate e-mail policy, company officials said.
The number of elementary school children sent to study English abroad has increased more than 10-fold over the past five years, according to government statistics. South Korean housewives in their thirties and forties are registering in record numbers to learn English in adult education programs, mostly to teach their children proper English at home, officials said.
"English is the universal language, and with limited Korean speakers outside Korea, being bilingual is clearly a top priority," said Lee Eui Kap, a research fellow at the Korea Institute of Curriculum and Evaluation.
South Korea already stands out as a rare example of how a drive toward literacy can transform a nation. A generation ago, South Korea was an Asian backwater, an underdeveloped country with a 1953 GDP per capita of $67 after the brutal occupation by the Japanese and the aftermath of the Korean War. But a campaign to build schools and improve teaching standards coupled with a deeply ingrained culture that prizes education fueled South Korea's industrial revolution. It is the world's 13th largest economy, with a $12,499 per capita GDP and a 98 percent literacy rate. Its workers are among the most highly skilled in the world, churning out high-tech cell phones, LCD flat-screen TVs and popular vehicles.
But critics have charged that the emphasis on education in South Korea has gone too far, with many parents pushing their children to attend extra hours of night school that last until 9 or 10 p.m. every weeknight. To escape the pressure, some South Korean families have begun moving abroad -- to Canada, the United States and Europe in search of less competitive educational systems.
That competition is evident in South Korea's quest for English language proficiency. Yet the English Village concept was developed this year in part as an antidote to the highly structured, school-based English programs. The Kyonggi governor, Hak Kyu Sohn, who perfected his English while earning a doctorate from Oxford, championed the concept as a way to bring English alive outside the classroom -- particularly for students who cannot afford to study abroad.
"Our schools have been stressing memorization and grammar, so we have students who still emerge from years of English schooling as university graduates who still cannot say 'hello' " Hak said. "We need to be more creative, change the educational environment and give these kids a chance to experience English -- and hopefully in the future, Chinese and Japanese -- in an environment where they can actually interact and talk."
Inside English Village, about 200 students arrive each week from local middle schools, checking their Korean language at the door. They receive pretend passports, pass through an imitation immigration procedure and head to a bank to receive local currency, which looks like fake dollar bills.
But in South Korea, where anti-American sentiments have been on the rise in recent years, English Village goes out of its way to avoid connections with U.S. symbols, stressing English as a "global language" separated from the politics of one nation. For that reason, the school tried hard to recruit native English speakers from diverse places such as Canada and Wales, as well as teachers proficient in English from as far away as Poland.
Creative language use is encouraged. When buying books for their classes, for instance, students with enough language capability can even bargain for a discount. "Five dollars?" asked Hee Sung Park, 15, when buying a drama book. "Oh, that's too expensive! Can I have a discount?"
"Good word use," said Simone Daley, a Canadian-Jamaican drama teacher. She smiled. "Okay, you can have it for $4."
Special correspondent Joohee Cho contributed to this report.