South Korea’s government wants kids to spend less time and money learning English

An expat preserve is threatened
An expat preserve is threatened
Image: Reuters/Jo Yong-Hak
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English tutoring jobs in South Korea, long the preserve of expatriates, may soon become scarce. The country’s education ministry has announced it plans to make the English portion of the national college entrance exam easier, hoping to reduce the exorbitant amount of money and time students spend on private lessons—and to address concerns that tests don’t encourage practical use of English, instead pushing rote memorization of grammar patterns.

South Koreans spent more than 18 trillion won ($18 billion) on private education, a third of that on English alone. On average, a student spends 20,000 hours learning English from primary school through college. Reports have chronicled the extremes some parents will go to have their kids learn the language—in some cases making them watch English TV programs for up to five hours a day. Private English-language tutoring is a lucrative way for expat teachers to take on side jobs at cram schools, or as personal tutors for individual students who want extra help.

Students—and parents—believe that English skills will help them get into one of Korea’s top universities, and give them a foot in the door to a job at a prestigious conglomerate like Samsung or Hyundai.

Some Koreans are skeptical as to whether the new reforms will lower the cost on private education, and worry they may hurt students’ English abilities. During a mock trial of the new exam last June, the number of students who scored perfect English scores increased, leaving experts concerned that the tests weren’t challenging enough. Others argued that any time and money saved from learning English would simply be channeled to other academic subjects.