In Korean society where rote learning is essential for academic achievement, people tend to think of English as a tool for getting test scores instead of a language for communication. In fact, many people invest their time and efforts in studying English, but they often don’t even have the simple communication skills needed when they go abroad. Therefore, Professor Lee would like to share some practical methods for gaining English skills. Also, whereas learning English was limited to students a few years ago, recently, there are more adult English institutes and programs than before as the number of elderly people learning English is increasing. Hopefully, those who hesitate or have already given up learning English because they think it is too late to start will gain hope through this interview with Professor Lee.
1. You received a 9th level grade in English on the CSAT proficiency test and now, you are a professor at a foreign university. Why and how did you start studying English?
As a student, I was so bad at English that I just marked the answer at random in English tests. In fact, I failed to enter a four-year university at first and barely managed to transfer to one after entering a two-year college. Then, I completed my master’s and doctorate courses at Gachon graduate school of business. Since Ph.D. degree holders are not required to submit English test scores when getting employed, I could easily get a job in a large company in Korea. However, problems started to arise afterward. I was always ashamed that I couldn’t speak English. Everyone thought that I was good at English because I had Ph.D and was working at a good company, but in my mind, I became more and more concerned about pretending to be good at English. Finally, I decided to study abroad and entered a law school in Australia to become an international lawyer. This is how I started studying English.
2. Do you think there is a problem in English education in Korea?
There is definitely a big problem with the way English is taught in Korea. One of the books I have published so far is called 'English is a dog sound.' If dog sounds should be expressed in Korean, many people would describe it as "Meong-meong” or “Woff-woff”. However, the actual sound of dogs cannot be written in Korean words. You have to leave your language behind when making a real dog sound. It would be the same in English. To speak English properly, you must accept everything in English, including sentence structure and pronunciation, but the English taught in Korea is always based on the Korean language. For example, what English words mean in Korean is explained to students, and students learn to pronounce the alphabet "M" sound with the Korean letter ‘ㅁ’. I think this is the biggest problem of English education in Korea.
3. Do you think authorized English exams such as TOEIC or TOEFL can help improve English skills?
Not at all. Today’s society tends to judge English skills only with official English grades. Therefore, according to society’s demands, students are obsessed with only test scores. If you are really interested in learning English, it is important to find practical English studying contents that suit you instead of focusing on test scores.
4. What is the best way to study English as university students?
It is not good to trust all the English study materials on the market. It is important to find good materials if you expect a real improvement in English since lots of them contain only the ways to study English for exams. I think the better materials are the ones where Korean lecturers teach appropriate English for Koreans to learn. Personally, I don’t think that trusting native English teachers unconditionally will do much to improve English skills.
5. What are your criteria when judging whether a student is good at English or not?
When I was in Gachon University graduate school, I had an experience of meeting an exchange student from Saudi Arabia. I asked him how old he was, and he answered, “Brother, I was born in 1980.” Although he was not fluent in pronunciation, I was certain that he was good at Korean because he perfectly understood our culture. Likewise, I think students who speak English which matches English-related culture are good at English. In addition, simple conversational grammar like using the articles ‘a’ or ‘the’ correctly; or whether you attach ‘s’ to a third person singular word can also be the criteria to judge English skills.
6. You started learning English at the age of 37 and gained enough English skills to become a professor at a foreign university in five years. What are some tips to improve English skills in a short period of time?
It depends on your purpose. We learn languages to use. I think English for studying abroad, English for business, and English for traveling are all different. Therefore, it is important to figure out your purpose for learning English first. Another important thing I think is that if you want to learn English, you should start from the beginning. Many students think only of what they already know, so if the word is altered a little bit, they don't understand what it means. For example, for the word 'government', many people would think about the government used in the Whitehouse. So, what is 'student government'? Student government? It would be awkward for them. "Student government" actually means student council. It is correct to translate ‘student government’ to ‘student council’ because ‘government’ does not only mean “government” but also ‘executive’ and ‘people who make up a government’.
7. What would you say to those who want to start learning English but think they are too late?
I think there's no limit in age when it comes to learning. Rather, I think that learning ability improves as people get older. What I would like to say, based on my experience of teaching many students, is that people have the highest level of understanding and accepting new knowledge in their 30s and 40s. Therefore, I hope they start learning English with confidence since it is not late at all even if they think they are.
As English is an essential skill required by current society, most people encounter English in daily life. However, the majority of them approach English in the wrong way. I hope Professor Lee’s idea of learning English can change the biases about studying English. Let us all build up our English skills and be competent persons for the global era of the 21st century.
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