Seoul, South Korea – South Korea has banned English language classes for first- and second-grade students in elementary schools to “minimise negative effects of early English education practices”.
The ban, which came into effect on Thursday, is part of a policy that, the government says, is in line with a Constitutional Court ruling in 2016 that said teaching English may hinder the students’ proficiency in Korean.
“According to many English education experts and neuroscientists, the right age for learning English as a second language is the third grade,” Kwon Ji-young, director of early childhood education and care policy division at the Ministry of Education, told Al Jazeera.
“Starting second-language education at preschool is too early. Before that, social skills and cognitive development should take place. A lot of parents think earlier the better when it comes to learning a second language.”
In South Korea, kindergartens that conduct English classes are not officially registered as pre-schools but operate as private academies.
Although expensive, the growing demand for early English education has made these outlets very popular among parents who can afford them.
Korea’s annual household income per capita is $15,335. Some of these outlets charge more than $1,500 a month.
The ban, which will also see around 7,000 teachers lose their jobs, will create a further divide with children from low-income families set to miss out in a highly competitive society, say experts.
“If, after the second grade, you compare the ones who received private English lessons with the ones who didn’t, the difference will be huge. In Korean society, the more money you have, the more educated you can be,” said Kim Hee-won, a private English teacher.
Kim, who has been teaching in the capital Seoul since 2003, ruled out English learning having an adverse effect on a child’s proficiency in Korean.
She did, however, warn of the increase in demand for English institutions and also of the competitiveness that exists among parents.
“In Korea, some mothers compare what kind of stroller they have for their kids, which hospital their child was born in and how they want to follow the trends.
“The level of competition is very fierce, and they will spend a lot of money to ensure their child gets taught English.”
Hwang Hee-jung, a single mother to Ko Jae-joon, agrees. Her son was born in the US and was studying in a Korean school in Seoul until last year when she transferred him to an international school.
“I think speaking English is very important because the university admission exam we have is very tough and students need to get a high score in English to pass,” said Hwang.
“In a Korean school, my son was taught English just one hour a week. Now, majority of his lessons are in English, and the more he practises, the better he will get.”
Together with the ban, the ministry has issued a warning and reminder to Korean parents, urging them to treat English as a second language.
“It’s important how parents perceive English as a second language. Korean children are exposed to stressful learning conditions due to academic pressure. It even starts before they are born,” said Kwon.
“The Ministry tries to conduct programmes and seminars for parents to improve their perception of English education.”
A Ministry of Education official, who wished to remain anonymous, said there would be plans put in place for children from low-income families.
“The Ministry has plans which include offering financial help to attend English programmes and assisting schools which lack resources to create those programmes,” the official said.
Mobile phone apps and online translation software are being increasingly used for basic communication.
But critics say English fluency is needed more than ever, especially in a society where long hours and extra effort often does not result in success due to the level of competition.
Korean parents will seek private lessons for their children in the aftermath, said one parent, before adding that the assurances handed out by the government will not count for much.
“We will encounter the unavoidable gap between the haves and the have-nots. It’s simple: No money, no opportunity, no education. That’s how it will affect the children here in Korea.”
With additional reporting by Wooyoung Lee