Corruption and Other Distortions as Variables in Language Education
All ideas expressed in Thor's Stories and The Passionate Skeptic are entirely those of the author, who has no aim to influence, proselytize or persuade others to a point of view. He is pleased if his writing generates reflection in readers, either for or against the sentiment of the argument.

Journal Publication : TESOL Law Journal, Vol.2 March 2008

Abstract : This paper examines some of the ways in which foreign language education has been affected by corrupt practices and various other distortions of best teaching practice. Particular attention is paid to South Korea. The nature of corruption and its social origins are identified. Pressures affecting students, teachers and institutions are all seen to play a part. It is noted that mass education is a simulation which leaves space for fraud, whereas actual live language performance is its own test. Perhaps as a consequence, the gradual insertion of a new language code like English into a speech community might succeed over the long term even where immediate educational practices suggest failure.

Bio: Thor May has been teaching English to non-native speakers, and lecturing linguistics, since 1976. This work has taken him to seven countries in Oceania and East Asia, mostly with tertiary students, but with a couple of detours to teach secondary students and young children. He has trained teachers in Australia, Fiji and South Korea.. Many of his papers, essays and stories may be seen on his website at ; e-mail .


Corruption and Other Distortions as Variables in Language Education

Thor May
Zhengzhou, Henan, China


1. What is Corruption?


Issues of probity and corruption are inseparable from the evaluation of language education outcomes in institutional contexts. Interestingly, they are absolutely irrelevant to estimating another's language ability in person to person communication. In other words, the significance of corruption, fraud etc. in language learning contexts is a direct product of the language teaching process being a simulation.

Where explicit values and procedures are accepted by a cultural group, corruption could be defined as the fraudulent use of those procedures and values to achieve personal ends. In practice however, few cultures offer equal opportunities to all members, and the idea of shared values itself is very approximate. On any given index, participation in a cultural group will fall into some kind of bell curve, Food, personal security, marriage and procreation, an acceptable role in the group ... are all pretty constant needs in human societies, and most cultures must therefore offer credible ways to satisfy these needs to most members. In fact, for huge numbers of people, many communities fail to provide these basic needs. It is probably inevitable that some of those who are deprived in this way will seek an avenue to subvert the system. Corruption under those conditions is less a moral issue than a pragmatic necessity.

Beyond basic survival needs, the members of communities everywhere acquire a sense of entitlement to valued cultural perquisites. In modern societies, formal education is high on the list of felt entitlements by families and individuals. Access to formal education is governed by a combination of rules, examinations and the ability to pay. The process is marked at each point by the issuance of certificates. These certificates have a large influence on the life opportunities of their holders. Such mechanisms in their essence are not specific to education. Similar devices have been used throughout recorded history to anoint selected groups with special privileges, whether military rights, land holding, imperial court membership or trading monopolies. In every one of these instances, the system has been constantly subverted and sometimes destroyed by those excluded at the margin and seeking privilege through corruption. Educational opportunity is no different.


2. Linguistic Inequality and Opportunity


Inequality is another major issue both within and between nations. Where second language learning has become a general cultural requirement, inequality of access to learn that language not only affects outcomes, but can be an explosive political problem. For example, the extra-curricular coaching of children does not come cheap. Amongst the middle classes of emerging economies it can absorb a major part of disposable income, and split families apart. South Korean makes a good case study of the phenomenon.

South Korea has a class of people called "wild goose fathers" who work themselves into the ground to keep the mother and her children supported in a foreign country, usually America, on the premise that they will receive a superior English language education (Kim Yoon-ah 2004). In the nature of the thing, "wild goose fathers" are typically upper class professionals, who not only suffer loneliness and the destruction of their families pursuing the 'English dream', but also the jealous contempt of countless others who cannot contemplate such a luxury. The children themselves suffer social and academic problems if they return to Korea (Kim Cheng-won 2006).

Then there are the hagwons, ubiquitous coaching schools which populate the second floors of every street in every suburb of every South Korean city (Korea Times, 10 July 2005). In fact they have analogues worldwide from Bombay to Buenos Aires, from Moscow to Madrid. It is no surprise that hagwons have their own informal pecking order of price, prestige and competence. Official statistics (e.g. KEDI 2000) can only partially keep track of private coaching schools. There are significant systemic problems in the Korean hagwon system, not least unqualified owner/managers and poor teaching, which may render it unstable over time (Bauman 2006), but at least currently these institutions are the major venue for language learning. A family's income effectively decides the kind of coaching school the children can be sent to, often until 10pm in the evening. This in turn generates intense social and political passion.

The government day schools in South Korea, with their large classes and regimented curriculums are widely held to be incapable of providing a useable language education. A large number of middle schools, high schools and universities in South Korea are private (about 40% of schools in Seoul), but only some offer a better real education than the government version, and illegal practices in many of them are a source of continuing national scandal. To mitigate this volatile mix, the government is expanding a limited system of native English teacher assistants to 2,900 by 2010. Reflecting the trend to earlier English language education, 30% of primary schools are already supplementing their weekly one or two hours of English with extra-curricular classes (Lee, In-Chul 2006). Government sponsored 'television coaching' has recently begun for those unable to blow the family income on a cram school. As a sop to egalitarianism, private language coaching by foreigners is strictly forbidden, and ferociously punished (big fine, loss of visa) - but widely practiced.

South Korea is a highly homogeneous nation, viewed from the outside, though riven by factions and perceived inequalities from the inside. In many other nations the real inequalities are far greater, and often buttressed by rigid divisions of race, class, religion and income. Language is always present in these scenarios, a kind of currency that can be turned to many uses. On the one hand it is an instrument of division and privilege, jealously guarded with all the forces that power can bring to bear. On the other hand, it is a binding agent without which no political entity can hope to govern the multitudes, no business or trade can proceed, and no culture can survive. Not surprisingly the friction that arises from so many competing roles is richly represented in language education, and is likely to come to a head in public evaluations of language performance.

The use of South Korean case studies and examples arise from my own experience, but with local variations the same kind of paradoxes can be found within almost any society. It is true that each region, country and culture poses particular problems for second language learning. Some of these are specific to a particular time and place, such as the insanities of Khmer Rouge Cambodia, or China's Cultural Revolution, where extreme chauvinism could render any display of foreign language skills fatal. Other problems are more generally human with local characteristics.

In East Asian cultures some form of Confucian education has been a prime avenue for family and personal advancement for up to two millennia. Classical Chinese scholarship was the medium, not only in China, but also in surrounding regions. Korea had Confucian academies from a very early date (and perhaps other kinds of training centers too), and a recognized government sponsored university in the kingdom of Koguryo by 372 AD (Korea Information Service 2001). Access to the privileged opportunities of Confucian education for male children was ideally open to all, but in practice open to those with the leisure and money to study. In principle, success in the Confucian system was based on merit. East Asian history is full of accounts where that meritocracy was corrupted, sometimes on a large scale. For buffer states such as Korea, Chinese education meant facility in a second language, Chinese (though mostly written classical Chinese), just as today it means facility in English. Then as now families were prepared to make large sacrifices both to get their children officially proficient in Chinese and to get them through the Confucian educational program. Then as now, those precluded by status, wealth or limited academic ability would often try and succeed to obtain by corruption the benefits they were otherwise denied. Corruption can take many forms, and it would be a rare teacher who has not experienced some kind of pressure. Sometimes it can come down to outright bribery :

This year the Korea Federation of Teachers' Associations surveyed 5,420 elementary, middle and high school teachers across the country. It revealed that 27% of teachers have accepted bribes from parents in exchange for giving their students preferable treatment. (Card 2005)

During inspections on 1,124 of 1,673 primary, middle and high schools around the country in 2004 and 2005, educational authorities detected 7,498 cases of irregularities. The authorities slapped financial sanctions to the tune of 14.7 billion won on the schools. They also took disciplinary action against 10,223 school officials, including firing 27. (Chung Ah-young, Korea Times, 9 January 2006)

In China schooling in general has moved on from the depredations of ideological extremism to something resembling a gangster enterprise in many locales :

" In recent years the burden of [education] costs has shifted increasingly to Chinese households. China has 300 million school-aged children, and ruthless extraction of fees from their parents rakes in as much as 200 billion yuan, making education China’s second major profiteering enterprise [after real estate]". (Shen 2005)

The long term consequences of an extreme laissez faire approach to language education in China have yet to play out, but may well follow something like the South Korean pattern.


3. The Roles of Explicit and Covert Values


All societies have not only explicit values but covert values. Covert values frequently contradict explicit values, and this is a major problem in educational systems everywhere. Working class families in the West for example may often have covert values that denigrate official institutions like schools. After living in China for two years and South Korea for over five years, my strong sense is that for many people, subverting official institutions to achieve personal ends is not privately regarded as wrong; (indeed that covert attitude may be widespread everywhere). The Chosun dynasty man who got his Confucian diploma and appointment could still make his family rich, no matter how he came by the diploma. For the modern man or woman, the glory of public success - a TOEIC score of 900+, a scholarship, a prestigious appointment etc - is still glorious, no matter how it was come by. Shame (and sometimes suicide**) only come if the deception is unmasked. My intention here is not to adopt a moral posture, merely to be factual within the limits of my observations.

Fraud in language education is an important matter in East Asia (and elsewhere). In principle, the acid test of language teaching outcomes is a practical facility to use the target language in real communication. However a mass education system is a gigantic simulation machine with outcomes that are promoted as analogues of life ability rather than true performance. There are excellent reasons for this, but between the mirror and the dust of the highway lies many a mirage. Simulation training is a matter of life and death for airline pilots and surgeons. It can't be faked. The incompetent training and fraudulent certification of a language student is not a mortal threat. Self-rationalized acceptance of the deviance is fairly easy. Thus, it is not unusual for all the parties in an educational process to have some vested interest in skewing the supposed outcomes. Judgements about both teacher competence and a school's reputation turn on the examination success of students. The life chances of students turn upon their examination success. This is rich territory for a conspiracy of deception. The problem is compounded by unrealistic political demands, such as the insistence in South Korea that all students study English, regardless of aptitude or interest, and that all tertiary graduates should have a certified competence in English.

Corruption may be built into East Asian education systems because of the cultural paradigm. One of the primary cultural values in these societies is 'face'. In fact, the face factor is found in most cultures, and is closely related to concepts of prestige, narcissism, 'keeping up with the Joneses' etc. However the primacy of the face question in traditionally Confucian cultures, gives it great power, especially in the absence of an equally powerful countervailing value, such as truth-telling. This does not mean that all East Asians don't care about the truth. On the contrary. However it often does mean that where there is a conflict between perhaps unpleasant confrontation or candour and preserving the face of another party (especially one with power), then a choice will typically be made to avoid confrontation or candour. This, combined with the hierarchical construction of so-called Confucian values means that juniors are both formally incapable of challenging the system, and enculturated into it. The postgraduate environment in South Korea is symptomatic :

Influential professors at prestigious schools "are allowed to build their own private kingdoms, promoting and demoting their underlings largely at will," said Tikhonov, a naturalized Korean of Russian origin also known as Pak Noja. Listing professors as senior authors on papers even if they contributed little, fabricating receipts to cover up their personal use of research funds, and running errands for them are just a few of the headaches grad school students say they face. (Lim 2006)


4. Failure and Its Consequences


It is in the nature of mass education systems as they are designed that individuals will often have to confront their failure to learn. There can be any number of reasons for the failure, some culpable and some unavoidable, some due to the student and some due to teachers and administrations. Regardless of reasons, the potential for failure or rejection arises constantly. Anyone who has survived a formal education system has encountered moments of truth, and most working within the Western tradition have learned to cope in one way or another with some failure. It is not unusual for the failure to be psychologically damaging. If properly managed, failure can also lead to growth, discovery and maturity.

In East Asian institutional settings children are allowed to fail more obviously than adults, perhaps because they lack power. They are relentlessly pushed not to fail by most parents, but it is the nature of the points game being played that not everyone can be a winner for the top places. In South Korea every year there are a number of student suicides directly related to public examination failure: 63% of South Korean teenagers says they have contemplated suicide, often for reasons of failure (Chung Ah-young 2005). The actual substance of knowledge acquisition involved tends to be secondary to all parties. There is public awareness of this problem, but real change only comes slowly, with or without government prodding. Singapore for example wrestles with the same issue as South Korea (Nee 2001).

Graduation to university age is roughly equivalent to reaching adulthood, when face truly becomes a governing cultural factor. The brutal scramble for university entrance qualifying marks is over, the die is cast for life. The winners go to a handful of prestigious universities. The also-rans go ... well they go to university too.

Take South Koreans. With the world's highest investment of GDP in education (7.1% : Schleicher 2003), the percentage of young people going on to higher education (including 2 year colleges) is very great and increasing. However, this means almost by definition that many of the university and college students are below the national general population average for scholastic ability. The lower quartiles as a group certainly lack the scholastic ability of much smaller student populations a generation ago. Whatever these less able students are doing, it can't be the traditionally demanding intellectual study and inquiry demanded of top students the world over. They are perfectly capable of learning practical, very useful skills. What they are actually doing for the most part in South Korea is playing a face game. They will spend four years in this generational role, before graduating (almost all will graduate) into boring jobs, or in many cases, into unemployment. They will find marriage partners, and an alumni network to set them up for life. What most of them won't do is acquire either research skills or employment skills or significant knowledge.

South Korean universities, on the whole, are organized to support the cultural face game. Academic pass levels are not set at 50%, but at 60%, 70% or higher; (this grade creep is a worldwide phenomenon). What do these percentages calibrate? There's the rub. They do not measure knowledge mastery or competence in any sense. They are norm referenced, and the referencing itself is not to any credible sample size. It is to each individual class, no matter how abysmal that class standard is. The writer has now taught in South Korea and China for almost ten years, in six institutions, and during that time has rarely been permitted to officially make honest assessments of student achievements relative to real competence or what was taught. Rather, there have been instructions that no student shall receive less than a C+, or even a B. Sometimes the instructions are conveyed in writing; more often there is a workplace process of enculturation where it is made clear that failing students poses a risk to the future of the teacher.

This writer's experience has not been unique. It is the normal pattern. This situation is not confined to English classes. The underlying reasons are partly economic, and partly the face game again. South Korea now has one of the lowest birth rates in the world. It has gone through a demographic bulge, when there was a rapid expansion of educational institutions, both public and private. Now there is a demographic drought of students, which has just worked its way through to the tertiary sector. Many universities are facing imminent downsizing or closure. It has become common for professors to be faced with an ultimatum : 'recruit X number of freshmen students this year or lose your job' (Kim Nam-joong 2003). In this atmosphere, failing students is tantamount to resigning. There is considerable evidence that the professorial culture itself is tainted with corruption by appointment scams, although the majority of professors are probably there on merit :

Cut-throat competition for a professorship sometimes involves large sums of money changing hands. In the first eight months of last year, prosecutors penalized 61 professors and administrators, mostly for receiving bribes in exchange for granting tenure. In 2004, prosecutors punished 23 professors and officials on similar charges as well as misappropriation of funds. In one case last year, a university chancellor received $4 million from 42 candidates in exchange for appointing them as professors, prosecutors said. (Lim 2006)

The pressure to maintain class numbers is not the only factor distorting participation in language classes. Elective or compulsory, many engineering, science, and technical students with little interest in English as a foreign language will continue to participate in language classes. Why? Well it is face again, plus employment insurance. The government has decreed that all university graduates should preferably master a foreign language before they graduate, and employers have the same idea. Indeed, they will all graduate with that language certification, supplied by teachers like the writer, and by Korean professors (who often have marginal English ability at best). Unfortunately, a large percentage of these certified graduates will have no practical ability in their second language. Reality is slowly intruding, even on this system. Japanese and Korean institutions of all kinds tend to mirror each other, sometimes with a time lapse (it is a kind of sibling rivalry, but also entanglement). Exploring the problem of unmotivated language learners in Japan, Soo Im Lee (2001? undated Stanford paper) notes a recent trend :

" many universities started to change English from a required subject to an elective subject in order to meet the diversified needs of future candidates. The reason behind this change is that there are large numbers of unmotivated learners of English who do not have any interest in continuing to study English at the university level".

An administrative switch from compulsory to elective status for foreign language enrolment does not necessarily encourage more enlightened teaching approaches. In a recent experience of this scenario, the writer found that a language faculty, fearful of losing its student quota not only wanted virtually guaranteed passes, but rated teachers on the "easiness" of class work. Easy class work that promotes learning is ideal, but '"easy" in the context of poorly motivated, low ability students can and often does mean an absence of challenge, such as a kind of mutual conspiracy to endure ritual grammar fill-in exercises that have little to do with language learning.


5. The Vocational Motivation of Academic Staff


At tertiary level worldwide in foreign language teaching, there is a particular problem which derives from the actual vocational interests of people in language and literature departments. It is common for language study for acquisition (as opposed to analysis) to be considered a poor cousin of literature study.

In certain institutions, faculty members in departments of foreign languages and literatures have for years been treated as second-class citizens by colleagues in other disciplines who considered them to be teaching not content courses but skill courses. Thus, to reinforce our image as full-fledged faculty members, we have constantly emphasized the teaching of literature among our departmental activities.(Jean-Jacques Thomas 1998)

The language teaching is done reluctantly as drudge work to generate a population of students who can appreciate the achievements of great writers, or the intricacies of syntactic models (such places being comprised of literature specialists and linguistics specialists). It is felt that language learning and teaching is not an intellectually clever enough activity to justify its place in the academy. Inevitably this leads to painful practices of grammar-translation with unhappy outcomes for both language learning and literature appreciation.

There can be bizarre distortions of process. My last Korean university accepted some international students from central Asia. They generally had a much higher level of English than their Korean contemporaries, but were shunted to general freshman language classes where their skills languished. My suggestion to allow them into courses for the English majors was opposed by a literature person who explained that all her lectures on English poetry were conducted in Korean, which the central Asians could only manage at a general conversational level.


6. Institutional Pressures for Favourable Language Learning Outcomes


The face element (chemyeon in Korean) is also critical to institutions. The university must have a public front to say that its standards are high (hence the high "pass marks"). Korean professors mostly lecture a huge population of sub-average students as they would the most elite groups. They have performed their assigned role. Libraries in less ambitious institutions are often almost empty, either of students or of worthwhile resources. Students are busy catching up with their lost childhoods. At the same time, these students must not be confronted with the shame of losing face by failure. Each class will be assigned their set number of A+ students, no matter (in this writer's case as a language teacher) that few students can make even simple utterances in the language being learned. Classes of more able students will thus find themselves assessed equally with the very weakest. From the learning point of view, these public assessments do more damage than good anyway, but the administrative requirement for a set of numbers overrides any pedagogical consideration.

In 2003-2004 I was hired to establish a postgraduate training program for Korean teachers of English. A South Korean university co-branded this TEFL Certificate firstly with one well-reputed American university (which withdrew), then a lesser known American university. It was deliberately designed to articulate into American Masters degree programs, and a number of prominent American universities initially agreed to grant cross-credits on the basis of the content covered. It was therefore essential to conduct the program to international standards, and this was loudly proclaimed by the local university as it charged very high fees. I did design an appropriate program. However, from the outset the two involved foreign professors were under official pressure to grant all students at least a B pass, regardless of performance. Eventually this directive was put in writing, so that even the student who scored 17% became eligible for Masters articulation. I carefully documented the full development of this sorry distortion of academic evaluation over a year, scanning all documents, and put the full story was online for two years. Public exposure is the only way to reform this kind of thing, but Korean legal pressure in the form of a charge of “criminal defamation” eventually forced its withdrawal from the Internet.

Was this a case of isolated corruption? Unfortunately it was not. It was apparently not unusual, and fully expected by both Korean students (who were mostly appalled by the prospect of genuine evaluation) and Korean academics. Sadly, although anxious to participate in undermining the value of their own qualification, most of those graduates were just as natively talented as their counterparts in America or anywhere else. For that matter, Western universities have their own problems of dubious practices and plagiarism (e.g. Edwards 2006; Agence France Press 2006).

The above is a severe criticism of the South Korean education system, and could perhaps be dismissed as defamatory prejudice if not supported by documentation. In 2003 a group of senior Korean academics working in the United States published an open letter in a national newspaper pleading for reform (Chang S.J. et. al. 2003). They make essentially the same points, and as Korean nationals their despair is all the more poignant. The inevitable washback effect of low standards is that Korean qualifications elicit little real respect, not least from Koreans themselves. Most South Korean universities have been extremely reluctant to hire academic staff who did not do their postgraduate work outside of Korea (Joong Ang Ilbo November 15, 2002).

Although this paper has laid emphasis on particular problems of corruption and distortion in East Asia, the paradigm of mass education is under stress worldwide. For a devastating account of the Italian tertiary sector see Pacitti (1997). Almost universally, traditional patterns of collegiate organization, long term employment, time for research, and the small group tutoring of elite students has been buried under a mass production line model, run on managerial principles. In many countries now the academic workforce is at least 50% casualized, with highly educated people living from hand to mouth for years on the vague promise of some future permanence and status (Kamenetz 2004, Baranay 2006). Both full time and casual staff face a relentless revolving door of students without the resources of time to give them proper attention. Perhaps inevitably in such an environment, the obligation felt by staff towards students has diminished, and the respect for learning (as opposed to career promotion) felt by students has also diminished. Exploitation on one side has been matched on the other side by a preference for short cuts and a growth in cheating and plagiarism (Norrie 2005) which staff are less and less inclined to check :

"... plagiarism, widely acknowledged as a growing problem, doesn't always get the attention it deserves: "I don't bother checking on it any more," says one. "It takes too much time and you never hear the result if you report it."

"Similarly, you soon find out that where students are fee-paying customers, giving someone a fail mark makes too much trouble for the university, for your overworked colleagues and for you..." (Baranay 2006, reporting on Australian universities).

The English language market is a boon to unscrupulous operators, and even highly reputed universities are continually pressured to lower the bar. In English speaking countries, the profits from accepting foreign students, including trainee language teachers, make it a multi-billion dollar industry. There is pressure to keep the customers happy by offering the greatest gain for the least pain. It doesn't help that educational standards in countries like South Korea and China are extensively corrupt, so that many students arrive overseas with an expectation of bending the system. One curious outcome of cultural relativism has been to argue sometimes that such practices are not really corrupt, merely on a different scale of values. Of course, value scales vary, but the victims of corruption - and they number multi millions - are in no doubt about the nature of the beast. For example, in China many able tertiary students are pushed aside by those with lower scores but better "connections" (e.g. May 2003).


7. Negative factors for English Language Teachers


If there is one constant in successful classroom teaching it is the need for a positive outlook. This is exceptionally true of language teaching where the feel-good factor is one of the most potent predictors of success for most students. The people who get involved with this profession are, as a group, not predators driven by a need to exploit and dominate. Nor as a group are they obsessed by status, wealth or ambition. As a group they are fairly laid back people who like to help others reach their best potential. Perhaps it is this general lack of aggression which has tended to leave the profession worldwide so vulnerable, low paid, casualized and disrespected. The employment environment within which most language teachers operate is likely, even at its most benign, to be fraught with insecurity and the knowledge that any serious career path in the field is not an option. If new teachers don't know this when they enter, they soon learn it. (There are regional exceptions to this pattern. Parts of north western Europe in particular are known for high teaching standards and successful outcomes).

There is also a large component of language teaching employment worldwide which is subject to outright employer fraud, sometimes with the connivance of national authorities. This underbelly of the profession does not, of course, feature strongly in official statistics and published documentation, but it forms a constant background environment for real language teaching on the ground. Inevitably it has an effect on language teaching outcomes. Fraud, illegality and exploitation by their nature are difficult to document and are apt to be dismissed as anecdotal. The most constant reference to difficulty with employers and dubious training authorities is to be found nowadays on the many TESOL internet discussion boards (for example, the iconic Dave Sperling's "Dave's ESL Cafe"), in Internet blacklists, and in personal blogs. One influential internet site which has made a business of documenting the illegal and dubious facets of the English language teaching business is the EFL Law site founded by Paul Robertson (now internationalized as part of the Time-Taylor Group).


8. Training choices


As with the employment environment, the range of institutions offering to train people how to teach a foreign language (mostly English) ranges from staid sandstone universities to fast talking con-men with slick internet sites. There is no international standard in these matters, while governments vary wildly in their requirements (if they have any at all). The hopeful trainee is really purchasing two components : a) a right to use the brand name of the diploma granting institution in his CV, and b) an actual body of competent training. The two components in many cases may not come in the same package.

For those with the self-discipline and organization for self-education, the Internet is a free resource of information that no university can match. Internet resources on English language teaching are staggering, and range from theoretical analysis to detailed lesson plans for every kind of student. The content and theory available online for other languages is much less, but also expanding. China for example claims that there are 20 million learners of Chinese, and is pitching to have 100 million foreign learners of standard Chinese by 2010 ( 2006). They are pouring resources into the field. In spite of this plethora of online resources, it remains true that most learners, including teacher trainees, are social learners, and not terribly self-organized. They want somebody to arrange a sequenced menu of study for them, and they want somebody to pose as an authority in a classroom (real or virtual) for the purpose of uttering accepted truths. Then they want to go through the motions of being judged for their supposed new expertise.

Teacher employing authorities in my experience (32 years in the field in seven countries) mostly have little real interest in what a teaching applicant has studied or understood from that study. They are simply unable to evaluate this, and will often resent attempts to discuss the matter. This is a common experience for all kinds of teachers almost everywhere (e.g. see Ellen Delisio's interview of Frank McCourt, 2005). A recent systematic though understandably anonymous series of surveys in South Korea by a practicing teacher has found that increased qualifications actually reduce the chance of employment, and that the applicant most likely by far to be offered employment is a blonde haired, blue eyed, 22 year old white woman with minimal qualifications (“Korea Jim” 2007).

As a first step, what the employer wants to see is a diploma or degree bearing a credible brand name consistent with the going market salary. In the case of private employers (the majority) this diploma/degree requirement has two functions: a) to satisfy legal requirements, and b) to advertise the quality of their own school. Having hired a teacher, their prime interest is that this teacher keeps the customers happy. That might or might not mean actually teaching language well. It depends upon expectations. The objective, for example, might be exam coaching, or it might be persuading the mothers of young children that their kids are doing what mothers think (in their innocence) kids should do in, say, an English class. If students are simply going through the motions of doing a language course because the system or parents require it, then their evaluations will favour the teacher who gives easy grades and makes few demands, rather than an innovative teacher who pushes them to excel. This last scenario is very, very common, and immensely discouraging for professional development and improved outcomes.

The person who considers becoming a language teacher is thus faced with a complex cost-benefit equation. How long do they want to stay in the business? Where do they want to teach? What kind of salary will they settle for? If they approach this rationally, the overwhelming answer from an employment point of view is that a major investment of money or time is simply not worth it. It is therefore not surprising that as a group worldwide, the qualifications profile of language teachers is less than spectacular (there are many local exceptions to this). For an average aspirant, the trick is to get just enough documentation to stay legal and wrangle a job that they know is not going to last. There are of course other considerations. A regular university degree in TESOL might well be tradable in other markets when they settle down with a family in their own country. While they are in the EFL/ESL market it might give them an edge, even if the actual course was very poor (though note the 2007 “Korea Jim” survey above). If they want real knowledge later, there is always that vast, free resource of the internet. Of course, people entering into the language teaching market normally have very little knowledge of that market, either technically as teachers or economically as rational employees. Many of them are not analytic to begin with, and if they hope to teach their mother tongue in another country, a sizable proportion will naively consider themselves qualified by birth, and look forward to the job in the same spirit as fruit picking or being an au pair babysitter.

The preceding paragraphs suggest that the professionalization of language teaching is likely to remain a piecemeal and regional phenomenon. Inevitably there is a price to pay for this in educational outcomes. Status does seem to have an effect in formal educational settings, perhaps because of the caliber of staff attracted. For example, Finland, which tops OECD achievement scores, does not spend excessively on educational resources. However,

" Barry Macgaw, the director for education at the OECD, said one trait that sets Finland apart from many other countries is the quality and social standing of its teachers. All teachers must have at least a master's degree, and while they are no better paid than teachers in other countries, the profession is highly respected" (Alvarez 2004)


9. Paradoxes in the long term trajectory of language education outcomes


With a tertiary education system which apparently entrenches a kind of fraud, why hasn't South Korea (and China and Japan) ground to a halt? Not only has the South Korean system not failed, but within fifty years it has leapt from being a backward rural economy with a per capita GDP of around $100 into becoming the world's 11th largest industrial power, and a world leader in technical innovation. As in any population, South Korea has its share of extremely talented people. Its history in the 20th Century was tragically turbulent, and its naturally hardy people have been energized to seek the kind of security that can only be achieved by being an advanced first world state (or at least that is how they see it).

Up until very recently, the regimented secondary education race had enculturated a workforce ready for industrial discipline, while the slush of the local tertiary sector seems to have been bypassed by sending an elite (and wealthy) segment of young adults to overseas universities. Further, no matter how inept the system was and is, the student body did contain the normal quota of academically able individuals who did learn a good deal (though not as much as they might have). They graduated with ease. Everyone kept their face, and national pride was salved. This pattern is still widespread, but it would be a mistake to assume that it is static.

In terms of foreign language education, it is also fair to say that South Korea is probably succeeding on a broad front. This is palpably true in middle class China also, but less so in Japan (Kensuka 2001). The reason for the broad success is simply the level of motivation. While it is true that many Koreans will bend the system to get required diplomas, the impetus for language learning itself stems from a deep and widespread sense of insecurity in a hostile world. Whether they like English or hate it, ordinary Koreans feel in their bones that personal and national prosperity turns on their ability to communicate with the outside world. The national education curriculum has been officially turned around to emphasize communicative ability rather than grammar translation, even if the bulk of current teachers feel unable to handle that (Butler 2003). There are clear generation differences in foreign language competence, with a small but significant elite of young people now able to operate productively in both Korean an English. As they feed through into the workforce, and become teachers, the standard of language education is likely to rise.

The Japanese experience of foreign language education seems in some ways inexplicable in Western terms. Although there are plenty of Japanese who can speak perfectly good English, and vast personal resources are poured into the project, the overall outcomes are poor. To put this in context, Japanese, unlike members of Anglophone cultures, but very much like Koreans, understand a clear need for a sizeable cadre of good foreign language speakers. Japan lives or dies by its trade and its industry, both highly dependent upon the world's trading lingua franca, English. This need however comes up against some special characteristics of Japanese culture, and in particular the cultivated separation of role plays within each person's life that permeate the Japanese way. Japanese admit to an "English complex", a kind of permanent embarrassment at incapacity, and invest regularly in English classes. Yet the classes are frequently a form of escapism, not essentially about learning English, as Andy Courturier explains in a delightful essay, "Selling Indulgence in Corporate Japan".

10. Foreign Language Learning in Monolingual Anglo Cultures


The dynamic for second language education in monolingual English speaking countries is quite different from the East Asian context just discussed. In these monolingual English communities, the most significant L2 teaching has been English for immigrants, a process of drawing foreign speakers into the monolingual mainstream. Its success has had far more to do with the motivation of those immigrants than brilliant teaching. Early immigrants in the nature of things lack political power. Almost universally, government funding for these programs has been fragmentary, reluctant and often poorly informed.

In Australia (which I know most about) and elsewhere, the duration, difficulty and skills required for language acquisition remain beyond the comprehension of politicians and bureaucrats. They also remain a matter of indifference to the general public. The actual language programs have often been subsumed into labour market packages, designed to get unemployed workers "skilled" enough to find jobs. Functional literacy, which itself is a worldwide problem, though also low on the priority list of most governments, has been another pigeon hole in which to stuff ESL students when class places are available. The teaching workforce for these programs is overwhelmingly comprised of middle aged women who find it a convenient employment niche. Most do their job with considerable dedication, but their employment is generally part time or sessional, the salaries unattractive, and the opportunities for professional development negligible (Angwin 1992). We could say then that the trajectory of second language teaching in monolingual English speaking countries is transitional, and designed to reinforce the monolingual dominance.

There are of course foreign language courses in schools, and periodical ritual statements that is important for the nation to have a talent pool of multilingual speakers. However, these are very minor counterforces to the dominant tendency. It is true that the rise of the nation state has correlated precisely with the decimation of the number of languages. However it is unlikely that the world is ready to become monolingual just yet. If multilingual language skills are a significant factor in national development and national security over the long term, then we could say that monolingual English countries are very vulnerable indeed. That of course is hard to see in the present environment of geopolitical balances, but it is not hard to see that the balance itself is extremely unstable.

The third major stream for second language teaching in monolingual Anglo cultures has been the importation of non-English speaking students for both language and general education. This has grown into a multi-billion dollar industry, especially at the level of tertiary education. International students now comprise a significant minority in many Western universities, and their external status as full-fee paying customers has led to an increasing and disproportionate influence of commercial values on the educational process. Along with this commercialization have come many kinds of corruptive influence on curriculums, teaching practice, evaluation and the general probity of institutions themselves (e.g. Ford 2004). In other words, many of the same incentives that have influenced East Asian systems are finding international expression as mass language education systems globalize.


11. Sociopolitical Impacts on Teaching and Evaluation


The sociopolitical factors just discussed feed directly into favoured approaches to both teaching and evaluation, although this nexus is little discussed. The ramifications are far too broad and complex to take up here, although my own doctoral dissertation deals with them in depth (May, University of Newcastle, NSW, forthcoming; see May 2006 for a website summary). We can note one passing example of sociopolitical influences on language teaching : the theory that all such teaching should be in the target language. This idea originated from late 19th and early 20th Century inquiries in Europe. It found ready acceptance in the Anglophone division of English teaching, and suited monolingual English teachers wonderfully. It is therefore no surprise that this theory still prevails in Anglophone training institutions. However, if we move to India a different discourse is evident :

"The right pedagogical philosophy is that which believes in the possibility of osmosis of energy between the mother tongue and the second language. Most second language learners want and expect to operate as bilinguals, rather than monolinguals. It is the natural state of participation in the learning process. What is more, insistence on the monolingual approach to learning English as a second language leads to another insistence: the insistence on treating English as a permanently foreign language with its pristine foreignness remaining intact.." (M. Krishnamurthi 2005)

The issue of bilingual or monolingual usage in classrooms is easily confused with the related but distinct question of whether (often untrained) native speakers or teachers from the L2 trained in the target language are better able to assist students. Many non-linguistic factors come into play in the second question. For quite different reasons, the teaching caliber of both kinds of teachers is often low. Decisions are especially difficult when it comes to deciding acceptable standards for teachers whose first language is not English (and such teachers constitute an increasing majority worldwide). In practice, the kinds of teachers available in a particular region, and the kinds of curriculums they are expected to follow are mostly determined by the agendas of administrators, politicians and broad public expectation. Real language learning criteria might be a fairly minor part of the mix, and to that extent language learning outcomes will be skewed.


12. Real Outcomes


Although this paper has identified various distortions in international language teaching and evaluation, national language abilities may not always equate with the giant simulation game that is mass education. It is a curious fact that macro language learning outcomes for whole populations can often be better predicted by external environmental factors than the specific properties of particular programs, administrations, teachers and students. The preceding discussion seemed to leave little room for optimism, yet English and other languages continue to be learned to a useful level by large numbers of people.

In the case of South Korea, the quality of language teaching has historically been poor. The processes of evaluation have often been corrupt. It has seemed for two generations that the effort put into English language learning was being dissipated with little tangible English language ability evident in the general community (and casual visitors can still have this impression). Yet the sheer imperative to learn English has been so great for the general population that it is possible to see over time the whole process of Korean-English bilingualism gaining a kind of critical social mass. Concomitant with this are major but still largely undocumented changes occurring in the Korean language itself, beginning with lexical diffusion, spreading to phonology, and even to syntactic patterns (e.g. Lee 2004. This is a topic for another analysis!).

It seems then that the infusion of a foreign language into a speech community has its own long term logic, often obscured by immediate issues in language education, including corruption and individual failure. Each community of learners for English as a foreign language (for example) has reached a certain unique point in its accommodation with the intruding code. Thus, at the moment there is no sign of even Anglophone Koreans spontaneously speaking English with each other. In fact there are strong social prohibitions on doing so. In this sense then, Korea and China, let alone Japan, are in a different league, at least for now, from the Anglicization of whole population segments which can been seen in countries like Singapore, India and Nigeria. The Anglophone subcultures in these latter countries now have a self-propagating life of their own. For Koreans the forces at work have been international power politics, recent memories of national disintegration, and the focused perception that multilingualism is a personal and national security shield. Korean governments have responded to these imperatives, just as Anglo governments continue to reflect the indifference and ignorance of their electors towards questions of multilingual education.


Thor May
China 2008




note on newspaper references : The nature of the "corruption and distortion" topic in language education has not lent itself to wide academic examination in the past in spite of its importance. This paper therefore makes fairly extensive use of newspaper quotations, especially East Asian English language news sources. The reliability of newspaper reportage can be fairly variable in individual instances, and should be treated with care. However, multiple reports taken over time and considered with an awareness of their political context can add up to a quite useful picture of social patterns and pressures. The material quoted on South Korean education is a good example of this.


Agence France Press (2006) Mobiles fuel rise in cheating. Retrieved March 6, 2008 from [in Britain], Sydney Morning Herald, March 28, 2006


Alvarez, Lizette (2004) Finnish schools go to the top of the class Retrieved March 6, 2008 from;Sydney Morning Herald, 10 April 2004


Angwin, Jennifer (1992) The changing workplace: the effect of change on teachers work in adult language and literacy programs Retrieved March 6, 2008 from . Association for Active Educational Researchers, 1992 AARE Conference Paper (unformatted web document); Deakin University


Baranay, Inez (2006) Just a casual, but… Retrieved March 6, 2008 from
/0,5744,18072281^12332,00.html .. The Australian newspaper, 8 February 2006


Bauman, Richard (2006) On the Hagwon System in South Korea Retrieved March 6, 2008 from;Seoul Hero blog, February 25, 2006


Butler, Yuko Goto (2003) Korean elementary school teachers' concerns towards current English teaching practice: Competencies that they think they have and don't have Retrieved March 6, 2008 from Goto Butler.pdf; Graduate School of Education, University of Pennsylvania; Address: Hawaii International Conference on Education January 7 - 10, 2003


Card, James (2005) Life and death exams in South Korea Retrieved March 6, 2008 from Asia Times, November 30 2005


Chang S.J. et al (2003) Scholars urge reform of education system Retrieved March 6, 2008 from Joong Ang Ilbo 28 November 2003 - open letter


Chung Ah-young (2005) Sixty-three Percent of Students Have Contemplated Suicide: Survey Retrieved March 6, 2008 from
hankooki3/times/lpage/nation/200512/kt2005122919235911980.htm&media=kt;Korea Times, 29 December 2005


Courturier, Andy (undated) Selling Indulgence in Corporate Japan Retrieved March 6, 2008 from;Creative Non-fiction Magazine, Issue 17


Delisio, Ellen R. (2005) Author Frank McCourt Reflects on Teaching Career Retrieved March 6, 2008 from , Education World website


Edwards, Hannah (2006) Essays to order: students warned Retrieved March 6, 2008 from Sydney Morning Herald, April 2, 2006


Ford, Liz (2004) Fraud proof Retrieved March 6, 2008 from,,1259425,00.html, The Guardian UK, Tuesday July 13, 2004


Joong Ang Ilbo (2002) Business, academia shun holders of local diplomas Retrieved March 6, 2008 from;Joong Ang Ilbo newspaper special report, November 15 2002


Kamenetz, Anya (2004) Wanted: Really Smart Suckers Retrieved March 6, 2008 from New York: The Village Voice newspaper


KEDI (2002) Korean Educational Statistics Retrieved March 6, 2008 from; Korea Educational Development Institute


KEDI (2006) Korea Educational Development Institute; Retrieved March 6, 2008 from website


Kensuka, Yoshida (2001) From Fish Bowl to the Open Seas: Taking a Step towards the Real World of Communications Retrieved March 6, 2008 from; Sophia University, Japan


Kim Cheng-won (2006) Students Outcast After Study Abroad Retrieved March 6, 2008 from;The Korea Times, 3 November, 2005


Kim Nam-joong (2003) Professors must meet a quota of students or hit the road Retrieved March 6, 2008 from Joong Ang Ilbo April 22, 2003


Kim, Yoon-ah (2004) Early Overseas Education, an Escape from Reality? Retrieved March 6, 2008 from University of Seoul Times, Vol. XXI, No.83, June 2004


Korea Information Service (2001) Historical and Modern Religions of Korea Retrieved March 6, 2008 from; Asia Society, website


Korea Jim (pseudonym; 2007) The State of Things: English as a Second Language in Korea, Korean-School blog Retrieved March 6, 2008 from, June 6, 2007.


Korea Times editorial (2005) The Business of Education in Korea Retrieved March 6, 2008 from; The Korea Times, 10 July 2005


Krishnamurthi, M (2005) English in India's future Retrieved March 6, 2008 from communication.htm, in Seminar Retrieved March 6, 2008 from No.549, May 2005 - a monthly symposium, New Delhi


Lee, In-Chul (2006) Native Speakers to Teach English Retrieved March 6, 2008 from Dong-a Ilbo 12 January 2006


Lee, Joseph J. (2004) The Impact of English on the Post-1945 South Korean Vernacular Retrieved March 6, 2008 from, Karen's Linguistics Issues Retrieved March 6, 2008 from, March 2004


Lee, So-im (2001?) The Underlying Beliefs and Values of Japanese Learners of Low Language Proficiency Retrieved March 6, 2008 from NEW - Lee.pdf; Ryokoku University through Stanford University web publication


Lim, Bo-Mi (2006) South Korean system aided research fraud Retrieved March 6, 2008 from Contra-Costa for Associated Press, January 8 2006


May, Thor (2003) Letter from a Chinese Postgraduate Retrieved March 6, 2008 from; personal website


May, Thor (2004) TESOL Program for a Postgraduate Certificate Articulating to Masters Retrieved March 6, 2008 from; personal website; actual curriculum content for such a program


May, Thor (2006) Summary: Language Tangle - Predicting and Facilitating Outcomes in Language Education Retrieved March 6, 2008 from; chapter summary and conclusions from a doctoral dissertation, University of Newcastle, NSW (forthcoming)


Nee, Seah Chiang (2001) Not By Rote But By Thinking Retrieved March 6, 2008 from The Star newspaper, Malaysia December 2, 2001 (pressure cooker education in Singapore)


Norrie, Justin (2005) Stop it, school cheats - there's nowhere to hide Retrieved March 6, 2008 from;Sydney Morning Herald, 27 August 2005


Pacitti, Domenico (1997) Italian jobs in high places Retrieved March 6, 2008 from , The Guardian (London & Manchester) February 11 1997


Schleicher, Andreas (2003) Progress in education - Studying the signs Retrieved March 6, 2008 from
/Progress_in_education.html;OECD Observer website


Shen, Yuan (2005) The Secrets of China's Most Profitable Sectors Retrieved March 6, 2008 from;Human Rights in China (HRIC) website


Sperling, Dave (~2008) Dave's ESL Cafe Retrieved March 6, 2008 from; major website for the exchange of jobs and information in the ESL industry


Thomas, Jean-Jacques (1998) Is There Still a Place for Linguistics in the Foreign Language and Literature Curriculum? Retrieved March 6, 2008 from ADFL Bulletin 30, No.1, 1998


Time-Taylor Group (~2006) EFL Law Retrieved March 6, 2008 from; an internet based legal organization which addresses all facets of law relating to the ESL industry (2006) Mandarin is on the rise Retrieved March 6, 2008 from;China View, 13 January 2006

Corruption and Other Distortions as Variables in Language Education
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