Web boom in English-obsessed Korea

SEOUL (Reuters) - Armed with the world’s fastest Internet and an even stronger desire to learn English, South Koreans are using the latest Web resources to master a language that is the economic and emotional focus of their education.

On any given day, students ranging from kids learning their alphabet to adults preparing for job interviews sign in on their Internet messengers, fire up their webcams and wait for English teachers to appear -- from faraway continents.

They hope one-on-one chats with foreigners will help them fix pronunciation, get rid of native accents and feel more comfortable with a foreign language. The country’s official teaching methods, based on grammar exercises and vocabulary lists, have consistently failed to deliver such benefits.

South Korea’s average score in the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) is below the world average despite having the largest number of students taking the test.

“It is really nice to look at my English teacher through the computer screen and feel like having a chat with a new friend outside the country,” said Oh Sun-young, who takes a Web-camera English course on Skype with her Philippine instructor.

Web English is the latest hit in South Korea’s booming English education market, enabled by handy gadgets and widespread fiber-optics networks.

The new service, along with more traditional conversation courses offered by phone, is one of the fastest growing segments in South Korea’s private English education industry, which is estimated at 15 trillion won ($13 billion) a year -- almost half of the country’s annual education budget.

About 150 to 200 companies are in the market offering phone and Web English tutoring.

“Students who are very inexperienced with English may initially find the classes challenging, but within three months, there is a tremendous improvement in most of the students’ speaking ability,” said Tara McKibben, a phone English tutor who has been teaching over seven years from the United States.

KT Corp, South Korea’s dominant fixed-line and broadband operator, provides a service called “Hello ET” cooperating with a South Korean English education company.

“We provide Web-cameras to our videophone English customers so that they can log on the website and have live chat with instructors,” said Kang Joo-hyun, a “Hello ET” spokeswoman.

One-on-one conversation in English is technically close to real-live talk, held in Web phone service such as Skype. A message board opens adjacent to the conversation browser, so that participants can check the spelling of a word or start writing if they struggle to understand each other.

Internet portal SK Communications runs “Spicus” which includes a job interview drill on a video-chat platform. Applicants hand out their completed English resume before the drill. An interviewer stages a simulation interview through webcam, looking through resumes, and later provides feedback on logical speaking and communication skills.

“Interviewers are former officials in human resources department of big U.S. (companies) such as IBM,” Ryu Hee-jo, a spokeswoman for SK Communications, said.


Good English test scores and speaking skills are considered an indispensable key for success in South Korea. In their quest for fluent English, a great deal of wealthy South Koreans simply flee their country’s school system and its rigid teaching methods.

South Korea ranks No. 1 in the number of international students in the United States, ahead of more populous India and China, according to U.S. Student and Exchange Visitor Information System.

However, for those who cannot afford thousands of dollars a month in learning English abroad or spare time for look for meeting arrangements, video chat at home fulfills their aspiration at much cheaper prices. A three-times-a-week Web English course can be covered for about 100,000 won a month.

($1=1151.0 Won)

Editing by Rhee So-eui and Derek Caney