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The promise of English: Linguistic capital and the job market in South Korea Joseph Sung-Yul Park National University of Singapore

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1 The promise of English: Linguistic capital and the job market in South Korea Joseph Sung-Yul Park National University of Singapore

2 The promise of English The belief that English will bring benefits to those who learn it – or in an economic version: English will provide better jobs and better pay Such beliefs often serve as a justification for the spread of English Many researchers have pointed out the fallacy of such assumptions

3 Particularly salient today are claims that... English holds out promise of social and economic development to all those who learn it (rather than a language tied to very particular class positions and possibilities of development); and that English is a language of equal opportunity (rather than a language that creates barriers as much as it presents possibilities)... This thing called English colludes with many of the pernicious processes of globalisation, [and] deludes many learners through the false promises it holds out for social and material gain... (Pennycook 2007: )

4 [We] must reject the notion that learning a language is an ideologically neutral act intended simply to develop an employment skill. That some people must learn English to get a job is a result of unequal relationships of power – not a solution to them. (Tollefson 1991: 210) What counts as good competence is a matter of social construction, constrained by the structure of the linguistic market

5 In this talk: The promise of English, as often articulated in popular discourse about the practical utility of English, is an illusion What can be gained from English is always constrained by relations of social power The linguistic market constantly redefines what counts as valued competence, reproducing and justifying its own structure

6 English in South Korea Heavy emphasis on learning English – workers investing time and money in learning English – huge market for private language institutes and short term study abroad This boom is in part driven by the promise of English – in the white collar job market, many corporations use English language skills as criterion for employment and promotion But those with higher social class have better access to opportunities for learning English

7 Changing trends in the Korean job market circa 1995 – massive restructuring of Korean corporations due to the nations segyehwa (globalization) drive – chaeyong pagoe (shattering of hiring practices): conventional means of skills assessments were replaced with new means intended to identify skills appropriate for the global market – traditional written English tests (focusing on grammatical knowledge) replaced with TOEIC/TOEFL

8 but by 2005, the popularity of TOEIC and TOEFL as a means of assessment started to weaken – TOEIC/TOEFL lost their discriminatory power, and means of assessment changed to interviews in English, group discussions in English, etc. Unlike 5, 6 years ago when there were only few candidates with scores of 900 and above, nowadays there are so many high scorers that TOEIC scores are becoming meaningless. (Kookmin Ilbo, )

9 – The increase in TOEIC scores was not interpreted as an indication of a general improvement in workers English skills; the claim was that despite abundance of high scores, competent speakers of English are still rare, and thus the tests cannot be trusted Getting a perfect score on TOEIC does not mean one can speak English well We cannot trust that a candidate with a high score in TOEIC will have the ability to use English effectively (Kookmin Ilbo, ) one can raise ones score in a short period of time just by learning how to make the right guess, regardless of ones English language skills (Jugan Chosun )

10 Such reevaluation of modes of assessment must be seen as an ideological recalibration of what counts as good English skills – As more job seekers gain better scores in the tests, recalibrating the importance of the test becomes necessary to keep using English as a means of distinction This has the effect of maintaining the myth that anyone could still access valued jobs through proper investment in English (the reason many workers cant is just because they didnt study English hard enough)

11 Comparison with gender discrimination Similar mechanisms are at work in the reproduction of gender discrimination as analyzed by Krais (1993) – When women entered the labor market, system of valuation of skills was recalibrated so that mens labor was valued more than womens gender discrimination on the labor market operates by the social recognition or denial of competences and skills. Recognition of skills … is mediated by power relations (Krais 1993: )

12 In both cases, the central mechanism is some form of assessment, which is meant to be seen as neutral and objective In this sense, the changes in the Korean job market are not about English per se … – but about the neoliberal job market, in which constant competition and self-management is the rule, and where workers cannot hope to achieve their goals simply by aiming for the criteria that the corporations suggest English plays an important role in obscuring this order, as linguistic competence is often considered a matter of objective evaluation, rather than a social construction

13 Conclusions In the Korean job market, the fulfillment of the promise of English is constantly deferred The promise of English, instead, serves to rationalize and justify the neoliberal order of the job market and social inequality

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