Is English A Mandatory Subject In Korean Schools? Why Do Many Koreans Have A Good Grasp Of English?

11 mins read

The answer would be: Yes, English is a mandatory subject in Korean schools. It’s due to a combination of factors, including mandatory English education, cultural influences, and the perception of English as a tool for advancement.

English has taken the world. It’s pretty much a requirement if you want to work or study in a lot of places.

Even in South Korea, a country with its own rich language and culture, English is a big deal.

In fact, a 2021 Education First study ranked South Korea 34th out of 112 countries in English proficiency – not too shabby! So, what’s the secret to their success?

Part of it is that Korean kids have to take English classes from elementary school all the way through high school. But it’s not just about the classroom.

Koreans are surrounded by English in their everyday lives, from the K-pop songs on the radio to the Hollywood movies in the theater.

Plus, many Koreans see speaking English as a ticket to better job opportunities and a wider world. It’s kind of like a national obsession, and it’s paying off.

Let’s take a closer look at how South Korea got to be so good at English, and maybe we can learn a thing or two from their “can-do” attitude.

English Education in South Korea

English as a Core Subject

English isn’t just an elective in South Korea – it’s a core subject, required for all students starting in third grade. This decision, made in 1997, reflects the government’s recognition of English’s importance in the globalized world.

On average, students spend 3-4 hours each week learning English, but some schools and grades may have even more dedicated time. This ensures consistent exposure and practice throughout their education.

English instruction continues from 3rd grade all the way through high school, building upon previous knowledge and progressively increasing in complexity.

Curriculum and Teaching Methods

The Korean English curriculum aims to develop well-rounded language skills, encompassing grammar, vocabulary, reading, writing, listening, and speaking. It’s not just about memorizing rules, but also about using English to communicate effectively.

While textbooks are the foundation, teachers use a variety of engaging methods to bring English to life. Games, songs, role-plays, and even technology like tablets and language learning apps are integrated into lessons.

Recognizing that classroom time may not be enough for everyone, many Korean students attend private language academies, known as “hagwons,” for additional instruction and practice.

Assessment and Standardized Testing

Throughout their academic journey, Korean students face standardized tests that assess their English proficiency. These tests are considered crucial for determining future opportunities.

High scores on English exams open doors to prestigious universities and competitive job markets. The pressure to excel in English is palpable, as it’s seen as a key factor in personal and professional success.

Why English is Everywhere in South Korea

While mandatory English education lays the groundwork for language skills, South Korea’s success in English proficiency goes far beyond textbooks and grammar drills. A mix of cultural enthusiasm, economic necessity, and government initiatives has created an environment where English thrives.

K-Pop, K-Dramas, and the Cool Factor

Korean pop culture, with its catchy tunes and captivating storylines, has taken the world by storm. K-Pop groups like BTS and Blackpink often incorporate English lyrics into their songs, while K-dramas like “Squid Game” have reached global audiences, sometimes with English subtitles or dubbing.

This exposure to English through popular media not only sparks interest in the language but also makes it feel relevant and cool to young Koreans.

The Language of Business and Opportunity

South Korea is an economic powerhouse, known for its innovative technology and global brands like Samsung and Hyundai. As these companies expand internationally, English becomes the common language for communication and collaboration.

The demand for English-speaking employees in various industries, from tech to tourism, is high. This economic reality motivates Koreans to learn English, as it’s seen as a gateway to better job prospects and career advancement.

Government Initiatives

The South Korean government has invested heavily in English education, recognizing its importance for the country’s economic development and global competitiveness.

Initiatives like the EPIK (English Program in Korea) and TaLK (Teach and Learn in Korea) programs bring native English speakers into Korean schools, providing students with valuable exposure to authentic language and cultural exchange.

English Fever

In South Korea, the pursuit of English fluency isn’t just about practical skills – it’s become something of a national obsession.

The term “English fever” describes the intense desire among Koreans to master the language, driven by a mix of cultural aspiration, economic ambition, and social pressure. English proficiency is often viewed as a marker of status and intelligence, fueling the demand for language classes, tutoring, and study abroad programs.

An example of this:

On a crowded subway in Seoul, two strangers strike up a conversation in English. One is a college student practicing for an upcoming job interview, the other a retiree who’s been learning English through an online course.

This kind of impromptu language exchange is surprisingly common in South Korea, where people of all ages and backgrounds are eager to improve their English skills. The motivation?

A mix of personal ambition, social pressure, and a genuine desire to connect with the world. Many dedicated learners supplement their self-study with additional lessons at English academies (영어 학원), where they can receive structured guidance and practice in a supportive environment.

화상 영어 (video English) courses, such as those offered by AmazingTalker, Making it all easy.

Parents’ High Expectations:

Korean parents place a strong emphasis on education, and English is no exception. Many invest significant resources in their children’s English education, enrolling them in private language academies (hagwons) and encouraging them to participate in extracurricular language programs.

This parental pressure, while sometimes intense, contributes to the overall high level of English proficiency in the country.

This combination of factors – cultural enthusiasm, economic incentives, government support, and social pressure – has created a unique environment in South Korea where English is not just a subject in school, but an integral part of daily life and a key to unlocking future opportunities.

The Other Side of the Coin

While South Korea’s success in English education is undeniable, it’s not without its challenges. Critics argue that the system, while effective in producing high test scores, often falls short in equipping students with the practical communication skills they need in the real world.

The “Hagwon Trap”

Step into any neighborhood in Seoul, and you’ll find multiple “hagwons” – private language academies – brightly lit and buzzing with activity. These cram schools are a ubiquitous part of Korean life, promising to boost students’ test scores and give them an edge in the competitive education landscape.

However, critics argue that the emphasis on test preparation in hagwons often comes at the expense of developing real-world communication skills. “It’s like training for a marathon without ever learning to enjoy running,” says one frustrated high school student.

Regional Divide

While students in major cities like Seoul have access to a plethora of resources and experienced teachers, those in rural areas often face a different reality.

The quality of English instruction can vary significantly depending on location, leading to disparities in proficiency levels. This regional divide is a concern for educators and policymakers alike, as it could hinder the country’s overall progress in English education.

The “Native Speaker” Bias in the Classroom

It’s no secret that native English-speaking teachers are highly sought after in South Korea. Many parents believe that only native speakers can provide their children with the authentic pronunciation and cultural context needed to truly master the language.

However, this preference can sometimes lead to discrimination against qualified Korean English teachers, who may have superior pedagogical skills and a deeper understanding of their students’ cultural context.


Despite these challenges, South Korea’s commitment to English education remains strong. Educators are increasingly exploring new approaches like communicative language teaching (CLT), which emphasizes real-life communication and interaction over rote memorization.

There’s also a growing focus on developing intercultural competence, helping students understand not just the language but also the cultures and perspectives of English-speaking countries.

While challenges remain, South Korea’s dedication to English education is undeniable. By adapting to the needs of a changing world and embracing innovative approaches, the country is poised to continue its success story in English language acquisition for years to come.

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