Sri Lanka, South Korea and ELT, For Whom the Bomb Ticks.

There is a really interesting guest piece (and discussion) over at Tefltastic concerning the South Korean Government’s decision to recruit 2,000 Sri Lankan teachers to teach English in South Korea. Teflista, a regular and respected contributor to debates around the TEFL blogosphere, had this to say concerning the issue:

I think that all of this is going to have the opposite effect (see here for goals of EPIK programme: Editor’s note) and actually increase the shortage of Korean English teachers in the long run. If I was new Korean teacher of English struggling to get by on a salary that hasn’t been increased much in 15 years, I think that I would consider quitting after this deal. What incentives to good Korean teachers have to stay in teaching any more? That article mentions setting up a teacher training facility in Sri Lanka? Well, how about more training for Koreans in Korea? I think that this is all a big bomb just waiting to explode…

Of course, here at MTG, we would wish to support Teflista’s concern for the interests of Korean teachers of English 100%, but we would also like to tease out further this notion of “a big bomb just waiting to explode”.

Graddol was right!! All hail “the great one”, the true Messiah.

Of course we are only kidding. It is true that Graddol (all credit to him) predicted that English will no longer be owned by native speakers and that other countries where English is not the mother tongue, will use their English skills to gain “competitive advantage” over native speaking English countries, but this is only half the story. Unless of course you had a one-sided view that only native speakers could benefit from English, this “revelation” that South Korea are recruiting English teachers on the cheap from Sri Lanka, will hardly come as a surprise. The fact remains, however, that a “proper English education”, involving learning about English culture and, preferably studying in the US, UK or Australia, is still a marker of social class. Whilst there are indeed, many Englishes, each one of these Englishes is ordered hierarchically, and this hierarchy is used to perpetuate and justify inequalities (not just outside native speaking English countries but at the very heart of these countries themselves).

The fact remains, however, that a strong message has been sent to native English speakers, that in South Korea, the native speaking English teacher is not as indispensable as they once may have thought. This is not such a ticking bomb (to use Teflista’s metaphor) but the steady taking in of water of a boat over laden with too many passengers (ill-prepared unqualified native speaking  English teachers) for the long voyage ahead.

The roots of racism

Interestingly, the author of the excellent English Raven (Jason Renshaw) also points out (in the contributions to the same article):

The idea of allowing Indian and Philippine teachers to work in Korea has been discussed a lot over the past couple of years, but the reaction from within Korea has been very negative. So why now SRI LANKA (and only Sri Lanka), and why so many?


I have real concerns. Korean students and parents generally have a pretty appalling attitude to South Asians. These teachers are going to have a real challenge being accepted into the cultural climate of Korean public schools.

Now, we should not forget that there is problem (as there is in most countries) with rising levels of racism and xenophobia  (this article here from an Asian American writer gives a nice overview) and native speaking English teachers are already targets of such animosity (as we explained in our article “at first naieve, almost childlike”: Battles Rage in South Korea. The point is to understand this racism and put it into context. The first point is that South Korea desperately requires outside labour as its own population ages and the “fertility rate” continues to decline (Koreans are having fewer children and having them much later). This situation mirrors the situation in key European countries where we also see “managed migration” policies to fill labour shortages. Korea’s socioeconomic/demographics imbalance is arguably worse, however, given this United Nations report of 2000.

Now obviously, the government aims to close particular skills shortages (namely low paid work it is difficult to get South Koreans to do at such low cost) but this is also an opportunity to start new business ventures and services with very cheap workers in new areas, avoiding the inconvenience of locating abroad. Also, unemployment in South Korea is currently running at 4% (a 28% increase on last year but far lower than the 7% unemployment level in 1998) but we would be wrong to suggest Koreans and migrant workers are necessarily chasing the same jobs. It is important to understand that capitalist economies grow incredibly unevenly (and wastefully) and that the skills or expectation levels of workers don’t magically transform overnight to meet changing economic needs. It is no surprise, therefore, to read that as well as actively recruiting teachers in Sri Lanka, South Korea is also recruiting workers (on mass) in Nepal

As John Molyneaux points out in this excellent article, The Politics of Migration:

The issue of migrant labour and/or refugees is at, or near, the top of the political agenda in many countries round the world today.

There are two main reasons for this. First, the combination of globalisation and war over the last decade or so has generated flows of migration greater, possibly, than at any previous point in human history – in excess, possibly, even of the huge displacement of people caused by the Second World War. Second, the ruling classes in most of the affected countries put it there.

Despite the fact that these ruling classes are directly or indirectly responsible for the bulk of this movement of people (either by driving people out of one part of the world through poverty, unemployment or war, or attracting them to another part to meet labour shortages) they try to ensure that the prevailing attitude to the phenomenon of migration and to the migrants themselves, is one of hostility.

Now this is not to suggest that the rulers invent racism and then put it into workers’ heads, racism grows from a real fear amongst workers that they are losing control over the ability to shape their own lives. There is a general sensation of uncontrollable change which turns into racist hostility when standards of living are threatened. Of course, liberals chastise and look down on workers for their unenlightened views, saying racism should not be tolerated but they are too quick to tolerate the material conditions in which  racism is fed, like unemployment, lack of suitable housing, pressures on the health service, low pay etc. And of course, Liberals always support Immigration controls/managed migration, because they know this is the only way of “ensuring social harmony” and economic growth.

From the employers’ perspective it is expected that the migrant worker and native worker follow the natural laws of the economy, the native workers will always benefit provided they show ultimate flexibility and migrant workers should be prepared to accept their role (quiet, passive, unnoticed) at the bottom of the value chain in return for more money than they would earn “at home”. Of course, it never works out like that and hostilities and ill-feelings break out as both groups are cheated by the system. Readers from the UK should never forget that it was arch-racist Enoch Powell, who recruited workers from the “commonwealth “ in the 1950’s before turning on them and asking them to be repatriated in the late 1960’s (in the midst of an economic recession). Our rulers have no morals and no decency and their attempts to divide us should be opposed

So, maybe the ticking bomb Teflista refers to is the ticking bomb of racism and the extreme right wing. It was ticking before this in South Korea, and it’s certainly ticking in other places around the globe (most notably Europe and the US).


Maybe the bomb is ticking in a less apocalyptic manner altogether. In Taiwan, teachers and parents have taken to the streets to protest against government plans to extend the teaching of English in state elementaryschools to three hours per week and Malaysia saw riots last year over government attempts to teach science and maths in English. Even Germany is radically reviewing the amount of English instruction it undertakes and Japan is considering axing its JET programme. It seems that the very notion that English guarantees prosperity and is all important is coming under challenge. This is not to say, that fluent English speakers in South Korea and elsewhere do not often enjoy better living conditions than those who do not. The belief, however, that equality and prosperity can be gained though the teaching of English is being contested. Everywhere, governments have promoted English in particular as a gateway to a better life but people are rapidly seeing it is gatekeeper and not gateway. If English was important then governments would have invested a great deal more in it. South Korea would be sending its teachers on sabbaticals abroad in English speaking countries rather than seeking low paid English teachers from outside South Korea. The truth is English and education will always be manipulated by the rich to reproduce their advantages over society. It is the sons and daughters of the rich who study abroad and go to “Elite International schools” not the working class fodder who become state school teachers.

Of course, English in schools has become a real political football like league tables in the UK or percentage of students going to university. Governments are trying to “demonstrate” a commitment to equality of opportunity on the one hand and a well-qualified workforce high up on the hierarchy of the international division of labour, on the other.  We say that if governments were really interested in either they would invest more (smaller class sizes, better trained teachers, training sabbaticals and paid leave for all workers). The truth is, however, that language learning and education is an ideological mask for rampant inequality. If the ability to speak English were a true determinant of social wealth then the Philippines and Sri Lanka would already be outperforming the South Korean economy.

Indeed. any followers of the hit series “Lost”, will be aware of husband and wife characters from South Korea, Jin and Sun, who are “trapped” on an island (along with others) following a plane crash.  Much is made of the fact that Jin, the son of a fisherman and prostitute, cannot speak English, whilst his well-educated sophisticated and liberal wife, Sun, can (she is the daughter of a Mafia boss). Indeed, not only is this embarrassing for the traditional unreconstructed male character but as he begins to learn English, he flowers , not just a communicator but, as a human being, leaving his wife-beating and racism behind him and beginning to embrace the culture(s) of his fellow survivors. And here you have all the classic ideology of English speaking, social class, education and progressive thinking rolled into one neat story line broadcast on prime TV around the globe. Yet again, this is not rubbish placed by some conspiratorial elite into the heads of the masses, but ideas which no matter how twisted and deranged they are (remember the US, where they speak English a lot, was built on racism and slavery  and where there are more shelters for maltreated animals than there are for a battered women) they still appear to reverberate with reality (sophisticated-intelligent-wealthy  people speak English).

And it is here that we suggest the bomb might be ticking. For like, “lost” where characters are forced   to input a number to prevent the explosion of a gigantic bomb, education systems around the world are being asked to pursue English or face catastrophic consequences. And, like “Lost”, people are beginning to ask serious questions about the “blind faith” being asked of them, especially when they are becoming the downtrodden prisoners of such an act. For all the efforts of the South Korean teachers, they see no immediate improvements in their standard of living and English brings no more equality for their state school students.  The recruitment of 2,000 extra teachers from Sri Lanka only serves to make them question the role and purpose of English in South Korean society, if English is the gateway to wealth, why are they (English teachers) getting poorer?

We very much enjoyed the article over at Tefltastic and in particular, Teflista’s contributions, we hope our article contributes to the debate.



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3 responses to “Sri Lanka, South Korea and ELT, For Whom the Bomb Ticks.

  1. marxistelf

    Top marks, to “investigative sleuth” Alex Case for finding this posible link behind the recent “initiative”:

  2. Yes, this is a fascinating and possibly very illuminating development. I enjoyed reading your follow up comments and theories here, and it does tie in quite nicely with some of your other recent posts.

    The sleuthwork of Mr. Case did bear out my suspicion (stated earlier in my comments on that post) that:

    I have a feeling that this is definitely a side dish in some sort of major trade deal…

    On an aside, I meant to mention here a little while ago (in response to your posts about the crash of schools and learners numbers in Japan) that in the past six months I have had an explosion of Japanese students joining my (comparatively VERY cheap) online programs. It is a minor anecdote in the bigger scheme of things, but I was wondering where these learners all suddenly turned up from (and why) – all pretty much at once.

    Something is definitely changing. Whether it is ripples or waves is yet to be determined.

    • marxistelf

      Yes Jason, absolutely spot on:
      “Something is definitely changing. Whether it is ripples or waves is yet to be determined.”

      And, with this in mind, special thanks for that extra insight about the online programme.

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