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Article originally written for the Korea Times.

If you are Korean and reading this newspaper, your English must be quite good, certainly gooder than most people.

But how about your spoken English? Is it also well good? Or are you hard when you speak English?

I am curious. Why, after so many years of hard work by respected teachers, can't students do the English conversation?

There is certainly more than one answer to this question. It is true that the objective of English teaching in Korea for a long time has been so that students can read the textbooks for their other subjects. Speaking with natives has not been the purpose. But with ever-expanding interaction overseas, that is changing, which is why the government is dictating that universities give lectures in English.

In a column this week, teacher-turned-columnist John Huer said the Korean mind is Korea's worst enemy in English learning. He said Korea's culture is our ``weapon of English mass destruction." This seems like an unkind thing to say. Columnist Huer, what do you mean? Does the same principle hold for other language learners? Must Japanese stop thinking like Japanese in order to learn German? The answer may be yes, if we are looking for second language perfection.

But language, in my opinion, is a technicality. The goal is communication, not perfection. Think about it. Perfection in English is relative. If you, a Korean, want to be an actress in Hollywood movies, you can ignore your spelling, but you need to perfect your accent. If you want to work for Reuters, it's the opposite.

One source of difficulty for Koreans is that they have learned English with reference to their own writing script. That's why ``55" comes out like ``pipperty-piber" and why words like ``love" and ``rub" and ``word" and ``world" are difficult to distinguish.

The Korean tongue curls back too much for English. That's why ``war" sometimes comes out as ``were." We may also blame the Korean lips, which are not accustomed to ``f" and ``v" and have to be trained not to put ``p" and ``b" in their place, which can be pucking dippicult.

I wonder sometimes if the Korean zeal for learning is not itself a problem. When I had my first stab at learning Korean at Yonsei University, we had about 25 new words a day. If we missed a week, we'd be 125 words behind, which is a lot considering that with an active vocabulary of 2,000 words, you could pretty much function in a language. If middle schoolers are losing sleep learning lists of English words, the chances are they are getting overwhelmed.

Whatever way you teach English, it is a bitch of a language. Take ``the" and ``a/an." I've no idea what the rule is for this. When I'm not sure, I say it out loud and see which one sounds right. But I see that foreigners, such as Koreans, have great trouble with this and easily get mixed up. In fact, this is the mistake I see most often with Koreans who otherwise write English well. Sometimes, they even add an article where none is necessary (``Canadian, are you taking the marijuana?")

Then there are prepositions. Why is it that you get on and off a bike, in and out a car, on and off a boat and a plane? How do you ever teach take in, take off, take on, take out, put off, put up, put up with, put out, get down, get it on, get by, get off, get real, get smart, get a life? I don't think that thinking like an Englishman will help. You just got to learn these meanings until you can say them without thinking.

The most obvious challenge to foreigners and native speakers is the spelling system. It appears to have been developed by lunatics. It is so bad that a significant number of school leavers in English-speaking countries cannot read or write properly. In that last sentence, why is ``read" not spelled ``rede" or "reed" and ``write" not written as ``right" or ``rite"?

There's history behind each word but you don't need to know it to speak the language.

Permission given to publish: Michael Breen is chairman of Insight Communications Consultants, Exclusive Partner of FD International. He can be reached at or website

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