Why Indians speak better English than Koreans

18 05 2010

These days Teaching English in South Korea is considered one of the hottest jobs as compared to other Asian countries like China, Japan etc.  The government is spending a lot of money in recruiting native speakers and making this nation very affluent in English. English is taught predominantly by native speakers. And most of the public as well as private institutions prefer English Teacher from native speaking countries like US, UK, Australia, New Zealand etc. Koreans spend a lot of money in learning English. But still you wont find many Koreans who could speak English fluently.

The other day I met this girl in a parade who had stayed in New Zealand for like 2 yrs for studying English but she was not very confident about her English Speaking skills. Trust me she spoke good English but she was not very fluent. I strongly feel that as compared to her (and other Koreans) we Indians speak better and fluent English that too, without staying in any native English Speaking country.

I meet Koreans who have spent years in countries like Australia, America etc.  yet they pause while speaking because they are forming sentences in their mind. It is very common in Korea to find people who have spent life abroad just to be surrounded in an English Speaking environment so that they get more exposure to the English speaking crowd and that helps them improve their command over English Language. But they still stammer in English.

I have also met Korean families where the kids with their mom live and study in a native English speaking country and the dad would work in Korea and send money to support the kids education abroad. All this only for the sake of English.

So the first question which comes to my mind is that why is it that these Koreans who after having so much of an exposure to the foreigners and after having traveled so much still struggle when it comes to speaking English where as we Indians with very less exposure to foreigners and with no native speaking teachers to teach us speak much better English than Koreans.

And the answer is obvious for any Indian who is staying in Korea. Media and Education. Both play a very important role in our English education and we will look at them one by one.

  • Mostly 70-80% of the schools and colleges in urban India and almost 50% of the schools in rural India teach subjects in English, except for languages. Which is not very common in Korea. Most of the Koreans I have met study their subjects in Korean and study English only as a language subject in schools and colleges.
  • In India mostly 70% of the nation reads the newspaper in English. And there are so many of them to chose from. You visit any random newspaper vendor in India and you would find that the count of English magazines and newspaper surpassing their local counterparts. Koreans also have newspaper in English but they are mostly targeted to the expat community. 99% of the Koreans would prefer to read newspaper and magazines in Korean. Only if the media stops or limits the printing of newspaper and magazines in Korean will they do some good for the people of their own country.
  • One thing I like about Indian Movie channels is that they display English movie with English subtitles. So it becomes easier for us to enjoy the movie and not get lost in the accent. Apart from that most of the Indian music channels as well as radio stations have VJ/RJ who host the shows in English. The youth in India is well fed on English media, where as in Korea you walk in to any cinema for watching English movies and you will find it with Korean Subtitles. Which I do not blame keeping in mind the current circumstances else people will stop watching English movies. And if at all the DJ/RJ will start hosting their shows in English then they will lose their fan following soon.
  • Now this is an extremely important step to do if the Korean government wants to help the upcoming generation with their usage of English. It should stop translating academic books as well as fiction in Korean. Walk into any bookstore in Korea and you will find books and books in Korean. Even the bestsellers like Harry Potter, Twilight etc are translated in Korean. In any normal Korean book shop only around 20-30% of the section is allocated to English books. Whereas in India if one walks into any bookstore like landmark or crossword, one will find books in English only. Bookshops in India cater to all kinds of readers from technical to academic to fiction to non-fiction to self-help books (but in English).

It is all about the exposure and the right exposure for that matter. No matter how many native speaking teachers you recruit. No matter how many countries you visit or work or stay. No matter how many private tuitions you do. No matter how many English songs you listen to. No matter how many foreign friends you hang out with. No matter how many English Movies or Sitcoms you watch (with Korean subtitles) you will improve you English only if you READ. Read as much as you can in English dedicatedly. Read books, read newspaper, read articles, read blogs, read magazines, read manuals, read anything and  everything you can put your hands on. The more you read in English the more it will stay with you in your mind and will come automatically to you when you are talking or writing.

Yes I do agree that watching English movies and sitcom,  having foreign friends and other things do help. But not as much as READING. Why do you think we Indians can speak better English than Korean? Because, we are forced to read. There are many schools in India where teaching happens in local language but in Colleges the subjects are taught only in English. So it is mandatory for us to read and write in English. The only way I improved my English was by joining a library during my vacation. I used to read and read a lot in English. And Korean as I see is a nation of very good readers. People in Korea love reading. So henceforth if you have to chose a book for reading make sure it is printed in English.

Most of the English Movie DVD’s available in the market come with English Subtitles for people with hearing disability. Knowing English but not understanding the accent and pronounciation can also be considered as a disability. So next time when you are watching movies, make sure that you watch it with English subtitles and not Korean Subtitles. These subtitles are like floats to help you swim. Once you can swim on your own then you will discover many new oceans to conquer in English.

On a side note, since Korea itself is not a native English speaking country it should look at the learning strategies adopted by other developing and non-native countries like India, Philippines, Malaysia (as mentioned by Joseph Dart) and incorporate their best practices in its education system, rather than just recruiting native speakers as teachers. Given an opportunity, any certified teacher for whom English is a second language would be in a better position to teach from his / her experience of learning English. And for native speakers TESOL or TEFL does a good job in teaching them the difficulties faced by non-natives while learning English or any other language. So if someone takes out time to get certified as a TESOL or TEFL certified teacher, it shows his / her commitment towards teaching English to non-native speakers. Having said that Korean Government should also give equal weightage to both native speakers as well as qualified/certified teachers from India and Philippines.

Thanks for your time.
Brijesh Bolar




20 responses

18 05 2010
Why Indians speak better English than Koreans « Just Another … | Indian Today

[…] more here:  Why Indians speak better English than Koreans « Just Another … Share and […]

20 05 2010
Kiss My Kimchi

I think you hit it on the head with the reading aspect of learning a new language. My friend loves to read, watch English sitcoms and listen to English music. Without ever studying abroad his English sounds practically native.


20 05 2010
Brijesh Bolar

Thanks Brian.. I have subscribed to you blog on my Google Reader and I follow it regularly.. And to receive a comment from you is a big honour to me..

Ye.. you so right. Sitcoms help a lot to pick up the nuances of native speakers..

20 05 2010
Why Indians Speak Better English than Koreans « Expacked

[…] Click Here for the Full Story (Source: Just Another Indian in Korea) […]

28 05 2010

Just stopping by to say I enjoyed this post and look forward to more of your perspective as an Indian in Korea. I saw “Just Another Indian in Korea” and, pardon my ignorance, didn’t realize there were others blogging about it in English.

I’m curious if you have any experience in the English education business in Korea. I ask because I wonder if you could compare the intensity with which Koreans study—for purely domestic purposes—the language compared to what you experienced in India.

28 05 2010
Brijesh Bolar

Dear Brian,

Thanks for stopping by my blog and your esteemed feedback.

To answer your question I thought it was better that I write a new blog than to reply to this post.

You can read my reply here –

Please let me know on your thoughts for the same.

Brijesh Bolar

4 06 2010

Obviously many Koreans who go to broad deliberately or inadvertently end up being exposed to other Korean speakers and fall into a rut of surrounding themselves in Koreanness while abroad (not unlike a lot of anglophones in Korea).

I wonder, though, if grammatical styles of the L1 in play makes a difference. Many Japanese exhibit the same kinds of L2 acquisition failure that Koreans do, and both have a grammar that is essentially “backwards” from English, while the language itself contains a lot of nebulous ways of communication that are difficult to articulate in a more straightforward language like English.

Do Hindi and the other dominant languages of India have any of these “issues”?

4 06 2010
Brijesh Bolar

Hindi, I’d say has the same SOV (subject-object-verb) structure in a sentence just like Korean language. But unlike Korean Hindi has many characters (consonants), more than English and then there are separate set of vowels but they are always taught and used along with the consonants. Since there are so many consonant the pronunciation is not mixed up. Meaning B and P, R and L, T and D, J and ch are treated as separate consonants so using them individually would lead to a new word. I am really not sure about other languages, but one thing which is commonly noticed is that people from North and West of India use Hindi so there English pronunciation is understandable by a native speaker whereas people from South have this local accent so understanding their English could be challenging, provided they have exposure to the other parts of India / abroad.

The problem in India is not mainly about the English language but its pronunciation. Exposure also plays a very important role on an individual level. You could meet two people in same office, school etc, may be same level of qualification but their level of English Usage and fluency might differ a lot depending upon how much they chose to follow the western sitcom, movies and so on.

4 06 2010
Joseph Dart

The main reasons English does so well in India are things that Korea simply can’t copy by “working hard” or even “working smart”. Size is the obvious one. Having a critical mass of English speakers (in simple number terms) makes businesses like all-English bookstores possible at a larger scale.

Malaysia is a better example for Korea, probably: they’re a small country, yet still have enough English speakers to support those kinds of businesses. But how did Malaysia get so good at English in the first place? They have multiple vernaculars, same as India or the Philippines. Or more precisely, they have two immigrant groups (Indians and Chinese) who never gave up their own vernaculars to make Malay their own mother tongue.

Funnily enough, in the past, Korea was multilingual too! They had the Goguryeo and Silla languages, not to mention Manchu and possibly other Tungusic languages in the North. But those are long gone and survive only as a few funny names for plants and animals used by people in deep rural areas. And today, of course, you don’t see political parties in South Jeolla trying to ban the Seoul language and make the local dialect and English the sole languages of administration, like the Dravidian movements in Tamil Nadu in the 1960s.

4 06 2010
Brijesh Bolar

Joseph, point taken. Malaysia is indeed a better example and I’ve updated my post accordingly.

Yes the mass of English Speaker one is surrounded with makes a lot of difference. Which I see lacking in Korea. And the mass will have to created locally rather than importing them. The government has a huge role to play in terms of publications and bringing about a change in its education system.

Speaking of Malaysia it makes me curious too. Would love to know from someone about their story on what makes them good at English.

5 06 2010

You brag that Indians are so much better at English despite not being a native English speaking country. I would disagree. Even though it is not “native” to India, it has been spoken there for generations since the British colonization, so it has become “native”. The fact that there are so many different languages in India also drove the push for people to learn English. In Korea, people only need to learn English for certain jobs and to do well in school. So it’s not due to the smarter efforts of Indians, but just the fact that there are a lot more resources and incentives for learning English in India. It’s like bragging about speaking your native language well. Many people do it.

7 06 2010
Brijesh Bolar

Hi Jstele, you are right when you said that I brag about Indians. So here is my reasoning for the same. I had two intentions in my mind while writing my blogs on Indian English.

1. To help Koreans learn English – When I came to Korea for the first time I was a bit shocked to see Koreans spending so much for learning English. I strongly feel that it is top priority in the to-do list of almost all Koreans. It is like a national issue. People are deeply concerned about learning English and it shows in their action as mentioned above in my post. Where as in places like India, Malaysia etc. people just don’t care (so much about learning English). You put your kid into a nice school and the school takes care of the rest.

After staying here for some time I do realize that Korean language has limited consonants as compared to English so pronunciation is a big problem for locals here, which makes English a difficult language to learn. Learning English here would also be more difficult as compared to India but along with the language the exposure too makes it difficult. And by exposure I do not mean that an individual has to be surrounded by English Speaking persons all the time. By exposure I mean the education system, publications and media in Korea. Koreans should have more and more local publications in English, informative as well as entertainment.

Well, India is still on its way to become native and it has reached this stage today because it was kind of mandatory for them to learn English. Whereas in Korea I feel English is still optional. There are no local publications available in English and the one that are available are for the expat community written and published mostly by expats. So my whole point is to make English mandatory. Having said that I would also say that what Korea has achieved in the past few years is highly commendable so if even 40-50% of this nation starts speaking English they would be on their way to take over the world.

2. To promote Indian English Teachers – well I strongly feel that Koreans should feel the same way as you feel (that India is native) so that they would be on an individual level be more open to hire private English Teachers. The public schools have already started recruiting Indian English Teachers for fall.. So the bragging was all about that. Making Koreans aware about India.

14 06 2010

hmm, i think the biggest mistake with this post is you leave out india’s british history. why does hongkong speak english so much better than shanghai, despite being the same chinese? why do maylaisaans speak better than indonesians, despite being very similar nations? same thing.

14 06 2010
Can Indians teach English? « Just Another Indian in Korea

[…] is all about awareness. And with this and my previous post here and here I’d like to create that awareness about the English Speaking junta of […]

6 07 2010

…… indians speak better english because of Britain. koreans speak there own languages, so do japanese, chinese, french, etc. being able to speak english, the international langauge is quite benificial, although, comparing your superiority with other countries is not.

6 07 2010
Brijesh Bolar

Dear Sandesh.. I am not comparing the superiority of Indians.. Rather I am creating awareness about the English Speaking capability of Indians so that it creates more job opportunities for Indians to come here and teach. The reason Korea does not prefer Indian English Teachers is because they are not aware.

21 07 2010
My article in AsiaMag. « Just Another Indian in Korea

[…] article in AsiaMag. 21 07 2010 Some time back I had written this article on Why Indians speak better English than Koreans. This article generated both curiosity and agitation amongst the native English Teachers.  And […]

12 08 2010
Study English in Korea / Philippines

Well, I think you should not comparing the two ethnicity on which of them is better in english. For me, it depends on them if they push themselves to study, learn and practice and practice. We can speak English Language better if we practice talking/speaking everyday. I think Koreans are possible to speak better in English if they enroll at Cleverlearn. I recommend to all for those who want to study and learn better in english, enroll at Cleverlearn English Language Institute.

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1 09 2010

very good article sir. Indians are far better than Japan, china or Korea in terms of English speaking capabilities the only problem is pronunciation.

23 10 2010

Sorry but I fail to get the point of this article. The way you have written it and specially the examples you have given of why an Indian speaks good English are not only ridiculous but are to be ashamed of.

Firstly, from where have you got those facts of 70% and 50% teach in English? what is the source. Only 4% of India speaks English which still is a large sum considering our population but that doesn’t mean 70 and 50% of urban and rual school teach in English.

Secondly, the tone of the article make it sound as if you are proud of the fact that kids are taught in English. It is shameful in my opinion. As Mahatma Gandhi said: the best way to teach a kid is to teach him in his mother tongue.
Countries like France,Germany,Holland, Norway and several others teach their children in their own language and teach English as a subject only. They’re successful.

The way in which the middle and upper class are getting allured to these “English medium” schools is just leaving they’re kids with no proper knowledge of English or their mother tongue and I for one think that it is disgusting.

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