India offers English stepping stone to East Asian students

Conditions may be basic, but competitive prices and good standards of education are attracting many learners from East Asia who want to consolidate language before heading on

The Guardian: Maseeh Rahman

Jinju, often described as South Korea’s most beautiful city, is an education hub, with many high schools, community colleges and universities. It seems strange, therefore, for a teenager from the city to leave his parents and study in a boarding school in an
alien land thousands of kilometres away from home.

Yet this is just what Sang Hyeon Cho, an 18-year-old 11th-grade student at the Woodstock School in Mussoorie, northern India, is doing.

He is not alone. There are hundreds of east Asian, especially South Korean, children enrolled in schools across India, pining for home food while persevering with their studies.

And the reason for their extraordinary conduct can be summed up in what to them is almost a magical word: English.

“A large part of Asia now sees English as an important vehicle for economic advancement,” said Abhrajit Bhattacharjee, development director at Woodstock. “Our ESL [English as Second Language] programme is a very big factor in wooing students to the school.”

Woodstock, nestling in the Himalayan foothills, has 63 students from Korea. It also has 14 Thai, nine Vietnamese, seven Japanese and two Taiwanese boarders, all enticed by the same dream: learning English.

South Korea’s embassy in Delhi records 1,100 boys and girls studying in 43 schools across India. The number was even higher three years ago.

“Korean parents top the world in their desire to give their children a good education,” said Taeyeong Jun, a Korean dorm master who joined Woodstock three years ago with his piano-teacher wife Mijung Park after getting a degree in divinity from Belfast.

“It’s very common in Korea – you may be heavily indebted, yet you’re willing to pay high educational fees for your children.”

Whenever necessary Jun and Park, whose two children also study at Woodstock, provide a sense of home in a foreign land to boarders like Cho. “For young people, the most difficult thing is the food,” said Park.

In some cases, entire families have relocated to India so that the children don’t miss the home environment while they get educated in English.

“We shifted to India because we like the country and thought we will get quality education at reasonable price,” Seung Chang Ha, 39, a Korean who earlier worked for a German trading firm, told the PTI news agency in Chandigarh city. Ha’s two children are enrolled
in the local British School, in nursery and grade one, while his wife Kun Young Seo is also learning English.

“The British School here already has 34 foreign students including 20 from Korea, 10 from Thailand and four from Iran,” he said.

Prime Speech Power (PSP) is a Korean-owned English language institute in Gurgaon, near Delhi, that conducts three-month intensive courses for older students in their early 20s. It enrols up to 100 students from Korea at any time.

South Korea today has many such institutes and, unlike in India, these have native English speakers as teachers. But they are twice as expensive as in India, have a very high student-teacher ratio and there’s no opportunity to use the language outside the classroom.
“Sometimes, even private tuition at home can be a waste of money,” said Jun.

So they happily come to India even though, as PSP manager Lee Nae-Sook put it, it can be “hot, dusty, dirty, like Korea in the 1970s, with terrible roads and auto-rickshaw drivers who try to fleece you”. A 12-week course at PSP with five hours of daily tuition,
including one-on-one, costs just $4,500. This also pays for shared accommodation, all meals and a yoga class.

“India has very kind teachers, like mothers, which is important in a foreign place,” said Nae-Sook. The pronounced Indian accent of some can be a problem, though, so PSP likes to employ women teachers educated at American mission schools in north-eastern India.

But why do Korean and other east Asian parents send their children to India and not to countries where English is the majority language such as the UK, the US, Canada or Australia?

Teachers, students and administrators list three main reasons: Indian schools are cheaper than, say, in UK or Australia; many schools in English-speaking countries don’t offer ESL; and even though India can be a difficult place to live in, it is seen as an
emerging economic powerhouse. Yet almost all students also see India as just a stepping stone for higher education and jobs in English-speaking countries, especially in the US.

Cho’s odyssey is instructive. Twice rejected by Woodstock, he was sent to a school on Australia’s Gold Coast. English language teaching there wasn’t intensive enough, he felt, and he was also unhappy with his accommodation with a local family. He finally got
into Woodstock a year ago, and feels more positive about the future now – after military service, he wants to study business management in Europe and work abroad for a time before returning to Korea. “The important thing is to know English,” he said. “The
accent doesn’t matter.”

His Vietnamese classmates, Minh Le and Hung Nguyen, both 17, nod in agreement. Though Minh Le studied French for seven years in Hanoi, he opted for English and Woodstock as “my older sister, who studied in Indiana, advised me that English is a more universal
language”. He plans to study business management in the US or Canada.

But the number of students coming from South Korea has been on the decline during the last three years as word has got around that not all Indian schools provide quality education.

“Many new international schools have magnificent infrastructure, but the quality of teaching is poor,” said embassy consular assistant HH Kim. “If schools don’t employ better-trained teachers then Koreans may no longer be interested in sending their children
to India. Only a few good schools like Woodstock will continue to attract students.”

(The views expressed above are the personal views of the author)

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