South Korean teen Kang Tae-won studies English in the Philippines. (Photo: Jason Strother)

South Korean teen Kang Tae-won studies English in the Philippines. (Photo: Jason Strother)

In South Korea, learning English is a national obsession.

Families pay billions of dollars a year on extra curricular education so their kids can enroll in top universities and later land high paying jobs that require good English skills.

The Philippines has become one of Korea’s top destinations for overseas language education.
 
Like almost every other South Korean high school students, 17-year old Kang Tae-won spends every weekday evening at a private academy learning English.
 
He says his future depends on it.
 
“In the near future, we will have a borderless world and everyone will need to communicate with each other. English is the global language and that’s why I need to study it,” he said.  
 
When I first met Kang, the Korean winter was just setting in. The next time I saw him, he was studying in a much warmer location.
 
For 3 months, Kang enrolled at a private academy for learning English in Baguio City, 250-km north of the Philippine capital Manila.
 
The majority of students here are South Korean. They live in the school’s upstairs dormitory and study with local teachers for about eight hours a day on a floor designated as the English Only Zone.  
 
Kang tells me his English has improved since coming here.
 
“It is a good atmosphere to study English.  I am study hard to writing, reading, grammar, vocabulary, listening,” he said.
 
Thousands of South Koreans come to the Philippines every year to study English.  They enroll at hundreds of academies around the country or take private lessons with locals.  The Philippines has become one of Korea’s top destinations for overseas language education.
 
Yoo Moon-young owns the private academy where Kang studies back home. She brought 11 of her students to a school in Baguio this year.
 
“In the winter I take my students to the city of Baguio in the Philippines to study English. The atmosphere and weather there in Baguio is nice,” she said.
 
But Yoo explains that Korean parents send their kids to the Philippines for more than just the good weather.
 
“20 years ago, I used to take kids to the US and Canada to study, but because of the Korean economy parents wanted more time and cost efficient study trips overseas. So that’s why I take these students to the Philippines now,” she said.
 
She says for a three month, all inclusive package, families pay about $5,600 per student to study here. That’s far less than what it would cost in the US, Canada or other English speaking countries.
 
In South Korea, learning English is not just about improving linguistic ability says Jasper Kim a professor in the Division of International Studies at Seoul’s Ewha Women’s University.  
 
“Its viewed as a superficial asset. In terms of a signal you are from the right family and the right economic class. If you have those kind of economic resources that means your family is connected,” he said.
 
Kim says for Korean families that lack those resources, the relatively cheaper Philippines is a good alternative.
 
“If anything hopefully when they go to the Philippines they can just relax a little bit, if only for a few minutes a day and get them out of this highly compressed ecosystem known as South Korea’s educational system,” he said.
 
And while South Korean families are saving money on education by going to the Philippines, local teachers are earning more income.
 
For ESL instructors like 24-year old Sheryl Macavio, these private academies in her hometown Baguio offer good jobs in an economy with a high youth unemployment rate.
 
 “Job situations for young people here in the Philippinesi s quite hard.  It’s a way for many Filipinos to also apply what they learn and improve more in English skills as well as helping Koreans and other nationalities to improve in their skills,” she said.

Salaries for ESL teachers at Macavio’s school start at $250 a month, about half as much as public school teachers earn in the Philippines. But given the limited number of school jobs and the demand for more English language education from Koreans, it’s not such a bad option for recent graduates, Macavio adds.  
 
South Korean student Kang Tae-won says studying here in the Philippines is getting him ready for college later this year.
 
“I will go to Singapore this June and study international management. I want to work in business,” he said.
 
But he says he still has a lot more studying to do first.
 

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