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A History of EPIK Proportions

How South Korea became a magnet for native English teachers
By Matthew Caracciolo
A History of EPIK Proportions

South Korea is a prime target for native English teachers looking for that perfect cocktail of security and adventure, but it wasn’t always the case. In terms of exposure and competency of the English language, South Korea is a relative newcomer.
Koreans, in some form or another, have been studying English for over 100 years. In the 1880s, King Kojong permitted German advisor Paul George von Mollendorf to establish the first English academy in Korea to train interpreters. American missionaries weren’t far behind and, along with providing medical care, taught English to locals.
From that point, English education was primarily an exercise in grammatical regurgitation in writing up until the 1990s, when national and international language tests changed to focus on the more communicatively useful skills of listening and speaking. It had suddenly become clear that many Korean students, while adept at memorizing verb tenses and vocabulary, would be hopeless at interacting with a living, breathing native English speaker. As recently as 2004, South Korea’s TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) scores ranked in 93rd place out of 147 countries.
South Korea had one more incentive to change the way it learned English: everyone else spoke the language. After decades of unprecedented economic growth, the country emerged in the 1990s as a prosperous democracy that needed to speak more than just Korean to compete in an increasingly globalized economy. If Koreans couldn’t speak or listen to English-speaking businessmen, then South Korea would not hold onto its newfound industrialization for long.
Wealthy parents began sending their children to schools in the United States and other English-speaking countries in hopes that the linguistic and cultural immersion would improve their children’s English. These “wild geese families,” as they were called, became a national concern. All that money and brainpower was being spent elsewhere, when it could be used profitably on the domestic front. Something had to be done to improve English education in South Korea.
In 1995, the National Institute for International Education Development (NIIED) developed the English Program in Korea, or EPIK. Rather than see its youth travel overseas to join the English speakers, the Korean government would bring English speakers to Korea.
It was in 1997 that the program brought its first Native English Teachers—native English speakers from the United States, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada (and later South Africa), when the government mandated that schools teach English beginning in Grade 3. There were very few Native English Teachers at first, but the number steadily increased every year.
Between 2000 and 2010, the number jumped from 146 to 8,546. It would take more than 10,000 to put at least one teacher in every public school, which was NIIED’s ultimate goal. That way, every student could interact frequently with a native speaker.
The EPIK program has been moderately successful. South Korea improved its TOEFL ranking from 93rd in 2004 to 82nd in 2006, climbing to 72nd in 2011. Today, the country’s scores are slightly above the worldwide average. According to the EF English Proficiency Index, a not-very-scientific study where volunteers take a survey on the internet, South Korea ranks 27th in English proficiency, which would put the country about on par with Italy and France, a good bit ahead of Japan, but nowhere near the Netherlands, which takes the number one spot. The Dutch have famously flawless English. Those folks might as well live next door.
To read more about EPIK and Native English Teachers in South Korea, check out The Waygook Book: A Foreigner's Guide to South Korea available on Barnes and Noble and Amazon.

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