The Easy English Series of written content on this blog is designed to give actually interesting and educational content to English teachers based in Korea who need 1) compelling content to encourage discussion, 2) content that is somewhat Korea-specific, yet places Korea and Korean culture into an international context, and 3) is written at a lower level, designed for middle and secondary school students. Like the BombEnglish.com project, which provides Korea-specific content at the advanced level, there is a dearth of good content designed for the less-advanced learner of English. This content was the result of a textbook project I was doing for a large hagwon company, and the passages published here are part of a huge chunk of the project for which I was unpaid and left swinging in the wind. But I always like to make lemon meringue pie out of my lemons, so I will using some of the remaining content to start this Easy English Series here on my blog, and thereafter will write new ones. The series will go once a week, and all teachers should feel free to use the content, reprint it, and otherwise do what you will with it, as long as it is attributed to me. You might even throw out a link if you're so inclined. I know how hard it is to get middle/high school students to talk, or at least to talk about something outside of pop music or TV shows. I hope that this Korean-specific content, which is not afraid to court controversy and disagreement, but most importantly, encourages critical thinking, helps you in your teaching, lesson planning, and being a real teacher who can manage to change minds, rather than be cogs in the soul-crushing, dream-demolishing machine of death that is the English education industry here. Hardworking English teachers of Korea, I salute you!
TIPS FOR USE:
The long passage sets the stage, often provides background information. The short passages are related, but usually present smaller cases, specific examples that illustrate the larger theme. I try to keep the use of complex compound sentences to a minimum, but I do drop in mostly theme-specific (and less occasionally general) harder vocabulary words, but set against fairly simple and straightforward prose. The material does not hesitate to make assertions, but also presents clear openings for discussion. I hate wishy-washy content that seemingly encourages discussion, but just equivocates, hems and haws into neutral meaningless positions. Add stats and facts to the discussions, have the students disagree with the assertions, but demand that they back up their disagreements, and really use the material to both educate, but also destroy myths, fallacies, and non-rigorous thinking. I apologize in advance for typos. Please note them in the comments section and I will correct them in the post.
The Silent Crisis
Korea is facing another problem. However, unlike the "IMF crisis," this problem is not so easy to see. And it is not economic. It has nothing to do with trade or the FTA. It also has nothing to do with North Korea. No, Korea's problem is much more silent, as well as hard to see. Korea's problem is cultural. It cannot produce "cultural content" very well.
Korea has a special problem. For most of the Republic's short history, Korea has not produced its own pop culture content. Also, although Korea's own traditional culture is interesting, so far, the government and the cultural industries have not promoted it very well.
One source of the problem seems to be with an education system that does not encourage creativity. In fact, the entire education and social system discouraeges creativity. In Korean culture, being different is not good. Diagreeing with your teacher is not seen as good. Talking too much in class is bad. Quitting school to start your own company is seen as crazy. Why not go the safe route?
For example, most of Korean television has been copied from Japan. The comedy, talk, and variety shows are copied directly, as are many commercials. In fact, it is an industry secret that many Korean PD's go to Japan, check into a hotel, and just watch Japanese TV with a pen and pad for a week.
And in some ways, there is nothing wrong with copying. Indeed, throughout Korea's development, this was the safe and efficient path. From the 1950's, Korean companies copied American car engines, radios, televisions, and other things by "reverse engineering." Instead of learning them from scratch, it was easier to just find a finished item, take it apart piece-by-piece, and learn it backwards. You don't engineer from the front, by yourself, but learn in reverse, by taking it apart and copying. Koreans were smart and clever at this, and it helped build Korea's first big conglomerates, such as Samsung, Hyundai, and Goldstar (now called LG).
The same is true in other industries. Korea did not invent the pager; the US did. But they were better at developing many more models of pager, smaller ones, colorful ones, more fun ones. The same is true for the cellphone -- Motorola invented it. But Korean companies made them better, stronger, and just cooler. So it goes for the Internet, which the US invented. But Koreans adopted it faster, used it more, and demanded higher speeds. Wireless Internet? Again, America invents it, Korea improves it. Korea is the only country in the world where you can use wireless Internet from a taxi.
And this pattern has worked for cultural industries, too. Frankly, it is an efficient strategy. Developing something from nothing takes a lot of time and money. Copying something that already exists is far, far cheaper. And when Korea was developing, and the economy depended on heavy industry such as factories, shipping, and steel, no one cared much about Korea's cultural industries.
But now, the world is smaller. And Korea has gotten "bigger." Now, the world is watching Korea, so copyright has become more important. In 1995, if a Korean music group copied an American song, no one really cared. Now, if the same happens, the company cares -- a lot. And since Korea's economy has shifted from an industrial to an "information economy," cultural industries are suddenly very important.
Unless Korea changes its education and social culture to be more creative, and also changes its bad industrial habit of copying, Korea is in big trouble. How can an economy dependent on creativity come from a culture that discourages creativity and encourages copying? This is the quiet crisis that Korea faces.
The Real Korean Cloning Problem
Let's think about pop music. All the major genres in Korea are American. Of course, the singers and performers are Korean, but the genres - the musical styles -- are directly from the US. Hard rock, rap, heavy metal, R&B, and even the "bubble gum pop" of singers like 2NE1 and the Wonder Girls -- they are all American. Lee Hyori has recently been in trouble for copying American songs, but her case is actually not so unusual. The real problem is that the entire Korean pop music industry generally just copies. This has gotten even worse since the 1990s. If Britney Spears is popular in the US, there will be a Korean version immediately in Korea, or Beyonce, or Lady Gaga. Of course, this is OK for Korean audiences. But do non-Koreans want to listen to Korean copies of American music? Case in point: the Korean media greatly exaggerated Rain's popularity Rain in the US; actually he was not. In the end, not enough people bought his tickets to support his US tour, and it was cancelled. This is exactly the problem. In the short-term, it is easy to copy and make music for the local market, which may even include places like Taiwan and the Phillipinnes. But in the global market, why would the rest of the world want to listen to copied American music?
Hard vs Soft Power
Cultural content is a part of "soft power." The "hard power" of a country is in the economy, trade, finance, military, etc. This is what the US and Europe have a lot of, and countries like China is gaining. Soft power includes things like literature, movies, music, and just about any kind of culture area, including food, dance, and such. America, unlike some other countries, has a lot of both hard and soft power. Hollywood is a perfect example of America's soft power, as well as Coca-Cola, McDonald's, or Madonna. No matter how powerful the Soviet Union was in terms of hard power, no one in the US knew any Russian pop songs. But every teenager in the world knew the words to Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean." Korea has developed its hard power by an amazing amount. But does soft power automatically follow hard power? From looking at recent world history, the answer is "No." But Korea's strategy of developing its soft power industries (its cultural industries) is too much like the strategy of developing its hard power -- copying and the support of big government. In the end, this will not work. We need to address the problem, not just fix it's symptoms.
America - Soft Power Superpower
As everyone knows, America is a soft power superpower. Some cynical people say that the soft power just comes from America's hard power. But this is a weak argument. Just because Germany has the largest economy in Europe doesn't mean Europeans will listen to German music. No, there is something special about the origins of America's soft power. America is the place where many, many cultures came crashing together. Nowhere else in the world did so many races, cultures, religions, different people come together so quickly. So, America had religious music that comes from black slavery, which mixes with European church hymns, which becomes the music we know as "the blues." If you mix that with the simple rhythms of Scotch-Irish and German immigrants living in the country, with their violins and guitars, you get "country music." Later, more combinations and changes happen, producing jazz music, rock 'n roll, and this becomes R&B, heavy metal, and pop music. Then new forms come along from different experiences, such as rap music, which came from NYC in the 1970's, which has no instruments. From there grows house music, drum&bass, and electronica. This is the natural soft power of a super-dynamic culture. Maybe a multicultural society has a real soft power advantage over monocultural ones. It is something worth thinking about.