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South Korean high school student Kang Tae-won learning English
South Korean high school student Kang Tae-won learning English
Jason Strother

BAGUIO — In South Korea, learning English is a national obsession. Families pay billions of dollars a year on extra curricular education so their children can enroll in top universities and later land high-paying jobs that require good English skills. But it's not always affordable at home, which is why the Philippines, where English is one of the two official languages, has become one of Korea's top destinations for overseas language education.

Like almost every other South Korean high school student, 17-year-old Kang Tae-won spends every weekday evening at a private academy learning English. He believes his future depends on it.

"In the near future, we will have a borderless world and everyone will need to communicate with each other," he says. "English is the global language, and that's why I need to study it."

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 three months, Kang enrolled at a private academy for the study of English in Baguio, 250 kilometers 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 an English-only zone.

Kang says his English has improved since coming here. "It's a good atmosphere to study English. I am studying hard writing, reading, grammar, vocabulary, listening." Thousands of South Koreans come to the Philippines every year to study English, enrolling in hundreds of academies around the country or taking private lessons with locals.

Yoo Moon-young owns the private academy where Kang studies back home. She brought 11 of her students to Baguio this year to study. "In the winter I take my students to Baguio," she says. "The atmosphere and weather is nice."

More practical and affordable

But Yoo explains that Korean parents send their kids to the Philippines for more than just the good weather. "Twenty years ago, I used to take kids to the U.S. and Canada to study, but because of the Korean economy, parents wanted more time- and cost-efficient study trips overseas. That's why I take these students to the Philippines now," she says.

For a three-month, all-inclusive package, families pay about $5,600 per student. That's far less than what it would cost in the United States, 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. "It's viewed as a superficial asset," he says. "In terms of a signal that 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."

Kim says that for Korean families who 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 the stressful environment that is South Korea's educational system."

And while South Korean families are saving money this way, local teachers are earning more. For ESL instructors such as 24-year-old Sheryl Macavio, these private academies in her hometown of Baguio offer good jobs in an economy with a high youth unemployment rate. 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 says.

South Korean student Kang Tae-won says studying in the Philippines is preparing him for college later this year. "I will go to Singapore in June and study international management," he says. "I want to work in business." But he says he still has a lot more studying to do first.

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