Just as the use of the English language (and other European languages) projects an image of prestige, so aspirational desires for cosmopolitanism, affluence, education and success are encapsulated in and expressed through ‘English fever’ in Korea. Efforts at English language learning are directed towards the aim of attaining a place in a top university, a job in a good company, access to the right networks, and so forth. In Elana Shohamy’s critical approach to understanding assessment, language tests have become powerful social agents (2001) in their own right, used to select or reject candidates aspiring to education, employment or citizenship.
In contemporary Korea, the pressure on certification of English language proficiency has taken on such weight and impetus that it is now understood by school pupils and university students alike as an essential hurdle to be cleared in their journey to future success. The problem is that English in fact plays a central role in reproducing social inequalities rather than engendering a meritocracy: the playing field is simply not level. Public education is supplemented by private tutoring and cram schools; private education is supplemented by summer camps or study abroad programmes; these programmes are trumped by students who have taken their entire undergraduate degree abroad, in turn trumped by students who have spent their formative years in an Englishlanguage environment and have acquired a fully authentic North American variety of English. A game of educational one-upmanship in which many families cannot afford to compete.