I have a friend, let’s call him Mr. S. Mr. S is a successful businessman who owns a company headquartered in Seoul, with four factories in Korea and a fifth in China. His company imports, processes, and exports raw materials. A few years ago, Mr. S called me, frustrated. The head of his R&D center, Tom (a pseudonym), had sent the head of an Indonesian company an email, which read:
“We will discuss the analysis results for and our accounts. Heavy metals that are not necessarily come from existing clients have so far to detected are worried COA the samples after two week apart continued process with file”
My friend begged me to get on Kakao Talk and figure out what Tom meant, and then resend the mail. Mr. S was in the middle of negotiating a $100 million-dollar contract with this company and miscommunications could ruin everything. After a few hours, I determined that Tom had meant:
“I received your sample and will discuss the results with our customers. Our analysis detected some heavy metal contamination in the raw materials. We are concerned about their presence… Please confirm that this is the case by performing (standardized tests). Also, please send us a sample every two weeks.”
I felt sorry for Tom. He had studied English in middle and high school, but not at university, he had majored in science. He had been working for 10 years and had never needed English, but suddenly, there was a $100 million problem. So, in Korean, he typed his message into an online translator, and crap came out.
After this, Mr. S permitted me to observe his company to see how and when Korean staff use English. The observations surprised me. Nearly everyone at his main office needed to speak or write English for a few minutes every month - not that much, but it was always important; and none of them was comfortable using English.
One example was a marketing team member named ‘Elsa’ (a pseudonym). Her major was Chinese and her duties were to coordinate among the head office in Seoul, their factory in China, Chinese suppliers, and Chinese customers. One day, Elsa went to Mr. S’s Chinese factory, and his Chinese customer brought their German customer (the end user of the products) to the factory. Mr. S. was in the USA meeting another customer so Elsa had to present the factory to the German representative in English. The thought of presenting for 10 minutes in English terrified her. Despite writing the presentation and practicing for a couple of days she got so nervous that she used Chinese. The Chinese representative translated for the German buyer, who, unfortunately, felt that the Korean company could not communicate with Mr. S’s firm directly, and urged the Chinese firm to change suppliers, thereby cancelling a $7 million-dollar order. Mr. S personally flew to Germany to talk with them (in English) to keep the order. Elsa left the company.
These examples show, that although English may not be an essential part of your future work life, when you need it, you really need it. Moreover, as a graduate of Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, regardless of your major, your superiors will expect you to sort out English problems for them.
I know this is not happy news for those who do not major in English and those who have little interest in it. Unfortunately, the international workplace still requires English - and these days, almost all of Korea’s workplaces are international.
So, after graduating from HUFS, to keep your unused English skills up to a level higher than Tom’s and your confidence in it higher than Elsa’s you must get social.
All languages emerged to meet social needs. So, the way to learn and master one is via social interaction. I suggest that you make a team with your classmates and use English to talk about topics that interest you. You need something to talk about, i.e. some input, so go online and find articles, pictures, videos, or even games that interest you. If authentic items (e.g. Time Magazine, The Argus, etc.) are too difficult, there are many free English learning sites, for example, English Learning from the BBC. Moreover, you do not have to meet to be social; use Skype, WhatsApp, BAND or Kakao talk. You can even go off-topic if you wish, just communicate your ideas and opinions to each other: listen and speak. If you meet in person you practice spontaneous spoken language, but on messaging apps with group chat you practice writing. Even the very short sentences used on messengers help reading and writing development. If you wish to express deeper, longer thoughts, you can check your writing before sending it by using the Virtual Writing Tutor or Grammarly.com for free.
You might think, “I have a small vocabulary.” Yes, it is probably smaller than mine, but typical students at HUFS have an average of an 8000-word English vocabulary. I know because I gave the vocabulary size test to undergrads a few years ago. This is enough vocabulary, if combined with the technical language of your industry, to do anything you need to do. You may also think, “My grammar is bad.” It may not be perfect, but if you keep your sentences simple, you will be clearly understood. The problem you, along with Tom and Elsa, will have is producing the words you need when you need them. To solve this, you need to use English in real time.
Using English in real time requires social interaction - but not necessarily with a native speaker. Any user of English whose level is similar to yours is potentially a good practice partner. If you do not believe me, remember that Tom was emailing an Indonesian company and Elsa was talking to a German, in China. At your future company you will probably be communicating in English with others who, like you, learned English at school. So, learning to adapt to ‘non-standard’ versions of English now will help you later.
Finally, make English a habit. You and your partners need to meet regularly and to prepare before you meet. Make the time and place easy. The world-renowned motivational speaker, Jim Rohn says, “Success is nothing more than a few simple disciplines practiced every day.” Work on your English a few minutes every day, so you can work in English when you need to. You do not want to cost your future company a multi-million-dollar contract, trust me.
· Manning, “A Case Study on English at Work in Korea,” 19.
· Manning, 20.
· David Crystal is a famous linguist, see him talk about texting: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h79V_qUp91M
· The Virtual Writing Tutor: https://virtualwritingtutor.com/
· Grammarly.com: https://www.grammarly.com/
· Information and links are available from Paul Nation’s website: https://www.victoria.ac.nz/lals/about/staff/publications/paul-nation/Vocabulary-Size-Test-information-and-specifications.pdf