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KAI RYSSDAL: English might not be the prettiest language in the world, but it’s music to the ears of South Koreans. They see fluency in it as an essential business skill. A high score on English tests can mean higher pay or faster promotions. It can also get you into an American university, which many South Koreans believe is the ticket to a good job.
The result? English-mania.
We sent Rico Gagliano on a little trip to check it out.
RICO GAGLIANO: I’m standing at Stonehenge. Not the real one. This one’s fake, and I think bigger. And it’s in Paju City, an hour from Seoul in Gyeonggi Province. Busloads of second graders clamber around it, looking adorable in matching red sweatshirts.
On a nearby hillside, spelled out in huge letters like the Hollywood sign, are the words “ENGLISH VILLAGE.” This is the entrance to a $90 million experiment — the most unusual language academy on earth.
See, this English Village, also known as Paju Camp, is designed to look like England. There’s a bright red tram . . . student dorms modeled after Britain’s Eton prep school . . . traditional British cobblestone streets (undergoing some traditional British repaving there) . . . and, of course, a place to get traditionally, Britishly drunk.
GAGLIANO: Oh, and here we are in front of the Double Decker English Pub and Brewery. Here it is! Can I get a beer in there?
SOOJIN PARK: Yes, of course.
The whole 69-acre village is like Oxford by way of Disneyland. Imagine living and working here.
JESSICA LOFBOMM: My name is Jessica Lofbomm. I’m a teacher here at English Village. I’m from the U.S.A. It’s really bizarre. Um, sometimes we joke that we don’t actually live in Korea. So sometimes people who’ve, you know, finished their contract, they go and they say “I’m going to go work in Korea now.”
That idea — of a country within a country — is exactly the point.
Youn Jean Lee is an education manager at Paju Camp. She says thousands of Koreans take their kids to actual England or the U.S. or Canada to immerse them in English. Sometimes for years. That’s a problem.
YOUN JEAN LEE: In Korea, if you’re rich, you can offer better English education environment to your children. You can send them outside of Korea to learn English only. That divides Korea more deeply by money or class.
She calls it “The English Divide.” Publicly-funded Paju Camp is supposed to bridge that gap by transporting Koreans to a Western land right in their own backyard. For cheap.
The teachers live here, but for students, a stay lasts anywhere from a day to a few weeks. And like any foreign trip, it starts at an immigration checkpoint. These middle-school students even get fake passports, which I was somehow enlisted to stamp.
MAN: You mind asking them these questions?
GAGLIANO: OK. [To student] What is your name?
STUDENT: My name is Ahra Kim.
GAGLIANO: What is the purpose of your visit?
STUDENT: English study — study English!
GAGLIANO: Good job. I’m going to stamp your passport.
WOMAN: You can ask other questions.
WOMAN: Yeah, whatever you want.
GAGLIANO: [To girl] What is your name?
STUDENT: My name is Ah Rhee Bae.
GAGLIANO: Are you carrying any weapons today?
I had her detained. No, not really.
Instead I conversed with other English Village denizens. Including their mascot, Linky, a guy in a giant pink bunny suit.
LINKY: Uh, my name is Linky.
GAGLIANO: Hello. Do you speak English?
LINKY: Uh, I don’t very well.
GAGLIANO: Do you think that’s a little odd that the mascot of the English Village does not speak English?
LINKY: Yeah, OK, thank you.
Now I should say that Linky, like Mickey Mouse at Disneyland, isn’t supposed to speak much. But most of the students I met were only a bit more fluent than Linky. The two exceptions to the rule told a familiar story.
GAGLIANO: How did you get so good at English?
GIRL #1: I went to Canada for two-and-a-half years.
GIRL #2: Um, I went to England when I was 7 years old.
So is Paju Camp really narrowing the English Divide? They’ve conducted surveys to find out, but the results aren’t in. Meanwhile, 40 South Korean cities are planning English Villages of their own. And I must admit, if Paju Campers aren’t always fluent, they do demonstrate a surprising vocabulary.
GIRLS: [Korean] Stah-kah!
Hear that? “Stah-kah?” I asked my interpreter to translate.
INTERPRETER: If you come to the English Village as a new teacher, then she will probably end up being your stalker.
GAGLIANO: [To girl] You would be a stalker?!
GIRL: Stalker! Stalker!
GAGLIANO: Where did you learn the word “stalker”?!
At a loss for words in Paju City, South Korea, I’m Rico Gagliano for Marketplace.
GIRLS: Bye! Bye!