Korea Herald on the history of the Korean obsession with "perfect" English:
"Some experts say a deeply rooted inferiority complex, admiration for English-speaking societies and the fixation on continuing the country’s industrialization with globalization may be factors behind the English craze.
In the book 'Korean and English,' author Gang Jun-man describes the deeply rooted English craze via 1930s advertisements in the Chosun Ilbo newspaper.
'Old or young, if you don’t speak English, there is only darkness in today’s world' and 'Those who do not know English are the losers of the society,' the ad copy read.
Gang said English has been used as a means to gain power since colonial times, with many prominent figures using the language to move up the social ladder and top-tier universities adopting English tests for entrance exams even back then."Wanting to speak English fluently isn't a bad thing in itself, and I'm certainly happy to have a job teaching it, but the pressure to speak perfectly also drives a lot of South Koreans completely neurotic when it comes time to speak to an actual foreigner.
A huge part of the problem is the TOEIC, or the Korean standard English test which focuses primarily on grammar rather than communication. Many companies will require a minimum TOEIC score even for jobs where speaking English isn't necessary. And so from an early age, Koreans approach English not so much as a language but as a painful series of tests they must master at all costs, laden with tricks and traps (the TOEIC is notorious for gotcha-type grammatical questions that even native English speakers would have trouble with).
Another problem comes in the form of intermediate level students who want to improve their English but are literally too ashamed to speak to a foreigner for fear of making mistakes. They've internalized a fear of failure when they should be working to boost their confidence levels. Of course, you can only do this by making mistakes.
And so English remains an apocalyptic, all-or-nothing affair for Koreans, rather than what it actually is -- just another language, just another tool for two beings to squawk at one another in hopes of understanding, among thousands of others. And one where a partial grasp is better than no grasp at all.
But if perfect fluency is the only desirable outcome and anything less is shameful, why bother in the first place?
Note: Advanced Conversation posts quote from articles I've discussed with my adult conversation students.