When the Global and Local Meet: Meanings of English in ‘Post-colonial’ South Korea

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This thesis attempts to unravel the “webs of significance” (Geertz 1973: 5) surrounding English in the local context of Seoul, South Korea, a country that spends close to two percentage of its GDP on English learning and mandates English learning from the third grade in all public schools. Using ethnographic field work conducted in Seoul, the thesis answers why South Koreans are such avid learners of English by closely focusing on Korean college students in the surrounding space of the Gangnam Subway Station. In contemporary, ‘post-colonial’ South Korea, English ability has evolved over time into a highly valued skill set in the local context that allows for social mobility and also a fetishized language of fantasy that gives individuals a sense of modernity, cosmopolitanism, and social status. English learning has become highly ‘Koreanized’ to fit local needs, focusing on strategies for scoring high on standardized English tests. Underneath apparent enthusiasm towards English education is a growing negative reaction to the growth of importance of English in Korea, which surfaces all over popular media. Such public critique of the excessive English boom can be a double-edged sword that works to raise public awareness, but also reinforcing the notion that English is indeed important in Korean society and cannot be ignored. To most Korean college students, English learning –although virtually synonymous to the United States in the minds of Koreans – does not present an irreconcilable conflict between nationalism and globalization, nor does it signify a force of American cultural imperialism stripping away agencies of local agents.


Honors thesis


Cultural Anthropology




South Korean Education, Global English Studies, Globalization, American Imperialism, Localization, Post-colonial Studies



Choi, Michelle Hyun (2011). When the Global and Local Meet: Meanings of English in ‘Post-colonial’ South Korea. Honors thesis, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/3587.

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