15. English, class and neoliberalism in South Korea

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English is deeply embedded within recent neoliberal projects of social reformation in South Korea, becoming a central topic of contention in the controversial educational reforms of the Lee Myung-bak regime (2008–2012). It figured prominently in various changes to the Korean education system pursued by the Lee administration under the name of greater competitiveness, such as increasing English immersion instruction in public schools and opening greater number of special purpose high schools where English language skills are highlighted. Lee’s policies on the one hand aimed to cater to middle-class parents’ desire for better educational opportunities that drive the Korean education fever; but on the other hand, they also fueled that very desire by inserting English into a neoliberal social order and imbuing it with cultural significance. Here, the indexical nature of language – how “good English” comes to be interpreted as embodied evidence of not only one’s educational attainment but also one’s previous transnational trajectories, thus positioning the speaker as an experienced cosmopolitan well prepared for “global competition” – plays a central role, as it naturalizes and justifies the classed nature of neoliberal projects despite continued contestation and debate.


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