Mormon Temple, Seoul
Following on from its conversion drives in Latin America which used the same technique (e.g. 1880s Mexico, 1930s Argentina, 1970s Bolivia), the Mormon church is currently using free English lessons as a means to proselytise in South Korea. Adherents to the faith in this particular country number a little short of 100,000 (a hundred times the level of fifty years ago), and it appears that language classes are the point of first contact for many. Some quotes from around the web:
“On my mission, we had requests to teach English. People wanted to learn it for the international prestige that the language carries.”
“We taught English classes, laced with Gospel thoughts and asides. (For example, I taught my students about the gifts of the Spirit and that Heavenly Father can bless us in learning languages. We would always begin with a prayer.)”
“It was an English class that led to one of my best baptisms.”
From this article:
South Korea is home to 80,000 Mormons and 500 missionaries, according to church literature, representing one of the Mormon’s Asian strongholds. It ranks third in overall population, behind Japan and the Philippines. Unlike in those countries, proselytizers here have a special tool to lure converts – offering classes to a citizenry that views English proficiency as a prerequisite to success.
On many days, these pious peddlers stand on crowded Seoul street-corners hawking a sure-fire come on. In a city where language schools are expensive and private lesson rates run as high as $65 an hour, their classes are free. But there’s a catch. Most lessons require students to remain for a second session discussing the Book of Mormon.
“A lot of people think we’re English teachers,” said Gunnel, a slim blond college freshman who, like all Mormon missionaries, is required to wear a conservative dark suit, white shirt and nametag. Added missionary Brian Booth: “Probably most people drop out [of the bible lessons] because they’re in it for the English.”
Some students have complained that the teaching sessions take on the tone of a pushy time-share pitch. “They say ‘Oh, we can teach English’ but the truth is that only if we go to church can we learn English, and we have to believe in their God,” said Shin Ayeong, 22, who went to a few classes before dropping out. Still, the missionaries sent her telephone texts for months, imploring her to return, she said.
The street solicitations are known as “boarding,” when missionaries use placards and fliers to stop passersby. But their tactics are not exactly forthcoming as neither the missionaries nor their advertisements usually mention the religious requirements of the free language lessons. Every one of the 15 or so private English lessons [taught] each week has a religious requirement. Students must show interest in the faith or they’re shown the door.
This represents a neat counterpoint to criticisms by Edward Saïd and others that the English generally taught as a foreign language is natured, stripped-bare, affect-less, phrasebook sentences for cadres and bureaucrat: “the level of a technical language almost totally stripped of expressive and aesthetic characteristics but also denuded of any critical or self-conscious dimension” (Figures, configurations, transfigurations).
Instead we have here stridently American words first written on golden tablets, shining and full of devotion. In the next two pieces I will continue to examine what could be seen as the extreme, lunatic fringes of the TEFL industry; however, they could otherwise be interpreted as foretelling the nature of future progress – language imbued with glamour, commerce, devotion and selfishness.