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[Opinion] Sungmoon English

Posted March. 07, 2003 22:33,   


`When I was a high school student, I was with my radio everyday every hour. I liked the Beatles more than the Sungmoon English.` Pop group `the Zoo` sings in their song titled `After We Learn to Get By in This World.` Sungmoon English, a widely-used reference book for English subject at that time, is a part of school year memory for those who went to college in the 1970s and the 1980s. Whether they were good at school tests or not, Jungseok (for mathematics) and Sungmoon were like the Bible for most high school students. Students doing well in school carried their pocketbooks filled with English words, while those doing poorly carried their big hairbrush.

It was in 1967 when Song Sung-moon, an English teacher who used to work as a translator in the army, started writing the reference book. Although he wrote in the preface of the book that he `wanted young students to find the way to learn English right,` there were students who lost interest in learning English as well as found the right way to learn. For them, there were too many things to learn about English language. For one thing, there are too many types of verbs - intransitive, transitive, incomplete and complete ones. Then, some transitive verbs are followed by an infinitive and others followed by a gerund. Facing a daunting challenge, many students gave up. There were students, of course, who persisted through the end of the book, but they still become at a loss when encountering with a foreigner asking directions.

The power of Sungmoon English, which used to sell 200,000 copies every year, declined, however, as the pattern of the college entrance exam changed in the early 1990s. Jungseok still sells some 1 million copies, but sales of Sungmoon now reach only about 20,000. Some in the industry say that the book has failed to satisfy the tastes of young generations, but it has no plan to change. ˝The frame of English cannot change so we cannot change, either,˝ Sungmoon explains. This tenacity may be why students good at school tests still stick to the book. Middle and high school students studying abroad receive private lessons on Sungmoon English when they are back during vacation.

This tenacity seems related to the fact that Song recently donated to the National Central Museum 27 pieces of ancient cultural treasures he has collected for the last 30 years. He says that he began to collect ancient treasures after seeing some valuable pieces of old writing were processed in a paper-recycling factory. Having spent a fortune buying back those treasures, neither Song nor his company is rich. If we only had known he is a man of good deeds, we could have studied the book harder.

Kim Sun-deok, Editorial Writer, yuri@donga.com