english is the new black: the branding of english in south korea

I just purchased my ticket to South Korea! I will be in Seoul from May 21 to June 4 to conduct field research on the branding of English in South Korea. You can read more about my research below. Just to warn you, there is a bit of Cultural Studies jargon, but I did my best to explain my research in layman’s terms.



Because of the fierce competition to score well on the infamous National Exams, get into the top universities, and secure the best jobs, attending after school private academies or hagwons to learn English has become the norm for young South Koreans. The growing demand for English has resulted into a multi-million dollar educational industry where the competition between hagwons is just as severe as the rivalry between students. It is not uncommon for people to switch hagwons just as quickly as they change hairstyles. Due to the intense competition, hagwons have developed unconventional branding techniques in order to attract more students.

One example of this recent phenomenon is the English Channel, a hagwon that has employed the theme of the “doctor’s clinic.” At the English Channel, students work one-on-one Language Trainers dressed in lab coats in crammed clinic-style offices.

Drawing from Scott Lash and Celia Lury’s understanding of cultural production and branding in the era of globalization, this project will look at how the English Channel has employed the idea of the “doctor’s clinic” in order to understand the ways in which English may be branded and consumed. This dissertation will focus on the English Channel Junior, currently the only branch at the English Channel Corporation that is geared towards young people and the institute at which I previously worked.

Using photographic documentation, interview, and participant observation, I will construct a multimodal biography* that looks at how varying semiotic modes are configured to enact the brand of the English Channel Junior. I will conduct a close reading of the English Channel Junior, examining the relations between visual and spatial design, bodily dress, and the actors within this space to understand how this brand is multimodally actualized. It is my hope that this project will offer insight into how English, understood as a  field of potentiality that may be enacted in different ways, is actualized within a specific contemporary cultural setting in the era of globalization. This is important because the way English is instantiated affects the way in which people communicate and interact with the world.

*By multimodal, I am referring to Gunther Kress and Theo Van Leeuwen’s conception of multimodality, which they define “as the use of several semiotic modes in the design of a semiotic product or event, together with the particular way in which these modes are combined” (20).

By biography, I am borrowing from Scott Lash and Celia Lury’s reading of anthropologist Alfred Gell’s understanding of the biographic approach, which allows us “to consider our objects as…a set of relations” and “to think of objects as having a life” (18 and 20).

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9 Responses to “english is the new black: the branding of english in south korea”

  1. the practice of cultural studies: theory as practice « Says:

    […] research subjects and the way I think and remember them. For my dissertation, I will be conducting visual cultural fieldwork at a private English institute in Seoul, South Korea. This will involve taking photographs to document not only the spatial design and logos of the […]

  2. Hana Says:

    How exciting, Melissa! I’m so jealous. Have fun. 🙂

    With such a short trip, I’m sure your days and nights will be jam-packed with things to do.

  3. research tips: stalking theorists and mashing keywords « Says:

    […] the different ways your research topic could be categorized. For example, for my research on the branding of English in South Korea, I have used a wide range of search words, including: commodification, Korean, brand, […]

  4. blogging as research?: the politics of blogging « Says:

    […] By melissa andrada I will be heading to Seoul this Monday to conduct research on the branding of English in South Korea. I recently met with my dissertation supervisor and asked if it would be appropriate for me to […]

  5. going back to the research object « Says:

    […] probably be about 45 pages, I decided to go back to the ethnographic material I gathered during my fieldwork in […]

  6. A Master of Science? « Says:

    […] official: I am now finished with my dissertation, and more importantly, my master’s course! I won’t get my marks until next month and […]

  7. Dominic Douse Says:

    I worked for English Channel for a year – a couple of years ago – I had to wear a blue lab coat – as I was told I was playing the role of a nurse – whereas the Korean teachers wore white lab coats as they were playing the role of the Doctor – and the learner was the patient. When I was first told about the lab coats I thought they were pulling my leg, but I soon learned that the lab coats were not a joke and had to be worn at all times – I soon got over my initial embarrasment at having to wear the coats – We were told that on a certain public holiday English Channel would be marching as part of the parade through central Seoul – and we were paid 50,000 won if we wore our lab coats – no lab coat no money – I guess its a success for English Channel as they are continuing to expand – I actually think its the locations of their schools that is the key to their success. But who knows??!!

    • melissa andrada Says:

      Hi Dominic. That’s fascinating. Which branch of the English Channel were you working at? I know that the English Channel was on the verge of bankruptcy and bought out by another company this past year. They actually ended up closing a lot of branches. I think the one-on-one model is definitely a unique selling point; the lab coats and clinical theme were just a gimmick to generate buzz surrounding their product.

      I am curious to know how you heard about this blog? You’re my first EC employee visitor!

  8. Dominic Douse Says:

    Hi – Sorry I cant remember how I came across your website – just surfing I imagine – English language employment related sites – I was at Yeoksam – I had a typical experience with EC – ie I was fired – as a student I had posted a complaint about me online – before I taught her I was warned that she was very difficult – she wanted to prepare for some university entrance exam for some college in the states – being British Australian I had no knowledge of this exam – however I gave it a go – she gave me some info about the test – and then proceeded to ask me to test her on some exercises she had found – I could not see any link between the exercises she wanted to do with me and the exam she was preparing for – and I mentioned that she should do some exercises like they had in the test she was planning to take – obviously she took offence – Still she did me a favour as I was doing a split shift – which is sheer lunacy

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