[FOUNTAIN]A parrot with its wings spread

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[FOUNTAIN]A parrot with its wings spread

In the "Course of Life," the autobiography of a left-wing South Korean scholar Lee Yeong-hui, an honorary professor at Hanyang University, the author provides detailed recollections of seven years in the army after the outbreak of the 1950-53 Korean War. Mr. Lee, a young officer interpreter, describes rough battlefields and high spirits in terms that impress readers.

There was his dismay with the badge of his service. Hastily designed during the war, it bore a coat of arms showing a parrot perching on a rifle. "It must have sprung from the malice of some ignorant headquarters officer," Mr. Lee wrote "An awfully sly man might have created the arms, in order to insult the weak intellectuals in the army." He was upset because he regarded the parrot as a symbol of those who mindlessly utter the words of others.

But the practice of comparing interpreters to parrots goes way back to ancient societies. Carthage, a city on the Mediterranean coast in the 9th century B.C., was a strategic place for maritime commerce. Merchants who came to the city from various countries demanded interpreters. Accordingly, a class of people specially engaged in interpretation existed in Carthage. They were exempted from other labor. Their hair was shaved off and a parrot was tattooed on their bodies to indicate their status as interpreters. One who could interpret only one language had a parrot tattoo with a wing furled. A parrot with wings spread signified an interpreter fluent in more than one language.

Of course, Interpretation began before the times of Carthage. An episode of interpreting Egyptian into Greek is recorded on a papyrus of the Old Kingdom of Egypt, in about 3000 B.C. Interpretation may have begun even before letters were developed.

The recent survey of the "foreign language infrastructure" in Korea, with the World Cup only six months off, has revealed that foreign visitors to Korea have difficulties even in finding World Cup stadiums. It would not be bad for us to start studying practical English as citizens of the host country for the World Cup, even though we had no prior interest in foreign languages. Aren't the foreigners are our guests whom we invited?

It is a good time to make a new plan and carry it out, because it is the start of the new year. Korea and other countries have become too close for us to cling to only the Korean language. And it would be better to study a second foreign language as well as English, aiming to be parrots with wings spread.

The writer is a deputy political news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Noh Jae-hyun

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