[VIEWPOINT]Bad Books Impede Cultural Exchanges

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[VIEWPOINT]Bad Books Impede Cultural Exchanges

The most important factor in successful cross-cultural exchange is language.

After China and Korea established formal diplomatic ties, there has been a steady increase in exchanges both of goods and of people, but not enough people have paid attention to the important role of language.

From garlic and ginger to cars and mobile phones, trade and exchange between two countries has grown explosively, but neither country has put much emphasis on linguistic ability, which must form the basis of these activities.

Language can be a fundamental stumbling block to getting the most out of a stay abroad. Although Seoul's transportation system is well-developed, Chinese people here often end up confined to the subway, because that is the only form of transport equipped with signs that a Chinese speaker can understand.

The same goes for food. Despite the variety of Korean cuisine, Chinese people in Korea often choose whatever seems edible, because they cannot read the menu.

But the most regrettable thing for me, a Chinese currently living in Korea, is that it is really hard to find suitable materials for learning Korean.

Most Chinese professors hope to learn some Korean, however basic, before coming to Korea, but learning aids are few and far between. Even the famous bookstores in China had no conversational Korean books to offer me, not to mention a simple tour guide.

You might think that you could find these resources after arriving in Korea. Wrong. As in China, it is almost impossible to find books for Chinese to learn Korean, even in Seoul's largest bookstores. I have so far found only two.

In addition to this shortage of language learning materials, another, bigger problem is that the existing material rarely is of satisfactory quality. Most of the books are not well organized; sometimes they are, quite frankly, a mess. Chinese and Korean are imaginative, well structured, great languages, and these books simply do not do them justice.

I looked at both books for Chinese to learn Korean and the other way around, and the content of both was very disappointing. I got the impression that the writers had used whatever sentences or words sprung to mind.

Another shortcoming is that the books' subject matter in many instances failed to give an accurate impression of the country and its people. The contents of the books were usually not scientific, and had an overemphasis on folklore.

Poor editing and an evident ignorance of the developmental stages of language learning abounded, and sometimes I was confused as to whether a book was targeted at a young student or an adult. I would even have expected that the books for adults would have been differentiated according to the needs of the learner - a forlorn hope.

Books specializing in food, shopping and transportation are needed, but do not exist. There are few bilingual texts. Books generally understood to be indispensable for travellers, such as concise dictionaries, are not even published.

Another drawback of the existing books is that they do not do enough to explain the difference between the two languages. Korean language books for Chinese use too few Chinese characters and are hard for Chinese to understand. The crucial fact that the order of subject and object is different in Korean and Chinese is not fully explained.

For exchanges between China and Korea to continue to accelerate, the importance of language must be acknowledged. But anyone inspired to try to learn a new language will find the way littered with abstruse books. I encourage scholars from both countries to pay more attention to this area.

Business leaders and cultural figures in China and Korea also need to focus on providing a better linguistic environment that will support cultural and industrial exchanges.


The writer is a visiting professor of Chinese literature at Sungkyunkwan University.

by Yan Duan-zhi

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