Breaking down the language barrier

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Breaking down the language barrier

"Annyeong haseyo ... hasimnikka? Right?"

The roomful of students from all over the world are all smiles as they test out their Korean skills in low, tentative voices. This may not be the best way to spend a Saturday afternoon, but for them, it's still a lot of fun.

Divided into small groups, the students study basic conversation skills, either in Korean or English. This place has two small lecture rooms -- in the other, a Korean is teaching a Vietnamese how to read a Korean family tree.

Welcome to the International House in Daehangno, downtown Seoul, founded by Moon Byung-hwan.

It was the summer of 1997 when Mr. Moon, a journalist, hit on the idea of starting a language exchange program. He had met a couple of Russians near Dongdaemun Stadium in Seoul and wanted to start a conversation with them, but ran up against a language barrier.

"That was the moment I felt the dire need for a place where people from other countries could meet," Mr. Moon said. The next month, he started to teach Korean to foreigners at a place near Dongdaemun subway station. The lessons proved popular, and before long Mr. Moon had about 10 volunteers helping him. The students and teachers would move from place to place, from the Dongdaemun area to Sindang-dong and then to somewhere else. Eventually, Mr. Moon decided to find a real home for the lessons. So was born the International House, a nonprofit organization.

The International House opened in Euljiro, central Seoul, in 1999, and moved to Daehangno soon after. Some 70 Korean volunteers, including college students and office workers, come and teach students from 30 countries.

The International House has a set curriculum for beginning and intermediate Korean classes, consisting of 12-week courses. The tuition fee is nominal.

"We charge 10,000 won ($8) per three months," Mr. Moon said. "We used to charge nothing." The place is more like a community where people can meet and make new friends than a language school. The students come from various backgrounds, but are mostly laborers and English teachers. "These days, the Canadian and Australian students want to teach English in return, of course voluntarily," Mr. Moon said.

That kind of give-and-take attitude makes for a harmonious community. Paul Langkamp, an Australian student, said, "When they come off the plane, foreigners go straight to hagwons, or English teaching institutions. I like it here much better." What's better about the International House? "The programs run by academic organizations are expensive," Mr. Langkamp said. "Here, you can get quality Korean language lessons, along with culture lessons." Unsurprisingly, the International House is losing money, to the tune of about 1.5 million won per month. But Mr. Moon is undaunted. He holds culture and food festivals, including a kimchi-making competition. Five months ago, he opened a restaurant and bar downstairs from the language school. When the World Cup games have been on, the members get together and enjoy beer and the game.

"Whenever I get tired and want to quit, I think about the enthusiastic people whom I call my treasures," Mr. Moon said. "They are always eager to build bridges among Koreans and foreigners." His goal is to establish a branch in Vietnam, where demand is high for Korean language lessons.

by Chun Su-jin

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