[CULTURAL DIMENSIONS]Korea’s foreign language trend

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[CULTURAL DIMENSIONS]Korea’s foreign language trend

Foreign language learning is a good index of social trends. It tells how people view themselves in relation to other cultures, and it tells how they view their nation in relation to other nations. The news that more students in the College of Humanities at Seoul National University chose Chinese as their major than English is big news in the history of foreign language education in Korea. It indicates the pendulum is swinging away from the English-only hysteria of the late 1990s.
Where is foreign language education in Korea headed? The rise of Chinese as an important foreign language in Korea complicates matters for schools and learners. The rise in popularity of Japanese in high schools in the 1980s and, to a lesser degree, in the 1990s, created a shortage of teachers of Japanese and a surplus of teachers of French and German, the two traditional second foreign languages. Chinese is beginning to gain popularity in high schools at the expense of French and German.
The popularity of Japanese will most likely continue because of close tourist and commercial relations between the two countries and because most Koreans consider it an “easy language.”
The decline of French and German is inevitable, but it has negative implications for the academic world. Chinese has yet to become a major language of scholarship, except in East Asian history and culture. The dominance of English as a scholarly language has eroded the role of French and German in scholarship, but they still offer access to information and, more important, to worldviews that are not available in English.
At a deeper level, however, the rise of Chinese and decline of French and German symbolize the further “de-Japanization” of education in Korea. In the Meiji period, English, French and German were the most commonly taught foreign languages because they offered access to Western technology. This paradigm entered Korea with Japanese imperialism. When English become dominant in both countries after 1945, French and German took a secondary role, and that continues today. They remain the most commonly taught languages in Japanese universities, but are now facing a strong challenge from Chinese. Korean is also gaining popularity, but more slowly.
There is a rising interest in learning Chinese in Japan. The year-end issue of AERA, a leading news magazine, ran an article on Japanese children attending the five Chinese schools in Japan. Previously only ethnic Chinese children attended such schools, but now Japanese parents are taking an interest in them because children learn three languages: Chinese, Japanese and English. The rising importance of China to Japan has created a need for Chinese speakers at a time when proficiency in English has become a given. Eager parents want to give their children the edge in an increasingly competitive job market.
The Seoul National University students who choose Chinese may be doing it for the same reasons. They may feel confident enough about their English to decide that learning Chinese is a better use of time than taking advanced English classes. And since the university has no Japanese department, Chinese is the choice for a “practical second foreign language.” The job market, then, is the driving force behind the rise of Chinese in Korea and Japan.
Korea is unique among the three countries in that it is the only one where the languages of both of the other countries are popular as second foreign languages. Korea’s ability to look east and west at the same time gives it great potential as a cultural mediator as East Asia becomes more interconnected. It is this potential that foreign language education policy should seek to harness in future reforms. Taking a new look at the learning-enhancing links among Chinese, English, Japanese and Korean is a good place to start.

* The writer is an associate professor at Kyoto University in Japan.

by Robert J. Fouser
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