[CULTURAL DIMENSIONS]The foreign language dilemma

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[CULTURAL DIMENSIONS]The foreign language dilemma

Korea’s deepening ties with China are now making themselves felt in education. On Friday, Our Open Party Chairman Chung Dong-young proposed hiring ethnic Koreans from China to teach Chinese in Korean middle and high schools. The effort stems from growing concern that Korea does not have a sufficient number of people proficient in Chinese. The Ministry of Education and Human Resources supports the idea and is developing plans to hire ethnic Koreans as assistant teachers.
The sudden rise in interest in improving the quality of Chinese education further complicates the foreign language education situation in Korea. During the entire post-1945 period, two foreign languages have been important to Korea: English and Japanese. All other languages have ranked far down the scale of importance, even though French and German were the most commonly taught second foreign languages in high school and university until the rise of Japanese in the 1980s. French, German and other languages traditionally have been taught as an academic exercise rather than as a matter of social need.
In terms of difficulty, English and Japanese balance each other well. English has nothing in common with Korean except for the vocabulary items that Korean has borrowed from English. The grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation are completely different, depriving learners of the opportunity to use their knowledge of Korean in learning English. Japanese presents the opposite situation, which explains why so many Koreans think that it is an easy language.
This also explains why Korea could get by with investing most of its foreign language learning resources in the more difficult and more important language while expecting that society would produce enough people proficient in the easier and less important language on its own. Despite the emphasis on English, many people remain dissatisfied with the quality of education, but there is little concern over the quality of Japanese education because those who need it have little difficulty learning the language. Chinese upsets the balance of the English-Japanese paradigm in foreign language education because it is not easy to learn. Korean learners who know Chinese characters will find Chinese easier than English, but the grammar and pronunciation are completely different from Korean.
Although Chinese characters have received greater emphasis since the 1990s, proficiency in Chinese characters among persons below the age of 50 remains low, particularly in writing. Though word order is the same as English, the two languages differ considerably, making it difficult to apply knowledge from English learning to learning Chinese. Learning Chinese, then, is more like learning English than learning Japanese, which explains in part the government’s recent concern over the quality of Chinese education.
The need to improve Chinese education increases the burden on an already crowded curriculum. Expanding the number of hours for Chinese in middle school and high school will be difficult because of the scheduling pressures. Will the relatively small number of classes make it difficult for students to learn much even with native speakers in the classroom? And what about the cognitive demands of learning Chinese and English at the same time? Thus, what were not serious concerns when Japanese was the most common second foreign language have suddenly become complex questions that defy easy answers.
Rethinking the requirement that everybody learn English offers a way out of the new foreign language dilemma. The requirement comes from the noble egalitarian notion that everybody should have the same life chances. To this mindset, allowing some people not to take English deprives them of knowledge that influences their life chances because English is an important component in filtering out who gets into a good university and into a good company. This egalitarianism means that everybody must receive the same kind of English education and that all other languages ― those that are less important to life chances ― play a secondary role, which ensures that a difficult language like Chinese will never be taught properly.
A more realistic policy would admit that there are three languages that are important to Korea ― Chinese, English and Japanese ― and to give all three a role in life chances. This means giving students a choice of one of the three on university entrance exams and other official examinations. Once freed from the rigidity of the English requirement, educational authorities will be free to develop effective programs in all three languages.
English will no doubt remain dominant, but offering choice will ensure that enough Koreans develop proficiency in Chinese and Japanese to keep up with expanding relations with those countries. If Korea aims to be the hub of Northeast Asia as the government says, then giving Chinese and Japanese equal status with English is a good way to start.

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


by Robert J. Fouser

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