Better late than never: Overcoming illiteracy
“Please write it down.”
Following the instructions, Lee Sun-young, 69, writes “chagwa” in her notebook. Her teacher, Yang Sang-keum, points out the error, and Ms. Lee erases “cha” and writes “chu” instead. Then the teacher demonstrates the correct way to write “chi.”
“I should change my glasses. I can’t see words properly,” says Ms. Lee, embarrassed and guffawing.
In the second-floor auditorium of the community center in rural Napo village in North Jeolla province, elderly Koreans are learning to read. Equipped with a whiteboard, desks and folding chairs, this is one of six village schools operated by Cheonghak Night School of Gunsan, North Jeolla province.
Six residents learn Korean writing every evening from two instructors. The progress of learning differs from student to student. Basic level students are learning simple words such as cabbage and dental clinic. Intermediate-level students learn from a second-grade textbook.
They were all at different stages of learning, but everyone seemed happy. Studying with a notebook and a pencil that her children gave her, Choi Sun-rye said, “People say, ‘what’s the use of learning to write at an old age?’ but I want to live as a literate person even if just for a month or a day.”
Cho Nam-chun, 63, said, smiling, “I can fill out a form at a bank to withdraw money these days. I’m so happy that I can learn.”
Ms. Lee said, “I will write a letter that I can read and write to people who ignored me for not knowing how to read.”
Ryu Mija, their teacher, said, “When we first opened the school last March, we started with only two students because people were embarrassed to study at so late an age. But as students bragged about what they learned, more came in. Our classroom is too cold for holding a pencil, but elderly students come everyday.”
Formerly illiterate students say they felt born again by learning to read and write at places like night schools, social welfare centers and schools for housewives.
Most of all, they don’t have to face the daily difficulties caused by not being able to read and write.
“I can transfer trains and take a bus without asking,” said Kim Young-rae, 77. “When a bank clerk asks if I can spell my name, I proudly respond, ‘Of course, I go to school too.’”
Jung Young-ja, 66, who studied with Ms. Kim, said, “By learning reading and writing, I save time and am confident as I don’t have to ask for a help anymore.”
Kim Nam-ju, 66, said, “It’s so fun to walk around because I can discover what these stores that I used to pass by were by looking at their signboards.”
The biggest advantage of learning to read is confidence.
Lee Yok-dong, 76, a student from the Lifelong Education Center in Gwangmyeong, Gyeonggi province, said, “I used to think that people would ignore me, but I don’t think that way anymore. Since I learned writing and reading, I have become confident.” Oh Sam-ok, 67, said, “Now I don’t feel timid. And whenever I don’t know I can confidently say ‘I don’t know.’”
The family members of elderly students are proud and supportive of their mothers and wives learning Korean writing in their old age. Relationships between family members have improved. “When I became the class leader, my family was very supportive. My children and husband congratulated me and hung the appointment letter on the wall,” said Kim Sun-ja, 62, from Yangwon School for Housewives. “My family relationships have improved and my family has recognized me again.”
“My elderly mother is very happy that I go to school,” said Choi Gyeong-sun, 60. “Learning to write erases my mother’s regret that she could not educate me so well.”
Elderly students no longer feel anxious about disclosing that they are illiterate to their families. “Only one year after I began learning to write, I told my family about it,” said Lee Yeon-woo, 56. “At first I didn’t tell them because I was ashamed, but they help me with homework and support me now.”
A common desire for elderly students is to learn other subjects too. Lee Jeong-su, 70, said, “When I complete my intermediate-level Korean course, I want to learn algebra and computers.” Kim Jeon-sun, 57, had a more ambitious dream. She said, “I want to be a writer who touches a string in people’s hearts.”
Korea has over 2.4 million adults who cannot read and count beyond a middle school level. Experts say that this is not a negligible number in terms of social integration and resolving polarization.
Dr. Choi Don-min of the Korean Educational Development Institute said, “Education for literacy guarantees the basic right for a minimum education for Korean people. Societal interest has to increase so that the government can carry out its obligation of providing a minimum education for Koreans.”
Lee Eun-ju, director of the Association for Literary and Basic Education of Korea, said, “Most of the illiterate are too passive in everyday life for not being educated. Education for literacy changes their personalities, making them active and positive.”
Man-hui, a co-representative of the National Association for Basic Education for Adult Literacy, said, “The illiterate are excluded from economic activity, and thus are easily sacrificed in the face of polarization. The Korean government is responsible and should support education for literacy in a way to relieve polarization.”
Professor Jung Jin-gon of Hanyang University said, “Literacy education can [mitigate polarization] by helping to overcome the unequal educational opportunities accumulated over a lifetime.”
Those who benefit from literacy education can live confidently as members of society and contribute to social unity. Literacy enables the students to be positively recognized by society.
“With literacy education, we can help them to maintain a healthy relationship with others in daily life,” said Professor Kim Sin-il of Seoul National University.
Three elderly women recount their sufferings and losses
Kim Jeong-suk, 63, Myeongryundong, Jongno, Seoul
“For over thirty years I ran a wholesale store for miscellaneous goods with my husband. Whenever he was away, I was anxious about dealing with people who asked for a receipt. As I couldn’t read Korean, I couldn’t even go to karaoke. When people invited me, I gave all kinds of excuses.”
Hwang Sun-jeong, 61, Gunsan, North Cholla province.
“I often lost money as I’m illiterate. I brought 20 million won to the bank but the clerk only deposited 10 million won. That’s the money my husband and I made by saving pennies of our earnings from farming. Until now, I couldn’t tell this to anybody because they might have thought I was stupid.”
Lim Ye-cheol, 76, Cheon- gyang, South Chungcheong province.
“When I ran a small store, I couldn’t collect bills on credit. I marked customers’ names on paper to remember, but they couldn’t understand what I wrote. I also used to offer accommodations and meals for traveling merchants, but couldn’t collect bills properly since I could not count well.”
by Kim Nam-joong, Han Ae-ran