[Outlook]Wings to flyAccording to the World Economic Forum, Switzerland is the world’s most competitive country. Surrounded by Germany, France and Italy, Switzerland includes the languages from these countries as official languages.
The people in Switzerland are fluent in English so foreigners have no problem doing business there. Thanks to this, many international organizations are located in Switzerland.
Korea has four strong countries as neighbors, but Korean is the only official language. Expatriates in Korea say that they have difficulty communicating with Koreans because store signs and menus are in Korean, and Koreans are not very good at English.
Switzerland is home to the world’s top companies thanks to its competitiveness in languages. The number of Swiss companies on the list of the world’s top 500 is close to the number of Korean companies there, even though Switzerland’s population is a mere one-seventh of Korea’s.
The same is true in Singapore. Situated between Malaysia and Indonesia, the small city-state has become the most competitive country in Asia. Singapore also has many official languages so that people from around the world can go there and do business without much difficulty. This contributes to the country’s competitiveness.
Jews are also known for their language education. In Israel, when children reach age 9, they study English for one hour a day. Soon after, they learn Arabic, the language of neighboring countries. College students choose other languages, such as Chinese or German. They all speak Hebrew, of course. Thanks to their language skills, many Israelis become successful in many countries.
In advanced countries, such as Sweden, Finland and the Netherlands, the people speak foreign languages fluently.
In the United States, people from nearly all the countries in the world live together. Languages and ethnic groups from around the world co-exist. Staff members at a hotel in the United States are capable of speaking some 20 languages.
In the era of globalization, language skills separate advanced countries from underdeveloped ones. One of the traits of an underdeveloped country is a low literacy rate. There are many people who cannot read and write their own language, let alone a foreign one.
Korea is the only country that is strongly influenced by four superpowers. Korea must learn about those countries to become more prosperous. The best way to learn about them is to know their languages.
Among countries surrounded by strong neighbors, those who have multiple official languages have surpassed their neighbors and become more advanced.
Luxemburg, the country with the highest national per capita income, is a good example. Those who live in neighboring countries even commute to Luxemburg every day.
It is relatively easy to learn Chinese and Japanese in Korea. China and Japan are economic powerhouses.
Of course, we Koreans must be able to speak English fluently because it is the international language of business. Korea, a peninsula, is open to the world on all its sides. A country with this geographical characteristic needs to have good relations with neighboring countries and the best way to do that is to learn their languages. Knowledge in Chinese and Japanese also helps us understand the Korean language better.
We are living in an era of competition among cultural products as well. The key to understanding foreign cultures is also to learn foreign languages.
Korea, China and Japan will become a large economic community. So we must have a good and deep understanding of these countries.
By 2020, China’s economic volume is expected to grow to the size of the U.S. economy.
Until then, the total value of shares will increase by thousands of billion dollars. Land prices in China will have snowballed by then. We should invest in China and Japan, too.
Korea must learn the culture, technology and management styles of the United States, Japan and China, and then find its own way to advance farther. For long-term national security, we must learn the languages spoken in those countries.
Many talented youths grow up in Korea. The best time for them to learn foreign languages is when they are young. We should give them wings of language so they can fly higher in the future.
*The writer is a professor emeritus at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Song Byung-nak