[Viewpoint]It takes more than phoneticsDuring the Joseon Dynasty, one foreign language was considered the international language, although it wasn’t as celebrated as English is today. The language of choice then was Chinese. The Chinese language and its characters were to Eastern civilization what Latin was to the Western world.
Interestingly, the intellectuals of the Joseon Dynasty displayed a different attitude toward the Chinese language, depending on the times. When the Ming Dynasty ruled the continent, the most elite Joseon scholars competed to learn Chinese. However, starting in the mid-17th century, when the Qing Dynasty began to gain power, the language was shunned by comparison.
In the late Joseon period, conversations with envoys from China were interpreted by officials from the intermediary class, not the elites from the ruling Yangban class.
According to Professor Bae Woo-sung of the University of Seoul, a considerable number of civil ministers were fluent in Chinese during the early Joseon period. When an envoy visited the court from the Ming Dynasty, the ministers played the role of interpreters for the king.
After the Qing, which had been looked down on as a kingdom of barbarians, emerged as the dominant force in China, the Joseon intellectuals grew increasingly indifferent to the Chinese language.
“In contrast to the early Joseon period, the scholars no longer considered attending a reception for Chinese envoys to be an honor. The act of learning Chinese itself became a disgrace to scholars from distinguished families,” Bae said.
In the end, I believe the intellectuals’ indifference toward the international language hurt the Joseon’s destiny.
Japan embraced Dutch as an international language and worked hard to absorb knowledge and technology from the West. The Joseon Dynasty was a big fish in a small pond compared to its neighbor, Japan, which switched to English quickly during the 19th century.
Yukichi Fukuzawa, who had been a teacher of Dutch, instantly made up his mind to learn English after he visited Yokohama in 1859. The Japanese port had been opened to Western countries and he was shocked that the signs on the streets were all written in English.
Japan was very adept at learning international languages.
Inazo Nitobe wrote “Bushido: The Soul of Japan,” a glorification of samurai ethics, in English and published it in the United States in 1900. It is no coincidence that U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, who read “Bushido,” felt so friendly toward Japan. He even said, “Japan ought to be a protectorate of Korea. Korea has shown an utter inability to stand up by itself.”
How did the Joseon Dynasty respond to the rise of English?
Yun Chi-ho, a master of English in the late Joseon period, is well-known for his English diary. He is often mentioned, but he was a Japanese collaborator to the bone. He had a different philosophy from Inazo Nitobe, who learned enough English to publicize Japan’s culture to the West. Yun Chi-ho’s English and internationalization are not globalization in the truest sense.
Jeon Gang-yong won the Dongin Literary Award in 1962 with the satirical short story, “Kapitan Lee.” The story’s protagonist, Lee In-guk, is a doctor who was educated at the Japanese Imperial University. During the Japanese occupation of Korea, the doctor was proud to have been from a Japanese-speaking family. After the liberation of Korea, the Soviet Army came into his town in the Northern part of the country. The doctor became enthusiastic to learn Russian and sent his son to Moscow to study. After he fled to the South, the doctor learned English. His daughter moved to the United States and married an American. The doctor wanted to study in America, as well.
Today, English is a powerful and useful international language that cannot be compared to Chinese during the Joseon period. Therefore, it is only proper for the government to use its authority and budget to help the students speak better English.
It is only a matter of time before the English divide and linguicism, discrimination based on the ability to use English, become social issues. The government should provide considerations for grownups who have little confidence in English.
However, unripe ideas such as English immersion or drastic changes in the phonetic transcriptions can cause problems. One can argue that Americans don’t understand it when Koreans say the word “orange” because of the difference between the actual pronunciation and the phonetic transcription into Korean. However, changing the phonetic transcription system will not make Koreans pronounce the word any better.
The learning of English is an educational issue that should be carefully planned far into the future. I’m uneasy because the new administration seems to be moving too quickly.
We must avoid the narrow-minded thinking of the late Joseon intellectuals and the lack of pride held by Kapitan Lee.
*The writer is the senior culture and sports editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Noh Jae-hyun