[Outlook] The language of change

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[Outlook] The language of change

Jim Yong Kim has recently been appointed president of Dartmouth College in the United States. His family moved to America when he was about 5 years old, but he can speak Korean fluently. He served as special adviser to the director general of the World Health Organization and headed the WHO’s HIV/AIDS department, and worked as a professor and department head at Harvard Medical School. When he talked with the late Lee Jong-wook, then director general of the WHO, or Shin Young-soo, WHO regional director for Asia and the Pacific, he could converse in nearly perfect Korean except for a few complicated terms.

We are proud of Kim not only because he has accomplished great achievements but also because he can speak Korean. I talk about him because some children of Koreans who have moved abroad haven’t learned Korean, although some have succeeded in doing so.

In the past, when Koreans moved to another country and raised children there, they would not teach the children Korean if the environment did not permit it. Parents felt relieved to see their children master the language of their adopted country and to be able to lead a normal life there. But some children could not communicate properly with their parents, who kept the language and culture of home.

As Korea’s economy developed and the country’s status has been elevated, the ability to speak Korean fluently has become an important asset for Koreans living abroad. When Koreans live in other countries they can learn Korean language, history and culture in classes often run by religious organizations. In the past there were not enough people to teach Korean, but expatriate Korean communities have worked hard and now they have established systemized Korean lessons for children. As an increasing number of Koreans move abroad, many have relatives nearby. If a child or a relative needs to learn Korean, someone is usually willing to help.

In Korea, mixed culture families are increasing now because the gender ratio here is unbalanced. This is changing the demographic structure, in effect making Korea more global.

This new phenomenon causes problems, but at least for now there seems to be a consensus that we need to overcome our emphasis on pure blood. While issues in families are being resolved individually, the government, companies and the mass media are presenting ways to resolve the issues.

Korean society is going through the process of cultural transformation in which people from different cultures are accepted as fellow citizens and members of our communities.

We need to go one step further. We should help children from mixed culture families learn their mother’s or father’s language along with Korean. We should help and encourage them to become bilingual.

When the mothers are from other countries, they and their children often concentrate on learning Korean in order to adapt themselves to life here. As a result, children tend to devote less effort to learning their mother’s mother tongue.

We should help these children learn how to communicate properly with their mothers - they deserve such respect in their Korean families - and so the children can master a language other than Korean.

We should help these children grow up to become decent citizens of Korea and also absorb the cultures of their mothers’ home countries. They can take leading roles in contributing to cultural exchange when they grow up. It’s better to give children opportunities to learn their mothers’ language before they start school rather than after. In that way, children become accustomed to the language more easily.

There are already various moves being made with this purpose in mind. Publishers are coming out with bilingual children’s books. Some Web sites have programs that teach a second language. We should make it easier to use these materials and draw up measures to encourage families of mixed cultures to use them.

Mothers from non-English-speaking counties have difficulties gathering or accessing information in Korea. They often don’t have the time or the energy to teach their children their mother tongue.

In 1903, the first Koreans immigrated to Hawaii, in the United States. In 50 years since then, the Korean community in the United States has nurtured Syngman Rhee, independence activist and politician Kim Kyu-shik; activist, politician and businessman Park Yong-man; and independence activist Kim Ho.

In later years, the Korean-American community has produced leaders in the intellectual field such as Jim Yong Kim, Koh Kyung-joo or Howard Koh, the associate dean of Harvard School of Public Health, and his brother Harold Koh, the dean of Yale Law School.

Looking at these Koreans living abroad making great achievements, one feels that we also should protect and help families of various cultures living among us. Doing so will form an important basis for planning a better future.

The writer is a professor at Yonsei University Graduate School of Public Health. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Sohn Myung-sei
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