[Viewpoint] A ‘language FTA’ with Pacific neighbors

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[Viewpoint] A ‘language FTA’ with Pacific neighbors

A ‘language FTA’ with Pacific neighbors
The recent anti-government demonstrations in Thailand caused some setbacks to South Korea’s efforts to utilize the Korea-Asean and Asean Plus Three summit meetings, which were to be held in Pattaya on April 11 and 12, as a vehicle for crystallizing its ambitious “New Asia Initiative.” The initiative was announced in the wake of President Lee Myung-bak’s fruitful state visits to New Zealand, Australia and Indonesia in early March.

The South Korean government has since been busy implementing follow-up measures by, most notably, strengthening mutual cooperation ties for security, bolstering green growth and exploring free trade arrangements with Australia and New Zealand.

The long-term goals of such cooperation, however, can only be achieved on the basis of a deeper understanding and a sense of commonality between the peoples involved.

Australia in particular is a country to which over 5,000 Koreans emigrate each year. Last year Korean immigration to Australia accelerated the most of any country - 21.2 percent, or almost four times the previous year’s 5.8 percent. On a regrettable note, however, Korea was among the 17 least-favored nations by Australians in a survey conducted early this year of 1,000 citizens of that country.

From time to time, Koreans are reported to have been treated unjustly on foreign soil, simply owing to communication gaps with local people. On the other hand, the Korean Chamber of Commerce and Industry has recently surveyed 100 foreign business executives, nearly 27 percent of whom pointed out language barriers as the biggest difficulty they experience here in Korea.

In order to surmount such barriers, it is equally important to disseminate the Korean language among foreign nationals inside and outside Korea as it is to raise Koreans’ foreign language proficiency.

In this context, a pact with Australia and New Zealand to use Korean and English as common official languages should be proposed as the best way to lay a solid foundation for concrete measures to achieve greater friendship and cooperation.

A language FTA would mean Korean, though geographically surrounded by the two mega-languages Chinese and Japanese, would overtake them in terms of practical use in Oceania. Korean would be taught at schools at all levels by Korean teachers with high proficiency in English. Korean would be used along with English in all public documents and road signs. Korean residents there will be the initial beneficiaries of such an accord.

Conversely, more Australian and New Zealand teachers with high proficiency in Korean will teach English in Korea. They will occupy a greater share of the huge English education market here.

Synchronous teleconferences, distance education and video discussions can take place in English more often between major cities of Korea and those of Australia and New Zealand due to miniscule time difference compared to New York, Los Angeles, Toronto or London. The effect of this simultaneous communication will double if it happens in both languages under the proposed bilingual agreement.

The treaty can also allow Australians and New Zealanders to take Korean proficiency tests free of charge. The number of people taking such tests is on the rise. Conversely, South Koreans would be exempt from charges when they take the International English Language Test.

The United States does not have a federal official language. Only a few states have adopted both English and Spanish as official languages. This makes it impossible for Korean to aspire to the status of official language. Canada does not have any room for other languages to be added as official languages because it is already a bilingual nation with English and French. Britain, as a member of the European Union, cannot adopt languages other than those of member states.

Australia and New Zealand are also suitable for the pact by virtue of their combined population size being comparable to that of South Korea.

Some may argue that Australian English will prevail over the American or British standard in Korea once such an agreement is implemented. But it would not be unnatural for an East Asian-Pacific country to adopt the Australian variety as “standard English.” In any case, such apprehension may be needless in light of globalization of English itself: American and British standards have become ever closer; Californian English is popular as well as commonly used in Sydney.

President Lee’s commitment to absorbing English education into the public sector has remained steadfast since he started his campaign for the presidency almost two years ago. A language pact with Australia and New Zealand will take English language teaching back into the public domain, accelerate the practical use of English, and drastically reduce the cost of private education in Korea.

It is hoped that the government will propose a draft of such an agreement that would be mutually beneficial and accomplish multiple goals.

South Korea has recently received new ambassadors from Australia and New Zealand. Both have pledged to do their best to accelerate negotiations for free trade agreements, which will help redress the chronic imbalance of exports and imports and bring substantive benefits to peoples aspiring for common prosperity.

An agreement on official languages could be a more intriguing and challenging task for them to take up, with the potential for more fundamental and far-reaching consequences.

The Korean government can also choose to reach an agreement with one of them first in case trilateral negotiations turn out to be too cumbersome.

*The writer is a professor emeritus at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security.

by Kim Jae-bum
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