[Letters] Suggestions to improve Korean language education

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[Letters] Suggestions to improve Korean language education

It is no secret that a language is “best learned under the pillow”. In Korea’s case, because English is the lingua franca between Koreans and foreigners, most foreigners who come to Korea end up learning English and spending years in Korea without learning Korean.

A number of Korean language academies and institutes offer Korean classes, yet such classes do not fit most foreigners’ ambitions to learn Korean. The Korean they teach is not authentic, and teachers often lack proper training. In addition, most Korean language institutes do not offer classes that fit the average expat’s schedule.

However, the biggest problem among Korean language institutes is that they don’t have a modern curriculum. Modern linguists have established that languages are learned through games and conversation, and not through grammar and memorization.

Most Korean language institutes offer students lists of vocabulary and grammar that they expect them to memorize. While such methods may help students learn a language, they do not help students overcome the “culture barrier”.

Languages are not merely a list of words and grammar, but a living, breathing entity. Students should not only learn what to say, but also how and when to say it.

While I studied Korean at different institutes, most teachers insisted that students not ask questions related to culture. For example, my teachers never taught me that, unlike English, the Korean language has much more complicated rules governing pronouns. While in English one might say, “did you eat”, in Korean, you more often say, “did Professor eat,” although the meaning is the same.

Most Korean language institutes view culture as a taboo, but it’s time to brake that taboo. While many foreigners in Korea speak fluent Korean, they cannot help but commit social blunders when they speak. The same applies for Korean learners of English.

Language institutes should teach students what to say, how to say it and when to say what. For example, when meeting a Korean acquaintance for the first time, students should know that they should speak in short sentences and avoid eye contact with the new acquaintance.

The fields of anthropological and socio-linguistics are still relatively new in Korea. For their part, however, Korean language institutes and universities could stand to collaborate on projects to determine how Koreans behave when they speak.

Sometimes institutes give students the wrong idea regarding how to behave when they speak. I was always taught, for example, to use the polite form of speech when meeting strangers. What the institutes should have taught me though is that if there is a clear age gap between someone and a stranger, the older speaker may use the lower form of speech.

Another aspect of Korean society that language institutes should take into account is the increasing use of English as the lingua franca in Korea. Korean-speaking foreigners dislike the fact that Koreans speak to them in English when they meet them, and refuse to speak to them in Korean.

Korean academies should teach students that when someone is clearly a foreigner in Korea, they will instinctively be spoken to in English. Institutes should teach students to be patient, as Koreans only speak Korean once they befriend foreigners and know they can trust them.

Learning a language without understanding the culture can cause more stress for foreign students than not speaking the language at all. What results is that many Korean language learners do so for the economic, rather than cultural, benefits of speaking Korean. This means that they don’t care about the cultural aspects of the language.

The reality is that whether you speak Korean to make friends, translate Korean or do business in Korea, knowledge of how Koreans speak and behave­- which is equal parts grammar and culture - is a must. Otherwise, moments of social awkwardness are inevitable.


By Akli Hadid,

a former student in Korea, now living in Algeria
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