[Viewpoint] A teacher is a teacher

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[Viewpoint] A teacher is a teacher

A year ago, a small Indonesian ethnic group adopted Hangul to transcribe their aboriginal language. The Indonesian government approved the import of the Korean alphabet by the Cia-Cia tribe, which lives on Buton Island off the southwestern island of Sulawesi.

The news was received with great fanfare by Korea because it was the first use of Hangul by a foreign community. However, some reports misrepresented the story, saying the Korean language was replacing the Cia-Cia tribe’s native tongue. That misrepresentation can be found in newspaper articles and on various Web sites.

In 2007, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) added the Korean language - the 13th in the world in terms of the number of speakers - as an official language of the International Patent Cooperation Treaty. Propagation of the Korean language has accelerated over the years in depth and scope since the country came into the international spotlight by hosting the 1988 Summer Olympic Games.

Learners of the Korean language have skyrocketed over the years. The motives for learning Korean have also diversified. Some people make a hobby out of it, while others are pursuing higher education or jobs in Korea. The increase in cross-cultural marriages and foreign workers in Korea has also contributed to the proliferation of Korean learners. Universities have been offering undergraduate and graduate courses in Korean for international students in recent years.

From the late 1990s, the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism began to take a serious interest in promoting the Korean language and started subsidizing research and activities to develop and propagate our native tongue. In 2005, the ministry made guidelines on Korean linguistic education. They included various rules on language education, including qualifications of teachers and guidelines on how to train the educators.

It is fortunate that we finally systematized education guidelines for the Korean language. But at the time I argued that even though it may take longer, the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology should spearhead a project to pass a law on the Korean language. My reasons were simple. Teaching Korean should be approached in the broader educational context and included in the system of regulating the profession of teaching and fostering educators.

Under the Korean language law, someone who teaches Korean cannot be classified as a teacher because the field of teaching Korean is not included in the learning courses administered by the Education Ministry. In other words, because the subject is not an official part of elementary and secondary learning courses, the instructor of Korean is considered a member of the education staff, not a teacher.

The history of Korean language education corresponds with the 60-year history of the Yonsei University Korea Language Institute. The profession of teaching our language to non-native speakers has so far been regarded lightly as if it does not require any particular skills for native Koreans. As a result, the job has not been considered a decent profession, and pay and other benefits to the instructors have been poor.

Learners of Korean - ranging from ethnic Koreans to foreigners in the country or abroad - are expected to reach millions soon. That’s why we should rapidly come up with various textbooks in different languages and in different forms for specific targets, tailoring them to the different motives for learning the language. These programs and materials should be easily accessible, too.

But who would take on this job? Obviously, the current experts in the field - people who are already teaching Korean and know the various challenges involved - are the best candidates. But these lecturers do not even have formal titles for their profession. Korean teaching licenses are issued through various channels: some from universities and others from a language aptitude test administered by the Human Resources Development Service, an umbrella institution of the Ministry of Labor.

As a matter of fact, there is no state authority in charge of administering policies for education in the Korean language. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Education Ministry, Culture Ministry, Labor Ministry and Ministry of Gender Equality have divisions offering education and training in the Korean language. But it doesn’t mean the government is going all out to promote Korea, but rather the reverse: all these competing staffs generate redundancy and confusion within the policy - or the non-policy.

Whether the targets are immigrants, migrant workers, adults or children, all are entitled to a proper and efficient education if they desire to learn Korean. Authorities must realign our policy on the education of the Korean language. They should start with redefining the profession of instructing people in Korean. They should be recognized as teachers.

*The writer is a professor and director of the Korean Language Education Center at Pai Chai University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.


by Choi Jung-soon
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