[Viewpoint] Korean-language classes need workThe number of foreigners learning Korean is growing as the country’s economy grows and its pop culture expands to overseas markets. While it is not easy to count the exact number of Korean learners at schools and at private institutes abroad, there are estimated to be well over one million foreigners learning Korean.
For a more precise estimate, last year 110,000 people took the Test of Proficiency in Korean and 170,000 took the Employment Permit System-Korean Language Test, which some foreigners must take before working in Korea.
For foreigners who want to learn Korean, various educational institutes here and abroad have been working hard to improve language programs. The government has been trying to help as well. As a result, the level of Korean language education is gradually improving.
Nevertheless, in many locations, Korean language programs are not held to appropriately high standards. In order to provide a proper Korean-language education, three conditions must be met.
First, there should be proper educational centers and facilities. Many of the Korean schools that are sponsored by the Korean government or organized by local Korean communities have poor facilities. The government has set up Sejong Institutes to provide financial assistance as well as educational support to facilitate a more systematic Korean education for foreigners. Currently, there are 60 Sejong Institutes in 31 countries.
Similarly, the Chinese government established and operates the Confucius Institute to support Chinese language and cultural classes. Comparing the Sejong Institute to the Confucius Institute, the gap in terms of facilities and assistance is serious. Some foreigners who are interested in learning Korean later change their mind and register at the Confucius Institute.
Second, Korean schools need better textbooks. Local Korean schools either develop their own textbooks or use the ones published in Korea. And the National Institute of the Korean Language has planned a standard curriculum for Sejong Institutes and publishes and supplies standardized textbooks and materials.
However, Korean language schools in underdeveloped countries may not be able to afford the expensive materials. The problem is especially serious in countries where low-quality textbooks are prevalent.
The official textbooks and materials not only introduce Korean culture but also embrace local cultures to provide better understanding of cultural differences, so it is truly regrettable that such educationally superb textbooks are not more widely used because of their price tag.
Third, the schools are in need of good teachers who can teach proper Korean. Although there are many Korean language teachers, qualified ones are hard to find in overseas Korean schools. Not everyone who can speak Korean can become a good teacher. In addition, qualified and licensed teachers in Korea are not willing to go abroad because of the low compensation, which is often not enough to make a living.
State affairs certainly have the priority, but the national budget for spreading Korean language education around the world has always been pushed back. Having a solid economy, hosting an international conference and having good results in sports games are important in elevating the international reputation of Korea. Yet, Korean is the basis of our culture, and expanding Korean language education is just as crucial.
The government needs to allocate funding for overseas Korean language education so that foreigners interested in our country may learn the language from qualified teachers at a reliable facility using standard textbooks.
The National Assembly is currently drafting the budget for next year. Hopefully, our lawmakers will show interest in funding an initiative that would be sure to elevate the status of the nation.
Just in time for Hangul Proclamation Day on Oct. 9, we need to rethink the importance of spreading the Korean language abroad as well as the development of the language within our country.
*The writer is a director general for the National Institute of the Korean Language.
By Kwon Jae-il