The value of the Korean language

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The value of the Korean language

I must admit that it is easier for me to prepare for my classes at the college of international studies of Kyung Hee University. It was time-consuming and sometimes humiliating to prepare and teach classes in Korean when I taught at the Hoegi-dong campus. To be honest, although I can read and write Korean, my pronunciation is simply not that good because I started studying Korean at the age of 31. Now, teaching in English, I manage to inspire a lively discussion, granted that there are some students who have trouble following in English.

When I started working with international students more closely, I discovered that most of them have little or no foundations in Korean, and they cannot read original materials or pursue any meaningful independent research using Korean sources. The university assumes that it is natural for international students to simply do all their coursework in English, but I know for a fact that students who do not have Korean language skills face a significant disadvantage finding jobs in Korea after graduation because of their lack of language skills.

In my case, I learned to read and write Japanese with considerable sophistication as a graduate student in Japan back in the 1990s. I completed all of my courses in Japanese and wrote a master’s thesis in Japanese. Although I was not fluent in Japanese when I started graduate school in comparative literature at the University of Tokyo, I was forced to increase my proficiency very quickly under the tremendous pressure of doing 20 to 100 pages of readings in Japanese every day. That trial by fire made my career, setting me apart from the vast majority of Americans who learn a smattering of Japanese conversation during their stay in Japan.

Foreign students at Kyung Hee are missing out on a tremendous amount because they never received rigorous training in Korean in college - in fact, advanced Korean is not even required for graduation from the international college. There is no expectation in Korea that they learn Korean at all, let alone master it.

I have never seen a teacher angry at a foreign student because he or she does not know a term in Korean - and so foreign students do not bother to learn Korean. It is a general assumption in Korea that foreigners will speak only English and that although they may learn a bit of Korean, their ability will always be limited. That assumption is simply wrong. If Koreans start to expect, and demand, that foreigners speak Korean well and insist that they write it at a near-native level, foreigners will rise in their capacity.

Moreover, international students are unable to find jobs in Korea precisely because they do not know Korean well. There is a general assumption that foreigners in Korea will speak English and that speaking English is sufficient for most of their needs - but that is not how Korean organizations work. You must have a sophisticated command of Korean to work in a Korean organization.

Although Korean firms are remarkably international in their reach, they are extraordinarily Korean in terms of their administration. The argument I hear from Koreans is that Korean companies should be more international and hire more Koreans who speak English. But although such a move is a positive, I wonder whether ultimately we must recognize that the Korean language is a prerequisite for success in a Korean company.

Korean companies occasionally hire foreign executives but put no priority on their Korean skills and make no effort to train them in the Korean language. But in the next generation, Korean corporations will need internationals who have near-native command of Korean and who can work well within a Korean environment. That is the sort of foreigner who could actually be the CEO of a Korean firm.

One cannot operate in a Korean organization, whether a corporation, a university or a government agency without a sophisticated command of the Korean language. The signs in the hall may be in English, but the system runs in Korean. That is the case even in institutions that employ English as the primary language for instruction.

Perhaps the saddest consequence of the failure of Koreans to demand that foreigners learn the Korean language is the sad state of Korean experts overseas. When I worked in Washington, D.C. as an advisor to the Korean Embassy, I was profoundly aware of how limited my command of the Korean language was. But I soon realized that I was the only one at most seminars at American think tanks who regularly read Korean newspapers and books. I witnessed the pontificating on North Korea and Northeast Asia by American experts on Korean politics, security and economics who could barely say “annyeong” in Korean, let alone read original research in the language.

Maybe Koreans think that because Korea is a small developing nation, they have no power to demand that so-called Korea experts actually give talks in Korean and read Korean research. But could it be that Korea would be better off if it rather insisted that Korea experts must know Korean well and invested in training a new generation of experts.

There are plans to greatly increase the funds spent lobbying in the United States. Personally, I think that money will be wasted. Would it not be wiser to invest in producing a new generation of people who actually know Korea than trying to lobby the current generation of people ignorant of Korea?

The author is an associate professor at the College of International Studies, Kyung Hee University.

by Emanuel Pastreich

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