Thor's Korea Diary

South Korean Language Policy
- a letter to President Roh Moo-hyun

@15 February 2003

Dear President Roh Moo-hyun,

You appear to be entering office on a genuine wave of goodwill, a surge of expectation especially amongst younger South Koreans that the unfolding of a new Korean identity will continue apace. This kind of optimism is a fairly rare bonus for a democratic political leader, and we all hope that at least some of the expectations will come to fruition.

As an outsider, a foreigner, I sense that letters of 'advice' are apt to be presumptuous. Koreans know their own priorities and interests better than anyone else. One of the few areas in which I feel that non-Korean residents can make a valid comment is the South Korean environment as it bears on their own interests. I teach English in a Korean university, so this is a matter on which I have some competence to comment; (I have been teaching English and Linguistics in various countries since 1976).

A Korean colleague assures me that middle class Koreans are spending up to 30% of their disposable income on language study. If true, this is an extraordinary figure with unusual political implications. It seems to say loudly and clearly that South Korea needs to formulate a National Language Policy with a clear pragmatic base (not simply a forum for competing ideologies). This is no place to explore such a policy in any detail, but some important preliminary questions might be :

a) What are the real levels of foreign language competence in different sectors of the Korean economy, and in different age groups?

b) What are realistic targets for foreign language competence?

c) What are the true factors driving attempts to achieve foreign language competence by different groups in Korean society?

d) How useful is government intervention in the 'language marketplace' ?

e) How effective are the staff in public schools, colleges and universities in promoting foreign language competence?

f) Given the huge number of private institutions of every size involved in foreign language teaching, how can their practices be made most beneficial, and their (notorious) malpractices be curbed?

g) What component of foreign language study in South Korea is actually a preparation for overseas study?

h) What is the real profile of foreign language teachers in South Korea. What are their qualifications, their teaching skills (a different question from formal qualifications), their origins, and their motivations?

i) If the government feels it desirable to modify the profile of foreign language teachers in South Korea, what changes in their conditions of employment and residence might be desirable? For example, would the 'green card' system for foreign teachers (now used in Japan) reduce the current high level of workplace discontent, and perhaps attract a more stable foreign teaching component?

j) Given that Korean is learned by very few foreigners, resident or international, in spite of South Korea being a major world economy and an ancient culture, how can Korea assume its proper dimension in the minds of the peoples of the world?

I will insert a brief comment here on points i) and j) because they are interconnected. Before coming to South Korea in 1990 I worked for two years in China. There is a relatively large international community of interest in China, not only because of its size, but because of a rich and varied literature in many languages on Chinese culture (in spite of the stifling effect of Communist Party manipulation), as well as a very active Chinese diaspora. Most of the foreign teachers in China are certainly not there for the money. Some are crypto-missionaries, but most are simply fascinated by the place. In many the fascination goes beyond the merely superficial, and this is of major political importance. Where China interfaces with international interests, many informed voices can be brought to the debate across every subject from ecology to art to high finance. Such a depth of foreign understanding makes it more difficult for cavalier administrations in Washington or elsewhere to act foolishly.

By comparison, I am afraid that South Korea is still the Hermit Kingdom for most people in the international community. The underlying interest is not there because the background knowledge is not there. Even from my own website ( I know that an article on China will attract many more readers than one on Korea. Similarly, most of the foreign teachers in South Korea are here unambiguously for the money, and many remain largely ignorant of the society. This has implications for the success of their mission.

The South Korean government in recent years has made various attempts to render South Korea accessible to the world by sponsoring some literature translations, and making available some English language websites etc. My own feeling is that this is a process which needs to be expanded on many fronts, official and unofficial. For example, I am the Writings Editor for Pusanweb (, which is the main electronic community center for English speakers in Busan. Our current contributors and readers are overwhelmingly expatriates, but both the manager, Jeff Lebow, and I can see that there is potential for unofficial sites such as Pusanweb to be a valuable bridge between English speaking Koreans and the world community at large.

Best wishes for your new administration.

Regards, Thor May
15 February 2003

* Note on personal names: all names in this Diary have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals,
unless stated otherwise.

"South Korean Language Policy - A Letter to President Roh Moo-hyun"... copyrighted to Thor May 2003; all rights reserved
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