Thursday, November 6, 2008

What Government is For, Korean Edition

"Adoption of English as Official Language Proposed" for Korea, according to an article today in The Korea Times.

Yeah, good luck with that. Of course, Korea is not alone; about one hundred countries (half of the total) include English as an official or widely spoken tongue. A quick google spotted an article about Madagascar's government's decision to do the same. Madagascar is a large island in the country of Africa country in Africa whose president, Marc Ravalomanana, is sometimes called "Park Myung-bak" at least according to this story in Korea's Dong-A Ilbo, due to his five year plans for improving his country's economy, like Park Chung-hee, and his role as an important business leader, like Lee Myung-bak. Park and Lee both have served as Korea's leader.

Indeed, Ravalomanana called Korea "his role model country for economic development," according to the article. You could do worse, as Korea has changed from a feudal, agrarian society into a thoroughly modern, technological marvel and economic powerhouse in just fifty years. This amazing story was one of my key reasons for wanting to spend some time here. Says the article:
Considering the importance of English on the global stage, the Madagascan president designated the language an official language in additional to the indigenous Malagasy and French.
He directed the public sector to use English in a number of work processes...

Now, the fact that many people in Madagascar already speak more than one language suggests a substantial difference with Korea. The population speaks only Korean, and most can read simplified Chinese characters as they are still widely used, but there has been weak cultural interest in learning foreign languages.

Chinese and Japanese have been the most frequently-learned languages, due to the influence of these cultures in Korea's history and geography. In fact, during the Japanese occupation in the first half of the 20th century, speaking Korean was illegal for a while, and everyone was forced to learn Japanese. Some of those people are still alive.

Cut to the latter part of the century past. As Korea's industrial prowess grew, the lack of English speaking began to be recognised as a hindrance to achieving economic goals. The English Program in Korea (EPIK) was introduced in 1992 to bring native English speakers to teach here. Each year, this program is being expanded as rapidly as the market for native teachers will bear. Which also helps explain why I am here. I'll blog later--and ongoingly--about the impediments to teaching English to Koreans.

The Korea Times article focuses on comments from InvestKorea leader Chung Tong-soo, a Harvard Law graduate and a former Clinton administration staffer:
We should convert our difficulty into an advantage. The key is bringing down exorbitant corporate tax rates and giving foreign firms an atmosphere they can easily work in.
Language barriers make life for foreigners more difficult, so let's remove them. Years from now, we may look back on a lost chance with regret.

Acknowledging the difficulties the government would face in adopting English as an official language, Chung said, "That is what the government is for."

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