The world has witnessed a remarkable boom in the study of Korean language over the last five years. There are an increasing number of international students enrolling in Korean universities, often taking all their courses in Korean. I taught a course in Korean literature this year at Kyung Hee University and found many students from abroad were enrolled.
Koreans are trying hard to be accepting and kind to the foreigners who are learning Korean. Ironically, their kindness can have unexpected negative side effects. It is important to be friendly to foreigners, and it is important to be willing to speak to them in Korean, thereby letting them know that Korean is a universal language. One should feel entirely comfortable as a Korean to speak in Korean with foreigners. At the same time, however, it is a terrible mistake to treat internationals like babies when it comes to their ability in Korean. We should be friendly, but firm, in demanding that foreigners rise to the challenge of learning Korean properly.
One of the most serious problems we find is that many foreign students do not learn Korean to a high level of proficiency and cannot express complex issues, or write sophisticated essays in Korean. Part of the problem lies with textbooks for Korean, and part of the problem is related to the relative immaturity of the field of Korean language instruction. But the biggest problem is the assumptions of Koreans about foreigners speaking Korean.
Koreans more often than not do not expect foreigners to speak or write Korean proficiently and so do not correct foreigners when they make mistakes. Korean professors let international students slip by with rather poor writing skills in Korean. But this kindness is in fact cruel. Those students do not hold themselves to the highest standards in their use of Korean and as a result do not make the progress that they might have made during their time in Korea. They cheat themselves of an invaluable opportunity to master the language. But Koreans also are deprived of future experts overseas with a high proficiency in the Korean language.
Korean professors and Korean students must insist that when foreign students do their writing and speaking in Korean they must perform at the highest level possible. There is no doubt that the international students can rise to meet the challenge.
I myself feel strongly that the willingness of Koreans to overlook the imperfections in my spoken and written Korean has been a hindrance. If Koreans said that they did not understand me when they did not, if they noted that my writing in Korean was incorrect when it was not, I could have made far more progress.
But at every level of Korean usage in Korea, it is just assumed that foreigners cannot rise to the challenge of speaking Korean. I make mistakes and I simply do not know that they are mistakes. If we start to demand high proficiency in Korean, flawless composition or pronunciation, we will get exactly that from foreign students. As long as we think foreigners can never learn to speak Korean at the same level as a native speaker, they never will.