Red Alert: Korean Language Instruction in the United States

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Thursday, January 5th, 2012
Emanuel Yi Pastreich

Emanuel Yi Pastreich, Professor of Humanitas College in Kyung Hee University

When I started studying Korean language at Harvard University, there were about 30 students in the class the first day. Twenty-two of them were Korean Americans and eight were non-Koreans. Within two weeks I was the only non-Korean in the room. The instructors of the class were Korean graduate students with no real training in how to teach Korean to non-natives. When the Korean Americans in the class were able to make simple conversation in Korean language, the instructors took that to be the norm and made no effort to adjust the teaching to the needs of non-natives. Unsurprisingly, the non-natives dropped out.

The instructors expressed regret that the non-Koreans dropped the course, but took it for granted that their audience was Korean Americans, not those odd non-Koreans.

In many cases, Korean Americans who take Korean language as an undergraduate do so to find an easy course. That is not always the case, but in most cases, these “heritage students” are not interested in Korean studies itself.

The non-Koreans, however, are often outsiders with a true passion for Korea. They are the most likely to become significant figures in Korea-US relations.  What a shame that the youth who could become Korean experts are being turned away because Korean language classes are not aimed at them. Recent conversations with recent American college graduates suggest that this situation at American universities has not improved.

Koreans lament that there are not more Americans who are fluent in Korean, but the problem stems in part from the failure to entice Americans into studying Korean language.

The roots of this problem are deep. To start with, Korea has basically assumed that the instruction of Korean in America should be aimed at Korean Americans. Large funds have been invested in Korean language education for heritage speakers, but little effort has been made to encourage the teaching of Korean at high schools and universities for average Americans.

In fact, a very logical argument can be made, in terms of geopolitical significance,  that it is as important for Americans in high school to learn Korean as to learn German or French. Sadly, the problem is not that Americans are not listening, buy rather that Koreans are not making the argument for the importance of Korean language instruction. Many in Korea just assume that Americans do not want to learn Korean. Little investment is made to encourage the many Americans who study Taekwondo, or love Hallyu, to learn Korean.  

And then there is the problem of language instruction materials. Korean language textbooks are often poorly edited and developed by experts in linguistics in Korea, not experts in language training in the United States. Therefore the materials do not feature exciting and relevant dialogs, do not take advantage of the aspects of contemporary Korea that are compelling to young people and lack drills aimed at the needs of native English speakers trying to learn a first Asian language.

The dictionaries are also a serious challenge. All Korean-English dictionaries and English-Korean dictionaries that I have ever seen are aimed at Korean readers and are not useful for non-native speakers. In many cases, the American student must study Korean for three or four years before he is at the level that he can effectively use a dictionary

For example, if there were a Korean-English dictionary for non-Koreans, the entry for the word “bab” (밥), presents first a definition of “bab,” “ 1) rice; 2) a meal; 3) a livelihood.” Then the dictionary would present different Korean usages of the word along with English explanations of differences in meaning. Unfortunately, the Korean-English dictionary the American student sees today is written for a Korean reader. Therefore it provides no definitions in English and no explanations in English of the differences in connotation of the word. The reason is simple: it is assumed that the reader is a native speaker of Korean and knows the basic facts about the word “bab.”   

Korea invests an immense amount of money in many aspects of its international diplomacy and marketing. It would a small investment indeed to develop first-class language materials that will attract the best and the brightest to serve as future Korea experts.