English craze as a modern Korean tradition

Even having seen for around 15 years how one’s ability to follow the CNN anchors’ pronounciation habits functions in South Korea as the modern equivalent of the old treasured skills of Chinese poetizing, I still often feel baffled by the degree that the English craze has reached. On one plane, you have badly informed moms having the tongues of their kids operated on so that they can ideally conform to global standards; on another plane, my old Korean alma mater proudly proclaims that it will switch 60% of its teaching to the most scientific language in the world in 5 years. Korean history isn’t going to be exempt from this new duty of linguistic globalization , and it really feels eerie – after all, it was permitted to teach 조선사 and 조선어 in Korean even in during colonial times when Japanese remained the principal language of teaching, after the Law on Korean Education was revised in 1921-22 in what is considered one of the Government-General’s main concessions to the nationalistic spirit shown by the March 1, 1919 events. Although that too changed after the mid-1930s in many good schools, and I remember having seen the notes for Ewha lectures prepared by the later Prof. Yi PyOngdo (이병도) during that time – they were all in Japanese, of course. Anyway, it looks as though in these times cultural self-colonization may be much more thorough and destructive than anything forced from the outside by the classical “gun-boat” imperialists.

However, whatever I might have felt looking 7 years ago at my Kyunghee students making “study circles” for the collective reading of Newsweek (for me, it sounded like making a voluntary association for studying Pravda in the good old Stalinist days), I guess we have to acknowledge the enormous importance of English learning is a part of what may be called Korea’s “modern tradition”. It is quite obvious for the pre-colonial and post-colonial periods, and less obvious, but no less true for the colonial days. For pre-colonial and colonial Korea, building one’s cultural and social capital by learning English was by no means simply a feature of the life-stories of missionary school graduates like Yun Ch’iho and Syngman Rhee: what is really interesting is the role English played in the lives of the members of the fledgling modern elite who had no Christian connections.

It is largely unknown, but even early modern Korea’s greatest opponent of “동화적 모방” (‘assimilational imitation’ – that is how the “exclusion of national spirit from the modern education” was termed in one of Taehan Maeil Sinbo’s awe-inspiring editorials), Sin Ch’aeho, learned English on his own in the mid-1910s, while in China – and read Carlyle’s opus on hero worship, as well as Gibbon’s meditations on imperial declines and falls (“decline and downfall” being only too timely a topic for a militant nationalist like Sin 3-4 years after 1910), in their originals (변영로, “국수주의의 항성인 단재 신채호 선생”, – < 개벽>, 62호, 1925). Then, there is the inspiring story of the three Pyŏn brothers, Yŏngt’ae (변영태: 1892-1969 – Prime-minister in 1954-56, by the way), Yŏngno (변영로: 1897-1961) and Yŏngman (변영만: 1889-1954). All three – no conversion story involved, to my knowledge – began learning English by themselves, although Yŏngno was greatly helped by the YMCA services, and Yŏngman owed a debt to the pre-colonial School of Law Officers (법관 양성소). And all three were talented to the point of linguistic – and literary – genius. Yŏngno wrote his first English poem in 1914, and Yŏngman tried hard to create a new, novel genre of Chinese classical writing, influenced by European, primarily English literature.

Interestingly enough, English was also an OBLIGATORY subject in the colonial Advanced Normal Schools after the 1922 reform – it was taught 5-7 hours a week on average, while Japanese was taught 6-8 hours (강내희, “영어 교육과 영어의 사회적 위상”, – 공제욱, 정근식 편, < 식민지의 일상: 지배와 균열>, 문화과학사, 2006). So, lots of modern English loan words in Korean entered the language, in fact, much before 1945, although their spelling varied greatly. All this may provide, in fact, some interesting food for thought concerning the relationship between a global subsystem called “Japanese Empire”, and the British/American-dominated world-system as a whole…


  1. Interesting piece.

    I have one quibble about the last paragraph. Some might see that figure and
    underestimate Japanese cultural domination of Colonial Korea. I strongly suspect
    (although I don’t have any data) that English was only a language studied by the elite
    (those few who could enter university at the time) and that the Japanese courses were
    a continuation of several years of Japanese study in primary and secondary school.

    I would also attribute the widespread use of English to mass education and the democratization
    of Korean society, which allows for many more people to study the lingua franca of science,
    business and diplomacy.

  2. I do not have the exact reference in front of me, but, if my memory serves me right, I think that Son ChOngmok’s study of colonial Korean city puts the number of relatively fluent Japanese speakers at around 25% by 1945. Most of these people went at least through the first classes of futsu gakko – the “normal” primary school. Of course, the number of these who managed to enter kotoo futsu gakko and take some English classes, was incomparably smaller. But what I wanted to emphasize, was the fact that these chosen few – who were the movers and shakers of colonial Chosen’s intellectual, business and administrative worlds – were already under some influence of the global hegemonic system well before 1945.
    As to lingua franca – it may be true for science, although before 1945 it was rather German than English. It is true for business so far, but the amount of Korea’s trade with Chinese-speaking world is now twice the amont of its trade with the US, so things may change. As to diplomacy in our parts of the world, I challenge you to try to work as a diplomat at a Korean embassy in Beijing, Hanoi, Tokyo, or Moscow for just a few days without speaking the local tongue.

  3. I found the post to be over the top – especially the analogy with Russians reading Pravda. As far as I know, Koreans study English because they want to get rich, to have a better life. I have no doubt that many more will learn Chinese, as China’s economy continues to grow. The Russians who gathered ’round for Pravda readings lived in a society deprived of freedom, where you could easily be put in prison for speaking your mind. Perhaps the author wants to imply that the economic power of the English-speaking world is similar in its effect to the terror spread by the KGB in Russia and elsewhere. That, to my mind, would be rather absurd. One can express worries about the English craze without losing a sense of perspective.

  4. No, what I meant was that “Pravda” and the likes of “Newsweek” are basically following the same model, which we may call “propagandist” – although I do not deny that “Pravda” was much cruder. Both old Soviet and “mainstream” American outlets spoke in the voice of power – so the Soviet murderers in Afghanistan were “fulfilling the internationalist duty”, while American/USA-hired murderers in Iraq and elsewhere (the list is too long….) are promoting “enduring freedom” or, at best, go on a botched mission ordered by well-meaning, but somewhat erring “Presidents” and “Prime-Ministers”. That the rightful place of all these “Presidents”, “Vice-Presidents” and co. is in the dock in the Hague, is not something you find there. And my question is – why should the Korean kids, bewitched by the sheer “prestigiousness” of the language, take the “party line” media so seriously? They are throwing away their own dignity, their self-respect as thinking humans, that is all.

  5. If they love english so much, why do all their T shirts have such dodgy english on them ?
    I’ve been collecting the strange combinations they dream up :
    It’s interesting that they never have any hanguel on their T shirts too, why would that be?

    Someone was telling me about an article about the Korean corporate catch phrases in so called English that mean nothing too, but I can’t find a reference at the moment.

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