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[Park Sang-seek] English as second official language in Korea

There are 67 sovereign states which recognize English as their official language. Among the 67 states, 36 countries use English as the only official language, while 31 countries recognize English as one of the official languages.

Those countries recognizing English as the only official language are either the countries whose majority of the people are English-speaking ethnic groups or are former colonies of the U.K. and are populated by one dominant language group or equally numerous language groups. Those countries recognizing English and one or more native tongues as official languages are those countries that were colonized by more than one Western state and are populated by one dominant native language group or more equally numerous native language groups.

In the contemporary world, English has become a national and global lingua franca. It is used as the oral and written means of communication in most international governmental and nongovernmental organizations; international business transactions; academic and research institutions; and cultural, sports and entertainment activities and forums.

On the eve of the new millennium, I wrote an article titled “21st Century Resolution: Open Nationalism” in a local English newspaper. In the article, I proposed that English should be considered as second official language of Korea. But this idea has not been discussed in any public forum.

My proposal is not to replace Korean as an official language but to recognize English as second official language, while keeping Korean as the primary official language. Korea has an urgent need for English as second official language. Fortunately, Korea has advantages over other non-Western countries because most former Western colonies are faced with great difficulties in adopting English as an official language mainly because they are multi-ethnic countries and different ethnic groups will not tolerate any other native or foreign language as an official language.

The Korean people are a homogenous ethnic group and in possession of one of the best languages in the world. South Korea is now an economically developed country and is willing to accept Western civilization. In these two respects, Korea has not been able to overcome the dilemma created by modernization and Western civilization. Korea has been making all-out efforts to catch up with Western developed countries but has not been successfully competing with them on equal terms. The language is one of the barriers. On the other hand, Korea has been accommodating the Western way of life without anticipating the conflict between the Western and Korean ways of life. Koreans have eagerly and gluttonously accepted the materialistic aspects of the Western way of life but have ignorantly rejected or misinterpreted essential Western values such as individualism, rationalism and the rule of law. As a result, their communalistic way of life has turned into a highly selfish and greedy one, while keeping intact their traditional values such as authoritarianism and irrationality.

If all Koreans become proficient in English, they will be fully able to understand the true meaning of Western values. As far as Korea is concerned, the debate on whether non-Western states should or can pursue complete Westernization, partial Westernization, homogenization or coexistence is no longer a realistic one. The question is how fast it can accommodate Western values. Western civilization is the most powerful moving force for modernization and is becoming a universal civilization.

From a practical and short-term perspective, Korea would benefit greatly by adopting English as second official language. First, all government officials could learn more, better and more quickly about their counterparts in the international arena. They would also have a better chance of playing a leading role at international conventions and organizations and to enhance not only the prestige of Korea but also its influence on important international issues. The Koreans who are fluent in English would have better opportunities to be employed by international governmental and nongovernmental organizations and could contribute more to world peace and development. On the other hand, Korean NGOs could be internationalized.

Second, Korean business organizations could get more involved in joint programs and activities with their foreign counterparts. It would also be easier for them to gain new knowledge and information more easily as well as play a leading role in any capacity.

All foreign business organizations operating in Korea, whether they are from English-speaking countries or not, would also benefit from Korea’s two official languages policy. The same would be true of international governmental and non-governmental organizations operating in Korea.

Third, Korean academic, arts and sports organizations could more actively participate in their respective international conferences and activities. In particular, the Korean sightseeing business will greatly benefit from this dual official language policy. Finally, Korean educational institutions would benefit greatly. It could produce more competent and internationalized students and attract more foreign students and scholars. Most importantly, the educational gap between students from rich and poor families would be greatly reduced because all students would learn both the dual language and non-language courses at all levels of schools.

There are two objections to this dual official language policy. One is that the dual language policy is likely to make people less nationalistic and more sycophantic toward Western countries and peoples and ultimately lose their national identity. This criticism is a serious one. But as long as Koreans place more importance on the Korean language than any foreign language and maintain their ethnic homogeneity, it will not weaken the Korean national identity. The next important question is how it should be implemented. I suggest the following:

First, government, business, arts, academic and research organizations can start the dual language policy sequentially rather than simultaneously.

Second, the starting grade of teaching both Korean and English can be the first grade of elementary schools. On the other hand, the secondary and tertiary educational institutions could offer some non-language courses in both Korean and English, and students would allowed to choose them. However, no public educational institutions should offer non-language courses only in English unless it is necessary due to the nature of the specific courses.

If Korea accelerates the civilization of Korean society through a dual language policy, it will be able to civilize its society faster than Japan or Singapore. By doing so, Korea will become the first non-Western advanced state (a democratized, developed and civilized state).

By Park Sang-seek

Park Sang-seek is a former rector of the Graduate Institute of Peace Studies, Kyung Hee University, and the author of “Globalized Korea and Localized Globe.” --Ed.