In Pico Iyer’s fabulous book, The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto, Pico tells a hilarious story about a meeting of Amnesty International he attended in Kyoto.  I wish I could copy the entire story here verbatim, but I imagine that would constitute plagiarism of some kind! So I will try to tell the story in short fashion, just to relay my point.  The best thing to do when reading this story is to substitute Koreans for the Japanese.  Because I think in this particular scenario, Koreans would behave exactly the same.

The story goes like this: In the meeting room, mostly young Japanese are seated on the floor. Pico is ushered to a seat near the front of the room.  In the book he says this is typical: “foreigners were given the best seats in the house (a sign of Japanese graciousness) and, in the same act, were segregated from all locals (a sign of Japanese prudence).”  (Substitute “Korean” here as well!) An older gentleman is then ushered in, who turns out to be Reverend Farnsworth, along with a family of 3 Argentinians who proceed to describe their torture “at the hands of the military government.”

Now, here I must quote because it is funniest when told in Pico’s words: “And then the [Argentinian man] began speaking, delivering a sentence or two of introduction, in the rough Argentinian Spanish that turns yo into zho and vas into vasch. There was silence.  The man looked at me….Thirty pairs of Japanese eyes looked at me.  I looked at everyone else.  And then, with a sinking heart, as the silence deepened, I realized what was going on: mine was not, it seemed, just a foreigner’s place of honor – it was the translator’s chair.  Apparently my Spanish-sounding name and vaguely Hispanic looks had been enough to have procured for me, unbeknownst to me, the job of interpreting from Spanish, a language I had never learned, to Japanese, a language Francis Xavier himself had considered the work of the devil.  My only qualification for the task, I thought bitterly, was that I was probably the only person in the room who spoke neither Spanish or Japanese.”

While Pico Iyer sits silently baffled, registering this entire misunderstanding, the tortured Argentinian asks Pico Iyer if he speaks Spanish and Pico responds that he’s not Spanish; he’s Indian.  But he tells the man he might be able to translate a little if he speaks very slowly and simply.  So in a torturous translation to follow, Pico struggles to remember what few Spanish words and Japanese words he knows, and everyone in the audience is squirming in pain at the resulting translation.

Finally, in the question-and-answer session following the lecture, “out of nowhere, a Japanese man in the audience, unable to wait for the interminable process of translating Japanese into English and then into Spanish and back again, suddenly spoke directly to the family, in Spanish.”

Pico says, “Madre de Dios, I thought, my mind on anything but the desaparecidos: here was a man who was perfectly equipped to translate from Spanish directly into Japanese, and vise versa.  I was off the hook!”

After unsuccessfully trying to convince this Japanese guy to take over the translating, Pico then goes on to say:  This “only shows how little I understood Japan…. Try as I might, I saw that there was no way at all of persuading him to speak a tongue in which he might possibly, just possibly, in the space of several paragraphs, make a single tiny error.”

Herein lies the problem in Korea as well.  Most Koreans have been taught English since they were in first grade.  The Korean government in fact, under the auspices of EPIK, English Program in Korea, imports thousands of native English teachers to teach English in their public schools.  In addition, many Korean teachers who speak serviceable English are employed by the school system to teach English.  So why is it that when I, a foreigner, approach a Korean on the street to ask the dreaded question, “Do you speak English?”, do I get brusquely waved off, the Korean refusing to even acknowledge that he/she knows even one word of English?  It’s because of this Pico Iyer effect, told in the long story above.  In Korean culture, everything is about being perfect.  A Korean cannot afford to take the chance of losing face, of making one single mistake, in his conversation with a foreigner.

As I was preparing to leave Korea, I heard through the grapevine that one of my two schools, Chojeon, was going to get a full-time native English teacher next school year.  My other school, Byeokjin, where I taught 2 days a week, was NOT going to get a native English teacher at all.  I was baffled as to why, since Byeokjin students seemed to love English and had a higher ability level than Chojeon students.  I finally found out that the other Korean teachers did not feel comfortable having to speak English to a native English teacher!!  So, in essence, the students at Byeokjin will suffer because the adults are AFRAID of having to speak English.  This despite the fact that overall, Byeokjin teachers are much more capable of speaking English than Chojeon teachers!  This is a real shame for the Byeokjin students.

This is why I ask, in the title of this blog: How will Koreans ever learn English?  HOW will they EVER learn?

Practice makes perfect.  We all know this.  But if Koreans refuse to ever open their mouths and speak, making some mistakes along the way, how will they ever learn?

On top of this is the fact that Korea gets so few tourists.  I know in Seoul there are a lot more foreigners than in most of Korea.  But in Daegu, where I lived, I could walk the streets for weeks without seeing one foreign face.  Face it, Korea is not a tourist destination.   The Korean peninsula is quite isolated from the rest of the world.  A tourist has to make a big effort to get there.  And for what?

When I was in Cambodia, I was shocked by how well the lowest levels of society could speak serviceable English.  That’s because they have TOURISM in Cambodia.  The most uneducated and poor people could actually speak very good English.  This came as quite  a shock to me after having been in Korea, where even the most educated people profess to know NO ENGLISH!!!

In many ways, Koreans are as insulated as we are in America.  We are a big land and we are bordered by English-speaking Canadians and Spanish-speaking Mexicans.  We don’t have the luxury, as do Europeans, of hopping next door to practice our French or our German or Italian.  Many Americans never leave the country and have no need to learn another language. Koreans are the same.  Most of the Koreans I met have never left their country and have no intention of ever doing so.  So why bother making an effort to learn another language?

The problem is that no one else in the world speaks Korean.  So, if Korea is going to compete fully in the international economy, English, as the international business language, should serve them well.  Not to say they’re not doing okay without it.  In 2010, South Korea was ranked as #15 by the International Monetary Fund and by the CIA World Factbook as sorted by gross domestic product.  So they’re not doing too badly NOT being able to speak English.  Maybe, just maybe, they really don’t need it.

It’s funny.  One Korean told me he believed that eventually the Korean language would take over as the international business language.  His argument was that Korean is very scientific and English is very convoluted and complicated.  Korean makes more sense and thus will replace English anyway at some point in time.

The other funny thing I heard was that many Koreans believe that Korea should become a part of the United States, in effect, the 51st state.   The argument is that the U.S. has military personnel in Korea, that we have a great interest in protecting South Korea from North Korea, so they may as well become a U.S. state!  That really is one of the most ridiculous things I have ever heard.  How would it ever be in our national interest to bring non-English-speaking Korea and all of its issues with North Korea into our folds?

This shows the inward-looking nature of Koreans.  Are we, as Americans, like this too?