Korean Naeil Shinmun ("Tomorrow Newspaper") on why Norwegians are so good at English / 노르웨이 사람들이 영어를 잘하는 까닭

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

If you don't feel like reading the whole post, this image sums up the gist of it.

This Korean newspaper has an editorial for the 12th of March by the Korean Ambassador to Norway on why Norwegians are so good at English, in order to give some insight into how Korea should learn English as well. I just read it over and most points are good, but a few are a little bit off and can't really apply to a country like Korea.

First, some numbers from the article: Korea spends 14 trillion won (used to be $14 billion, now about $10 billion thanks to currency devaluation) per year on private English education, which is much higher than the 1.2136 trillion (under $1 billion now) spent on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Korea isn't getting the results it should get for this: high cost, low effectiveness. Okay.

Norwegians are good at English wherever they are throughout the country. Okay.

Now for the reasons given:

First, English doesn't feel like that much of a foreign language due to the similarities between the two and the cultural similarities. English is treated almost as a mother tongue in education.

Next, the learning of foreign languages progresses much faster the earlier you start, and Norwegians concentrate on English from 1st to 7th grade. After that in Jr. high they go on to another language, out of German, French, Spanish, or Russian.

Next point (and this is a good one): Norwegians learn foreign languages not as a test, but rather see them as something very useful to know; they understand that languages are to be used.

The next point seems to contrast with an earlier one: that Norwegians begin learning English by speaking it right from the first hour, and this naturally makes it interesting and easy to use...but this is naturally thanks to the previous point, that Norwegian and English are similar enough that this is possible. In the same way, it's rather easy for Koreans to start using Japanese right off the bat.

Next: one other point that differs between Korea and Norway is that Norwegians see a lot of English in daily life. It is not dubbed but rather subtitled (I hate dubbed broadcasts!). There are also a lot of places to use English in daily life, as Norway has refugees from over 50 countries and these people make up 9.3% of the population (not here: not all of these refugees will be good at English).

In the capital Oslo, 25% of the people there are from another country (note again: not all of these people will know English all that well), and thus Norwegians are able to naturally interact with them.

(In Korea, most of the people coming in from abroad don't stay all that long so there isn't much of a chance to build up a long-term expatriate culture. After a year or two everybody you know has gone home)

Then: Norwegians travel abroad a lot. Well, so do Koreans actually; they just travel to nearby places like Japan and China and Taiwan, plus the Philippines and Thailand. If England was next door I'm sure Koreans would travel there a lot too.

After that it goes on to talk about students spending a term or two or three abroad and how successful this has been in learning the language, and concludes that it has been successful because Norway gives students a reason to learn the language whereas Korea has failed in this.

Right now the foreign national population in Korea has just reached a million if I remember correctly, but note that a lot of these people are brides from Vietnam that get married with men in the countryside that have difficulties finding a Korean to marry. It's been a few years since these numbers have really started to go up so that means in a bit under a decade we're going to see a lot of half-Korean, half-Vietnamese people moving up to the capital here as they go to university or look for work. That's going to be really interesting.

But that doesn't do anything re: learning English, and the population of English-speaking foreigners in Korea is still quite low. In order to reach 9% of the population as Norway has done, Korea would have to bring in almost 5 million more, and politically there's no way that would happen, nor would it be possible to guarantee that these would be English speakers. Generally the foreign population that ends up staying in Korea for the long term is composed of people from nearby countries with a lower GDP, which means China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Philippines, India, Pakistan, etc...and since many of them don't know English all that well in the first place it's just easier to learn Korean right away.

Back to the main point of the article: how to learn English if you're a Korean? Unfortunately I don't think it's possible to enact this nationwide. Parents with children that want them to become fluent in English are better off sending them to other countries for a number of years, and if Australia/North America is too expensive then that means an international school in Malaysia or the Philippines.

But hey, look on the bright side: China's right next door, and so is Japan. Assuming nothing catastrophic happens here in East Asia, eventually Korea is going to be envied for its key position. If you're a Korean and you want to learn Chinese, here's what you do: 1) buy a $100 plane ticket, 2) go to a close place like Qingdao, 3) live there at rock-bottom prices (it's often cheaper to live there on your own than at your family's house in Seoul if you include shopping and eating out), 4) stay until your Chinese is fluent, 5) hop on the plane for an hour and come home. Americans and Canadians can't do that.


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