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Posted : 2007-10-04 16:25
Updated : 2007-10-04 16:25

(470) Original English Boom

By Andrei Lankov

As every foreigner knows, the ``English boom'' in Korea has continued for decades and shows no signs of receding. But how did it begin? When did Koreans begin to learn the language? And why?

For centuries, in Korea, the most widely taught language by far was classical Chinese, known as ``hanmun.'' It was the major language of administration and high culture, and as such it had to be studied by all male members of the ruling elite.

Modern Chinese, Japanese, Mongolian, and Manchurian were taught as well, but only to a small number of professional interpreters whose task was to facilitate international exchanges.

Western languages were not taught at all. This is not surprising, until the early 1800s few Koreans even knew that the ``West'' existed (and those who knew did not care too much about those distant and barbarous lands).

Things changed with the substantial Western expansion into East Asia, around the 1840s. The strange sea-going barbarians suddenly emerged as a direct threat, as well as bearers of useful knowledge and ideas. Their languages had to be studied.

In East Asia, English became the major language of modernity at a very early stage, in the mid-19th century. While in continental Europe until WWI it was less prestigious and less studied than French (and sometimes German), in East Asia its domination came instantly.

The reasons are easy to understand: in this part of the world, the British and Americans were far more important, both militarily and politically, than representatives of any other Western nation.

In 1862 the Chinese government established the Tongwenguan (then usually transcribed as Tung-wen Kuan), or ``United House of Letters'' as a place to study ``Western learning.'' In 1883, the Korean government, then slowly opening its country to foreign exchanges, decided to follow suit and established a similar school in Seoul.

Its name was pronounced in Korean as Tongmunhak, but the first two characters were the same as those used by the Chinese prototype.

The decision to open the school was suggested by von Mollendorf, a foreign adviser recommended to the Korean government by Beijing. The school employed an Englishman, one Thomas Hallifax, to work as a teacher.

In early 1884 the Hansong Sunbo, the first Korean newspaper, reported that the school had 29 students who were working hard to master the foreign language.

Some of them eventually became prominent activists and educators, others worked in customs or other government offices where a command of English would be essential.

The Tongmunhak school did not last for long. In 1886 the Royal School of English began to operate in Seoul. It incorporated some staff and students from Tongmunhak, so to an extent it can be seen as its direct successor.

The school was also an official institution, with the major task of training Koreans who would be able to deal with the outside world.

The school hired a group of young Americans. The names of these first hakwon teachers were Dalzell Bunker, Homer Hulbert and George Gilmore, and we probably should mention that Bunker's future wife would eventually become the English tutor to a young political activist who spelled his name Syngman Rhee (the would-be president of the Republic of Korea took English seriously and even attempted to compile an English-Korean dictionary).

It is interesting that in the Royal School of English they did not concentrate on language for language's sake. Once students had mastered the basics, they began to read textbooks on science and engineering: the major concern for the young modern-minded Koreans of that era.

A new reform took place in 1895, when the Foreign Language School was established. It taught a number of modern languages _ Japanese, modern Chinese, Russian, German, French and, of course, English.

As one should expect, English was taught more widely than any other language. It is remarkable that students of Chinese and Japanese studied for three years, while students of other languages graduated only after five years.

Indeed, Indo-European languages tend to be more difficult for Koreans (and speakers of these languages also have harder time trying to master Korean).

However, by 1895 Korea also had a number of private institutions, which were very efficient in teaching English. First of all, we should mention the Paichai school, founded in 1885 by Henry Appenzeller.

Rev. Appenzeller was a missionary, but at that time it was still illegal to proselytize in Korea, so he used the school as a cover for his missionary activity. Still, it was also a place where Koreans could learn English.

Until the early 1900s a large part of the classes were taught in English, since one could not find qualified Korean teachers.

The same situation existed at Ewha College, founded by Mary Scranton in 1886. The women-only school also had to employ English speaking faculty until the first Korean graduates were experienced enough to take teaching positions (once again, in the early 1900s).

In those times, in order to learn physics or math, or nursing, one had to master English first.

Somewhat surprisingly, the arrival of the Japanese did not seriously undermine the position of English. To some extent it even became a language of resistance, while also remaining the major language of modernity.

Prof. Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul.

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