Korean Language Education for Foreigners as Seen in Korean Lit

  • onJuly 5, 2021
  • Vol.52 Summer 2021
  • bySeo Young In

©Yeji Yun


A language is a portal to another world. To enter an unfamiliar world, to come closer to things of interest and curiosity, we learn the language of that world and train ourselves to be proficient in communicating in it. When we name or designate things through that language, we often gain a new understanding of objects and concepts that we thought we knew. Language learning, it seems, is the first gateway for meeting and communicating with an unknown world and with the Other.

On the other hand, we are also aware that the language we learn to comprehend the world does not express it transparently, exactly as it is. Words like “black” or “Asian”  when used to refer to people of a specific race or country are already imbued with a certain value judgement and hierarchy. Language is always political because it inherently contains distinctions or evaluations based on sociocultural judgements or standards. And inherent in the process of teaching and learning languages is economic disparity, racism, and the prejudice and inequality they produce.

Many universities in South Korea have established Korean language educational programs for foreigners. Some university and private language institutes are even being used as a means to earn money through illegal employment by entering the country on student visas. Standardized tests have been created to assess the Korean proficiency of foreigners, and foreigners must often attain a minimum score on these tests to enter university or find a job. As an industry/system, “Korean language education” has become an important term that shows how education, culture, and industry operate under the same system to generate profit.

While Korean language education is a medium through which people of different nationalities and cultures can communicate and interact with South Korea, it is at the same time a mirror that reflects the reality of the international movement of labor and capital as well as a space where profit is ruthlessly pursued in the name of lofty goals like “culture” and “education.” The fact that Korea is emphasized in things like K-pop and K-literature is somewhat ironic in an age that prides itself on global communication and exchange that are supposed to transcend distinctions of nationality and race. Korean authors write about the various aspects and issues that occur in the space of Korean language education to explore the other side of “Korea in the age of globalization.” This special section, which focuses on keywords that appear in several novels about Korean language education, examines aspects of that reality.


Zaijian – “Chinese Lessons”

Zaijian is a Chinese expression used when parting. It may be a simple term, but for people who approach Chinese as a foreign language, zaijian is somewhat unique. When two people say zaijian, they are saying farewell and promising to meet again; in this way, zaijian carries the dual meaning of “goodbye” and “see you again.” In “Chinese Lessons,” Tsueng comes to Korea in search of Mung Na, the woman he loves. In order to find Mung Na and return to China with her, Tsueng registers at a Korean language institute and works illegally. But when Tsueng finally locates Mung Na, he finds she is already married to a Korean man and pregnant. Indeed, recently in South Korea, businesses that mediate international marriages are thriving as more Korean men resort to mail-order brides when they are unable to find a Korean spouse. When Tsueng is deported because he is caught working illegally, he and Mung Na exchange the word zaijian. For Mung Na, zaijian might mean a final farewell, but for Tsueng, it might mean a promise to meet again. With differing intentions, Mung Na and Tsueng must part ways to live their lives in different countries. In this way, the simple term zaijian evokes boundless sadness and regret.


Annyeong – Elementary Korean

Annyeong is a multipurpose Korean greeting. Koreans say annyeong when they meet each other and when they part. Thus, annyeong means both “hello” and “goodbye.” In Elementary Korean, the narrator—who is a Korean language instructor teaching beginning Korean at an American college—translates annyeong as “Are you in peace?” Hearing this translation, the students in his class burst out laughing. To their ears, “Are you in peace?” is too grandiose to be an everyday greeting. To convey to foreigners the meaning of the word annyeong—a greeting that he had frequently used in Korea without much thought—the narrator begins to think deeply about its meaning. Then one day, the father of one of his students is killed during the 9/11 terror attacks. In a picture of ground zero sent by this student, there is a tombstone commemorating the victims on which is written the words: “They are in peace.” It occurs to him that everyday peace and peace for humanity are not such distant concepts after all. There are so many different meanings that can be conveyed with just a single greeting, which may be why we overlook the exact meaning contained in it and move on. When teaching language for communication, we are forced to think again about the infinite number of incommunicable individual truths.


Yasukuni – “Seshiru, Juhee”

Yasukuni Shrine is a Shinto shrine located in Tokyo that commemorates Japanese war heroes. For Koreans—as a people who were subjugated under Japanese imperialism—Yasukuni Shrine is a place that evokes the pain of a bygone war. “Seshiru, Juhee” is about a Japanese girl named Seshiru who comes to Korea as a fan of the K-pop group TVXQ and her Korean teacher, Juhee. Seshiru’s great grandmother, who is enshrined at Yasukuni, was a member of the Himeyuri Student Nurse Corps—a group of female high school students who were enlisted in the Japanese army during the Battle of Okinawa—and killed herself for honor. Seshiru is proud that her great grandmother is commemorated at Yasukuni, but Yasukuni is a taboo subject in Korea and not easily talked about. How is it that someone can simultaneously like TVXQ and be proud of ancestors enshrined in Yasukuni is a question Juhee is forced ponder as she talks with Seshiru in Korean. The key to understanding this paradox might be the imperfect Korean with which the two communicate.


Future Tense – Korean Teachers

In Korean language education, Korean tenses are taught as being separated into past, present, and future. But Han-hui, a Korean teacher at a university Korean language institute, believes that Korean lacks a future tense. She thinks that the Korean language only expresses individual intentions or assumptions about the future. This peculiarity of Korean future tense—or lack thereof—relates to Han-hui’s precarious position as a Korean language teacher. Her contract is evaluated on a semester-by-semester basis, and if her performance evaluations or student retention rates are too low, her contract will be terminated. The reality of Korean language education is that language institutes indiscriminately recruit students without setting long-term goals or systems for teaching them while contract workers are forced to shoulder the entire responsibility and success of their students. To teach a future that does not rely on intention or assumption, the unstable present must first be rectified—working conditions should be improved, teachers should be able to devote themselves to teaching students, and Korean language education should aim for communication and understanding, not economic profit. That future might be far off, but by highlighting the inadequacies of the present, this novel suggests the future we should be striving for.



Translated by Sean Lin Halbert


Seo Young In
Literary Critic 
Manager of Curatorial Division 
National Museum of Korean Literature