By Yang Sung-jin
In learning a foreign language, the younger you start, the better. At least, that’s what conventional wisdom dictates. The theory itself sounds plausible enough, yet researchers may continue to debate its merit. Nonetheless, it works nicely these days for a number of Korean parents willing to shell out big bucks to teach English to their kids and even toddlers.
In 1620, an official at “Sungmunwon,” a Choson Kingdom government agency dealing with diplomatic documents, advocated teaching foreign languages from a young age. “Fluent Chinese speakers are few and on the steady decrease. It is greatly feared that nobody will be able to interpret conversations between the king and a Chinese diplomat in the future if this trend goes unchecked. Also, exclude those over age 50 in Chinese education because such people cannot properly imitate the pronunciations of Chinese.”
Although the condition that students be younger than 50 is certainly too broad by today’s standards, the demand for competent Chinese speakers (or speakers of other foreign languages) back then was as strong as it is today.
Back in the late 1400s, the lack of capable and reliable translators for facilitating diplomatic affairs with powerful China was a headache for the Choson government, which had to deal with volatile geopolitics.
“In the past, the government selected young and intelligent officials to learn Chinese for the purpose of diplomacy. But, nowadays, few are studying even the basics of the language. During the reign of King Sejong, Lee Byon, Kim Hwang, Son Sa-song and Song Chu-kwan were devoted to translating for Chinese diplomatic missions, yet we don’t have the right person for that job,” a government document dated Nov. 14, 1489, states.
Learning a foreign language requires patience and practice, among other qualities. Yet few people are willing to go through such a drawn-out, often frustrating process for themselves, be it involving Chinese or English. Thus, there are some private institutes in downtown Seoul asking students to speak only English (or other target languages) during class hours in a bid to enhance the efficiency of foreign language teaching.
Use Only Chinese, Please
On Feb. 14, 1442, officials at “Sayokwon,” the government-funded institution in charge of interpretation and translation activities for the Choson government’s public affairs, demanded an amendment of the law in order to install a system similar to the one used in today’s language institutes.
“Though some interpreters have studied the Chinese language for 10 years, they are far inferior to officials who have been to China for only a couple of months. This is because once in China, people are likely to get accustomed to the Chinese much faster,” Sayokwon officials argued in front of King Sejong.
Furthermore, they proposed new rules requiring that every student and teacher at Sayokwon speak only Chinese within the confines of the institute. To ensure observance of this guideline, they further suggested a formal penalty for violators of the rule.
When it came to promoting foreign language education, no other Choson king outshone King Sejong.
On Aug. 29, 1443, King Sejong sent off sons of ranking officials to China with a mission to study the Chinese language, saying “Although you can communicate in China by writing in Chinese characters, you should know the language in order to understand their questions. I am worried because a slight mistake in speaking a foreign language can foul up a whole affair.”
Since then, King Sejong openly recommended studying abroad to learn a language. In August of the same year, the Ministry of Rites appealed to the king in the following way: “For the language education program in China, a total of 20 students have been chosen. We propose that these students enroll at Sayokwon to learn Chinese characters and conversation skills before they go to China. In addition, some of them should be sent as part of diplomatic missions as often as possible.”
But, just like in modern times, traveling abroad back then to learn a foreign language was expensive and burdensome. It was much easier and more cost-effective for a student to find a native speaker, a course of action that appealed to the Choson people.
On Oct. 22, 1441, King Sejong permitted a Chinese captive named Lee Sang to work as an interpreter for public affairs.
In 1677, two Chinese named Mun Ka-sang and Chong Son-kap drifted ashore in Choson territory. King Sukchong gave them military officer titles as well as housing on the condition that they teach Chinese to court officials.
King Sejong, who created Hangul, the Korean alphabet, did some basic research on pronunciation by sending Choson scholars to a renowned Chinese linguist, Hwang Chan, who was staying in the northern part of Choson province.
According to an article dated 1487, Choson scholars found it easier to study the Chinese language largely due to research books on Chinese pronunciation published during the reign of King Sejong.
Another king who was enthusiastic about foreign language study was King Songjong. In 1492, the king summoned 13 officials at Sayokwon to demonstrate their fluency in Chinese.
“Official Lim Sa-hong seems to understand the sound of the Chinese language, but he is not good at speaking it,” King Songjong commented after a particular presentation.
Official Yun Pil-sang put forward a proposal, “In the past, official Lee Pyon was good at speaking Chinese only because he visited China 40 times. So we have to send these officials to China at least once a year to learn the language.”
Strongly interested in learning foreign languages, King Songjong studied the Chinese language himself. The problem was that court officials strongly opposed the king’s language study.
On Nov. 23 of 1481, an official named Lee Kuk-don said to King Songjong, “These days, Your Majesty is studying Chinese. Although the study itself can help you understand Chinese politics, we fear that the Chinese study may interfere with our political affairs and governmental business.”
The king replied, “I don’t see any problem with my study.”
Lee said again, “The king should mind the business of the people, but learning Chinese is a distraction that can do harm to governmental affairs.”
King Songjong did not back down: “I am studying Chinese not because I want to speak the language myself, but because I have to check mistakes that occur too often these days in the process of interpreting in the court.”
Similarly, President Kim Dae-jung is said to study English vigorously despite his busy schedule, and he often speaks in English during interviews with foreign journalists. King Songjong, if he were alive today, would likely do the same.