North Korea tries English

Globalization: A withdrawn nation begins to see the value of the international language.

July 24, 2005|By Tsai Ting-I and Barbara Demick | Tsai Ting-I and Barbara Demick,LOS ANGELES TIMES

PYONGYANG, North Korea - When he spotted an Australian tourist taking in the sights at the capital's Kim Il Sung Square, the young North Korean tour guide was delighted by the chance to practice his English.

"Hello, how are you from to country?" the guide recalled asking the woman.

When she looked puzzled, he followed up with another question. "How many old are you?"

For decades after the 1950-1953 Korean War, North Korea's government deemed English a language of the enemy and banned it almost entirely. Russian was the leading foreign tongue because of the Communist regime's economic ties with the Soviet Union.

Now, years after the rest of Asia went through a craze for learning English, North Korea has discovered the utility of the lingua franca of international affairs. But the pursuit of proficiency has been complicated by the reclusive regime's fear of opening the floodgates to Western influences.

Almost all English-language books, newspapers, advertisements, movies and songs are forbidden. Even T-shirts with English slogans are not allowed. There are few native speakers available to serve as instructors.

Haltingly, though, the government has started making changes, sending some of the best students abroad to study and even admitting a small number of British and Canadian teachers. Elite students are being encouraged to speak with foreign visitors in Pyongyang at trade fairs and other official events to practice their English - contacts that once would have been considered a serious crime.

According to the Educational Testing Service of Princeton, N.J., 4,783 North Koreans took the standardized test for English as a second language, or TOEFL, last year, triple the number six years earlier.

"They are not as unglobalized as they are portrayed. There is an acceptance that you need to learn English to have access to modern science and technology," said James Hoare, a former British ambassador to Pyongyang who helped bring English teachers into North Korea.

An expatriate living in Pyongyang who is involved with the nation's English-language programs said English had replaced Russian as the largest department at the Pyongyang University of Foreign Studies, the leading foreign-language institute.

"There is a big drive now for learning and speaking English. The Ministry of Education is really trying to promote it," said the expatriate, who asked not to be quoted by name because of the North Korean regime's sensitivity about news coverage.

Several young North Koreans interviewed in Pyongyang expressed both a desire to learn English and frustration at the difficulties.

The tour guide, a lanky 30-year-old with a passion for basketball, said he had spent years studying English, including one year as an English major at the University of Foreign Studies but still couldn't make small talk.

"English is a common language between countries. Therefore, learning some basic English is helpful to our lives," the guide, who asked to be quoted only by his family name, Kim, said this spring.

One young woman, a member of an elite family, said she used to lock the door of her dormitory room so that she could read books in English that her father had smuggled in from business trips abroad.

Another woman, also a tour guide, lamented that she was told to study Russian in high school instead of English.

"My father said that three things needed to be done in one's life - to get married, to drive a car and to learn English," said the woman.

The biggest complaints of English students were the lack of native speakers and the dearth of English-language materials.

A few elite students have been trained with Hollywood movies - Titanic, Jaws and The Sound of Music are among a select number of titles deemed acceptable - but most students have to settle for English translations of the sayings of Kim Il Sung, North Korea's founder.

The regime even frowns on Korean-English dictionaries produced in China or South Korea, fearing that they use a corrupted Korean with too many English-based words.

Jake Buhler, a Canadian who taught English last summer in Pyongyang, said he was shocked that some of the best libraries in the capital had no books produced in the West other than various out-of-date oddities, such as a 1950s manual of shipping terminology.

Despite the limitations, he was impressed by the competence and determination of his students, mostly academics preparing to study abroad.

"These were keen people," Buhler said. "If we watched a video and they didn't know a word, they would look it up in a dictionary in about one-tenth the time it might take me."

But in ordinary schools, the level of accomplishment is lower.

An American diplomat who interviewed North Korean teenagers in China a few years ago recalled that when they tried to speak English, not a single word could be understood.

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