In Korea it’s never difficult to find people who speak English, even in small towns. Sitting in coffee shops around the country are people of all ages who would just love to talk with a native speaker of English, and not just for practice but to make a new friend. So if you’re a Westerner and you buy a cup of coffee in one of these shops, it won’t be long before someone will ask you where you’re from.

With great force, English arrived in Korea in the 1950s along with the U.S. Army, and neither has left. English has become more than just another foreign language here. Koreans whose command of English approaches that of erudite native speakers improve their prospects considerably for attractive jobs with good pay.

During the war years, Koreans in large numbers _ mostly children and teenagers who are now old men and women _ learned English from American soldiers not much older than they were. Only they didn’t learn the language in classrooms. They learned it from the GIs who gave them cans of SPAM, candy bars, cigarettes, shelter-halves, tent poles, ponchos that were too big for them, and other military gear in exchange for cleaning up around the army camps and doing chores the soldiers didn’t want to do. By learning English, these youngsters came to control the communication between the soldiers and civilians _ an unintended consequence _ which gave them opportunities to go into business for themselves.

Even if the U.K. and the United States lose their standing in the world, English will still be the international language of commerce and science. Despite what appears to be a retreat from globalization _ Brexit being the most recent and prominent example _ the world isn’t going to deglobalize. International trade, which began in antiquity, now penetrates every endeavor of human activity. It has even been tagged with the fancy buzzword, globalization, and will not be turned back or even slowed down for long. Though it will keep changing.

Manufacturing is constantly being refined and enhanced with the latest technology such that all products are now made in sufficient quantities to satisfy the demands of every market. Manufactured products today are of better quality and less expensive than ever. And because transportation is rapid, reliable, and economical, trade has expanded to benefit many more people than were alive a hundred years ago. Korea has in fact made itself a rich country by taking advantage of globalization _ chiefly through English.

A young Korean I met on a university campus recently explained Korea’s obsession with English like this:

“Because we’re not a big country, we have an urgency to study English intensely so we can use it to deal with the world on as favorable terms as we can,” he said. Listening to him, you would think he grew up in America or lived there for a long time and even attended some of its best schools _ he expressed himself as if he were a well-educated American.

He’s a graduate student at a university near Busan, though, enrolled in a program conducted mostly in English. Except for the year he spent as an exchange student at a university in the U.S., he has lived his whole life in Korea. It’s evident in talking with him that not only is he fluent with English, but that he reads and studies with it too. What’s more, there are a lot of young people like him in Korea.

“Our country has less than one percent of the world’s population,” he said. “And the land we inherited from our ancestors doesn’t cover even a tiny fraction of a percent of the earth’s surface. And on our part of the peninsula that we think of as our island, there are no natural resources to speak of.” Many Koreans describe their country as “our island” because for them the DMZ is an impenetrable barrier, much more so than the sea. In fact, the sea for Korea is the lifeline to the rest of the world.
“Whether it’s with manufactured products, construction projects in other countries, culture and entertainment, medical tourism, or inventions and ideas we have yet to create, we must maintain a robust exchange with the nations and people of the world.

“As a nation, should we continue to thrive _ for can we aspire to do anything less? _ our mastery of English is vital to our prosperity.”


An earlier version of this article appeared in THE KOREA TIMES, Sunday, August 24, 2016.