Skip to main content

By: inoljt,

North Korea has been in the news in the past few days and weeks. Most of the attention has been negative; tensions have risen between North Korea and the United States. Not that this is new. The two countries have had bad relations – to say the least – for many decades now.

Coincidentally, just today I was watching a BBC documentary on life in North Korea.  The documentary is very good. It shows that North Koreans are just humans as well with dreams like the rest of us. On the other hand, there is something strange and broken about the society in the film.

Anyways, skip to 5:04.

More below.

It’s an English class, in North Korea! The middle-school children are learning English as their main foreign language.

This was truly shocking to me. English classes in North Korea! The concept is mind-blowing. One would think for sure that the main foreign language taught in North Korea would be Russian or Chinese. But nope, it’s English, the language of the imperialists. Because “foreign language is a weapon for the life and struggle.”

Apparently the children of the elite speak English in North Korea. For instance, the granddaughter of the chairman of North Korea’s parliament is apparently “learning English from British native speakers.” The United Kingdom has a British Council which sends a few English teachers to North Korea. It’s said that Kim Jong-Il once told Madeleine Albright about his desire “to invite Korean Americans to teach English to North Korean students.”

It’s also interesting listening to the lesson itself and the quality of the English being spoken. I had a hard time understanding what the announcers were saying; I got a bit more on the second pass. The man seemed to be a bit worse. The students spoke very quickly, and about half of it was comprehensible.

The teacher, on the other hand, spoke very very good English. She had a British(?) accent. It’s pretty amazing that she learned English in North Korea. I have no idea how she managed this. There were several Americans who deserted to North Korea in the ’70s, but if she had learned from them she would have had an American accent. To gain such an accent, she must have been young when she learned; since the British Council’s endeavors are only a few years old, she couldn’t possibly have learned from them. Perhaps a boarding school in the United Kingdom?

It really speaks to the power of the Anglosphere that even the primary foreign language taught in North Korea is English. And the North Koreans are doing pretty good given the lack of native English speakers willing to work in the country; their English might actually be better than Japan’s. That’s pretty embarrassing for Japan.

All in all, this is probably a good thing for North Korea. It’s impossible to truly learn a language without learning the culture of the countries which speak that language. North Korea may believe that “foreign language is a weapon for the life and struggle,” but foreign language is also a conduit to cultural influence. If the North Korean elite learn English, they’ll be exposed to an incredibly potent firehose of information. Hopefully that will bring positive change to North Korea.

Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags


More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

  •  I'm sorry (6+ / 0-)

    but I didn't need a BBC thingy to let me know that North Koreans are human.  

    And English, sadly to say, is the language of commerce -- along with French and German.  

    Honestly, I don't know what the point of this diary is.

    " My faith in the Constitution is whole; it is complete; it is total." Barbara Jordan, 1974

    by gchaucer2 on Thu May 02, 2013 at 06:00:41 PM PDT

  •  good and informative diary (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    thanks! What an unfortunate country, led by such monsters, suffering so much. And what a contrast to their fellow Koreans in the South.

    •  I dunno. (0+ / 0-)

      I feel that there's this myth that North Korea is "led by monsters" and a tyranny where everybody's starving. I think that it's true to an extent, but I also think that the West, and especially Western media, exaggerates a lot. People are people everywhere, and I think Western sources are not a very good source of information for getting a picture of what North Korean life is really like.

      by Inoljt on Sat May 04, 2013 at 03:35:29 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Exposed to a firehose of information? (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Not if they stay in their country.

    The other issue is how many learn English, and whether they are just the ones chosen to be in the elite because of their extreme loyalty.

    I want to hope for the future of the DPRK, but it's hard to imagine a future without pointless loss of life.

    Freedom isn't free. Patriots pay taxes.

    by Dogs are fuzzy on Thu May 02, 2013 at 06:56:46 PM PDT

    •  The elite can change the country, though. (0+ / 0-)

      I'm reminded of an article (I forget the name) where there was an exchange program between the Soviet Union and the United States. A lot of conservatives criticized the program because it was only funneling Soviet elites into the United States.

      And indeed, several of the graduates of that program went on to hold high positions in Soviet bureaucracy, including the KGB. They also turned out to be some of Gorbachev's strongest allies in his efforts to reform the Soviet Union.

      by Inoljt on Sat May 04, 2013 at 03:38:59 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  I doubt their English is better (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    than that of Japanese people.  Korean is structured similarly to Japanese, so that Japanese and Korean speakers both have an easy time learning each other's language (like English speakers learning French or Spanish), but a treacherously difficult time learning English.  If they need to learn English, it would not be for conversational purposes, but to access the written language.  

    Too many people in the U.S. think learning a foreign language is mainly about ordering food in restaurants, or telling your staff to "hop to it" (or in the military telling people "put up your hands"), and Japanese people are often not good at conversation, so it is easy to conclude that Japanese people suck at English.  But Japanese scientists, businessmen, reporters and academics overwhelmingly have an immense capacity to read English.  I think it is safe to say that for North Koreans, gift of gab is similarly not a high priority.  

  •  why is this surprising? (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    people learn foreign languages all over the world, even in places americans consider evil or backwaters.

    i would be rather surprised if there were more north koreans learning english than, say, mandarin or japanese, though. they probably brought the BBC reporters by the english class because they were, after all, brits.

    •  i'll guarantee there are more (0+ / 0-)

      learning english than mandarin, or german, or spanish. In fact id guarantee there are more chinese people learning english than are learning any one particular chinese dialect.

      English is the language of commerce as stated above. it is also the language of transportation etc etc etc. It's the standard (which irks some to no end but.. really.. why not english?)

      A man is born as many men but dies as a single one.--Martin Heidegger

      by cdreid on Thu May 02, 2013 at 10:48:26 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  不正确。 (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        wu ming

        The most commonly taught and spoken language in China is Putonghua (Standardized Mandarin) which is universally taught just as English is in the USA.

        The most commonly taught foreign language is certainly English, but despite the global reach (distribution) of English, Mandarin is still the most commonly spoken by a wide margin, followed by Spanish and then English. The ranking holds for number of native speakers too.


        {Not a sigline. You are hallucinating.}

        by koNko on Fri May 03, 2013 at 05:26:05 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  given the number of chinese people (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          who speak a language other than standard putonghua as their first language, it is entirely possible that there are more students of mandarin as a second language than english as a second language in china, no? although i expect that this is probably diminishing over time, as younger generations start to shift to mandarin as their primary language.

          (and yes, i view chinese dialects as languages, and things like sichuan mandarin v. gansu mandarin as dialects. so a kid in guangzhou learning mandarin is IMO learning it as a foreign language, albeit one in the same language family)

          •  That's exactly the case (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            wu ming

            This map shows geographic distribution and lists number native speakers, and the source articles (1) (2) show total speakers.

            If we subtract native speakers from total:


            We get about 529 million second language Mandarin speakers compare with about 10 million English speakers.

            These are rough numbers and don't account for the number of current students, but there is nothing close to 500 million Chinese studying English to make up the shortfall although I would not be surprised if more than another 20 million are, whether in public or private schools.

            What people have to understand is that in many areas, particularly rural, the second, compulsory language is Mandarian and it is mainly college prep students studying English or other foreign language to proficiency, although now compulsory foreign language is taught in many primary schools and most secondary schools.

            So a generation from now it's quite possible English could push beyond 100 million or more fluent speakers (may already be more than 20 million readers, which are more numerous).

            One thing that is beginning to change is the central government is now relaxing the "Putonghua first" policy and allowing it to be taught as a compulsory second language, which is more sensible to avoid handicapping non-Guan native speakers.

            But Shanghainese Wu is really in decline amongst current primary and secondary students who seem to prefer Mandarin, it becoming common to hear parents speaking Shanghainese and kids answering in Mandarin. My daughter speaks little; we agreed she should become proficient in Mandarin first, English second and Wu third (from the environment) and Anhui people outnumber Shanghainese in her little world so it's fait acompli.

            So now we have the "Preserve Shanghainese Culture" campaigns, LOL. Got to teach the kids to argue in a high pitched tone!!!!

            {Not a sigline. You are hallucinating.}

            by koNko on Fri May 03, 2013 at 08:01:00 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  what a change from the 請說普通話 signs! (0+ / 0-)

              as a californian, the whole "grandparents speak in one language, grandchildren respond in another" dynamic is pretty familiar, and i saw much the same thing happening in taichung in the 90s (ironically right around the time that teachers were forced to stop beating kids for speaking minnanhua in school). it is funny how the promise of prosperity and the perpetual exam gauntlet of east asian k-12 can erase local languages where decades of often quite forceful attempts at linguistic suppression foundered.

              the solution is really multilinguality, instead of forced conformity, IMO; diversity in all things is a great asset for the economy/culture/society, and really creative and interesting things tend to happen when different languages/cultures intersect. taiwan is making baby steps in that direction, but since ethnic identity is wrapped up so deeply in politics, there are wild swings in educational policy every time the government changes hands.

              i have always thought that china would do better to see itself as an analogue to the EU, as a continent, rather than as a single nation-state with implied uniformity. it's just too damned big and diverse to force into a single mold. i blame qin shihuangdi.

    •  Their longest border and largest trading partner (0+ / 0-)

      Mandarin is a more practical choice.

      Freedom isn't free. Patriots pay taxes.

      by Dogs are fuzzy on Tue May 07, 2013 at 08:54:05 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Not surprising. (0+ / 0-)

    Chinese, Japanese and English would be the commonly taught second languages, with the latter 2 probably concentrated on students studying for higher certs or university entrance.

    All of the North Koreans I've met in China are fluent in at least one of the 3.

    {Not a sigline. You are hallucinating.}

    by koNko on Fri May 03, 2013 at 05:34:07 AM PDT

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site