What Foreign Language Do North Koreans Learn? English!

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.

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.

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6 Responses to What Foreign Language Do North Koreans Learn? English!

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  4. Brett Heffner says:

    I am surprised about the British accent. Most East Asians learn American vocabulary and Oxford orthography (spellings of certain words and date orders.)

    • E C says:

      Most East Asians learn American vocabulary because the native-English-speaking English teachers in most of East Asia are Americans, and a disproportionate number of the non-native-speaking teachers spent time studying in America. North Korea, however, has no relations with America, and therefore their only source of English language education is from elsewhere in the Anglosphere (especially Britain).

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