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Learning English the Nordic way

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By John Burton

Busan Mayor Park Heong-joon's ambition to turn his city into a center of English-speaking Koreans is a laudable one, but it will also be difficult to achieve, at least in the short term.

No one doubts that English is the lingua franca of the global economy and its widespread use will help attract foreign investment to Busan and elsewhere in Korea.

I have lived in several countries which were essentially bilingual in terms of English and the local language ― Sweden, the Netherlands and Singapore. All of them offer lessons to Korea in its quest to achieve English fluency, but I like to focus on Sweden and the rest of the Nordic region.

Swedes, together with Norwegians and Danes, are considered the world's best non-native speakers of English. Rarely during my six years in Sweden did I meet anyone who did not speak fluent English.

One advantage that these Scandinavian speakers may have is that their native languages are all part of the Germanic language family and are closely related to English, another Germanic language, in terms of both grammar and words.

But this does not explain the proficiency of English among the next-door Finns, whose language belongs to the Uralic language family and may be distantly related to Korean. Both, for example, are agglutinating languages, meaning various grammatical modifiers of a word are affixed at the end. This probably means that Finnish speakers do not find it any easier to learn English than Koreans.

So why does Finland rank ninth in the world in terms of English proficiency, while Korea ranks 37th out of a total of 112 countries, according to the 2021 EF English Proficiency Index?

The main reason is that English is taught early in primary schools. Once a student has mastered reading and writing in their native language, which is around seven or eight years of age, they will begin their formal English language education. By 10 years of age, almost all the children in the Nordic region are learning English.

One advantage that these countries have, which Korea does not, is that all of their teachers are fluent in English, which makes it easy to promote English education in all the schools.

The importance of starting early in learning a second language is crucial as anyone who brought up children in a bilingual household, as I have, knows. By age three, my daughter, for example, was speaking both English and Korean and she has never stopped since then.

Knowledge of English is reinforced in the Nordic region by television. Since these countries lack the financial resources to produce all their own programming, shows imported from the U.S. and the U.K. are shown. Instead of being dubbed, they are subtitled so that most viewers become familiar with the sound of English.

In contrast, any foreign content on Korean television is dubbed. But this is becoming less of a handicap since English-language content on YouTube and Netflix can be viewed with subtitles. This is emerging as a key learning tool.

Another benefit that Scandinavians enjoy is their close proximity to the U.K., which offers the opportunity to practice the language. English has also become the common language among Europeans just as Latin once did. This is particularly true among European countries with a very high English proficiency, including the Netherlands, Austria, Belgium, Portugal and Croatia.

There is thus a strong practical reason to learn English and plenty of opportunities to use it. In contrast, Korea is far from countries that normally use English, the closest being parts of Southeast Asia such as Singapore and Malaysia.

The bottom line is that cultural immersion, often on a daily basis, explains why Swedes and many other Europeans speak such excellent English. It is a challenge that Korea still needs to overcome.

Korea has tried to address this issue by, for example, setting up so-called "English villages" where visitors meet native speakers to practice their English. But such attempts have an air of artificiality about them and are not applied in a consistent manner.

Meanwhile, Mayor Park is facing a backlash from some nationalist groups who claim his promotion of English is undermining the use of Korean and creating a divide with those who are unable to speak English.

But again the experience of the Nordic region proves instructive. English has not undermined the status of the 27 million people who speak one of the Nordic tongues. In Iceland, a country of only 365,000 people, a conscious effort is made to preserve Icelandic by banning loan words from other languages even as Icelanders are proficient English speakers.

Korean is less under threat since an estimated 75 million people ― about three times the Nordic population ― regard it as their native language.

John Burton (, a former Korea correspondent for the Financial Times, is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist and consultant.

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