FM Chastises Diplomats for Inadequate English

  • By Ahn Jun-yong

    September 13, 2018 11:22

    Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha has chastised Korean diplomats several times recently for their inadequate English.

    This has prompted the Foreign Ministry to launch a long overdue assessment of the actual English conversation skills of diplomats, who are propelled upwards in a culture of rigid seniority rather than ability, and overhaul methods of training and grading language skills.

    The ministry recently conducted a survey of around 200 diplomats stationed overseas and in a meeting last week discussed ways to overhaul its language training and evaluation system. Officials are also considering improving training in other foreign languages.

    Kang Kyung-wha

    In 2004, the Foreign Ministry contracted Seoul National University to assess the foreign language skills of diplomats, who were at the time becoming a national embarrassment for their boorish behavior and incompetence in international bodies.

    The evaluation is divided into English conversation and writing tests. But even at the Foreign Ministry it is rare to find high scorers capable of simultaneous interpretation, while around 80 percent are rated about upper-intermediate to advanced.

    Now Kang, who took the job after a career in international organizations, has ordered ministry officials to make the test more stringent and change language training programs.

    Some ministry workers are peeved. One diplomat said, "Kang, who used to be an interpreter, seems to be going way too far when it comes to our English proficiency. Why do we have to speak English as well as the minister, even though many of us don't have to in our everyday duties?"

    Another ministry worker said, "English is necessary, but other diplomats need to speak Japanese or Chinese too. It's not easy juggling work and learning English."

    Some accuse Kang of trying to make diplomats more docile by raising the requirements. Kang lived in the U.S. for three years when she was young and received her master's and doctoral degrees there. She also served as the official interpreter for former President Kim Dae-jung and worked for many years at the UN.

    Language training in Korea has long consisted of rote learning and cramming for standardized multiple-choice American tests like the TOEFL that teach students nothing but how to beat the tests.

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