Ask a North Korean: do you learn foreign languages? | North Korea

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Kristo from Estonia asks:

In the USSR, behind the Iron Curtain, foreign language studies at universities were prestigious for various reasons. How accessible is foreign language study to NK students, whether academic or self-taught? What languages ​​do they have access to and which are the most popular?

Studying a foreign language could have been a prestigious thing in the USSR but it is compulsory for everyone in North Korea, from elementary to high school.

But if everyone learns – or rather must – study a foreign language throughout their schooling, it is the pupils from good families (under the Songbun caste system) and from the top of the social hierarchy who are most motivated to learn one in depth before entering university. These students know that they can apply this knowledge after graduation, so they are more motivated than other students.

Otherwise, people are less likely to be motivated to learn a foreign language because they cannot use that knowledge in the real world. They don’t attribute any special significance to mastering a foreign language, and they wouldn’t go the extra mile or sacrifice to master one.

Unless they become a diplomat or a businessman who visits a foreign country on a trip, North Koreans would have no chance of using foreign languages. As you probably know, most North Koreans don’t have the freedom to travel to a foreign country without government permission, so it’s understandable that ordinary people are less likely to be passionate about mastering ‘a foreign language.

North Korean schooling includes 11 years in total: five years of primary school and six years of high school. Until 2011, only high school students were required to study foreign languages. But since Kim Jong-un came to power, students are required to learn foreign languages ​​from primary school.

So what is the most popular language? Nowadays, the one that is gaining popularity is Chinese. Until the late 1990s, Chinese was not popular at all. But since the early 2000s, when China’s economy grew dramatically and its influence over North Korea grew steadily, learning Chinese has become even more popular than learning English.

What foreign languages ​​do we have access to? Most schools and universities in North Korea teach English and Russian. Until the end of the 1980s, Russian was certainly one of the most popular languages, but following the collapse of the USSR’s trade between North Korea and Russia, Russian became an unfamiliar language. popular. Still to this day, most schools in North Korea offer English and Russian lessons, and students learn English and Russian if they wish.

There is a widely accepted opinion among North Koreans that English is an international language that everyone should know and be able to speak. The reason why Chinese ranks alongside English as the most popular language in North Korea is that China-North Korea relations have grown stronger and deeper over the years, as there are more economic and cultural exchanges between the two countries.

I myself studied Chinese before leaving North Korea. I expect to see increased demand and popularity for the Chinese language in North Korea – and other countries around the world.

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Translation by Elizabeth Jae

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