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Learning English as an investment

Investing in learning English is lik investing in social infrastructure.
July 24,2017
For Korean people whose native language is Korean, English is like gravity. As we constantly feel the force, we cannot avoid it. What is English anyway?

Language is a means of conveying and processing information. That’s why language is so important for humankind. As our knowledge grows, the importance of information becomes more evident. Physicists say information is the core of existence, while biologists define life as the activity of processing information.

Naturally, organisms have the language to process information. It’s what we call DNA. The genetic information in the language of DNA allows all organisms on earth to live and reproduce. The genetic language uses nucleobases represented by A, C, G and T. When these alphabets are combined, they make up a codon, referring to the amino acid sequence. The amino acids in turn make up protein.

In other words, the codons make up the vocabulary of our genetic language. As three of the four letters make up a codon, the DNA language has 64 (4x4x4) words. From bacteria to humans, all organisms share this language, which is simple and accurate after being refined for billions of years.

The genetic language contains information that makes up the foundation of secondary languages, which evolve to accommodate communication between entities. The order of appearance is signals, vocals, writing, mathematics and computer languages. Among the secondary languages, vocal language is the most basic, and in everyday conversation, “language” refers to vocal language.

As the existing vocal languages have one ancestor, humans have universal grammar as an instinct. We learn the language used in the society we are born to and consider it our mother tongue. The imprinting is similar to how a baby remembers their mother or a salmon returns to the river in which it was born. As language is a vast and complicated system, the imprinting of language lasts until age 11, unlike imprinting of other systems which ends a few days after birth. If you don’t learn a certain language by then, you will never have native-level command.

The problem is that all languages have different utility levels. Languages used by more people are more useful than those used by less people. The network effect is maximized for the common languages of empires. Aramaic, Greek, Latin and Chinese have the status of being international languages thanks to the expansion of empires.

In the modern day of an “Earth Empire” that is unified at least culturally, English is the international language. Important information — especially in science and technology — is expressed in English. Thanks to the network effect, the dominance of English will grow rapidly in the future. As the dominance of English means the decline of other languages, they will ultimately become “museum languages” that are neglected by the public and barely preserved by intellectuals.

Among the major languages, one that is most likely to become a museum language is Chinese. While it is the mother tongue of the most number of people on earth, Chinese is different from mainstream Indo-European languages structurally, and Chinese characters are an overly inefficient writing system. It is hard to imagine 1.4 billion Chinese people using English, but such an unlikely future seems logical. Arthur Clarke advised that when logic and imagination clash while predicting the future, we should follow logic.

Language is absolutely important, and among languages, English is overwhelmingly important. People with a limited understanding of English cannot access important information. Koreans suffer a great loss — individually and socially — due to a language barrier stemming from limited information access. During our foreign currency crisis in 1997, a delegation of Korean government officials negotiated with American bankers. At the meeting, Korean representatives could not understand the language of Wall Street. As financial systems and products changed rapidly, even elite Koreans became unfamiliar with the jargon. As an American lawyer led the negotiation on our government’s part, Korean representatives were impressed by his knowledge. This sad incident will be repeated over and over.

Koreans need to learn Korean and English together. In fact, we are already doing just that. Koreans who are not proficient in English are bilinguals in a way. Many of us are passive users of English. We understand it without much difficulty but cannot speak it freely. The realistic goal of English education should be helping students become “productive users” who can freely speak English.

The strategy to achieve this goal is simple. As language is imprinted at an early age, we should start early. Unfortunately, our government’s English education policy hinders those efforts. One of the reasons for this policy is misconceptions about bilingualism. Using two languages is beneficial because access to more information makes life fuller. Bilinguals are more agile, better at resolving discord and are more resistant to Alzheimer’s than single-language users. They have better cultural empathy, open-mindedness and social initiative. Naturally, bilinguals have a higher IQ and income. There are few adverse effects from learning more than one languages. Contrary to popular belief, learning multiple languages does not lead to psychological insecurity or an identity crisis.

English is a way to get useful information. It is not the burden we want to take off whenever we can. It is important for young people learning English to understand why it is useful to learn English. Investment in learning English is like investing in social infrastructure.

*The author is a novelist.

Bok Geo-il