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The president`s foreign language ability

Posted March. 05, 2013 03:42,   


The world has about 6,500 languages. Chinese has the most native speakers at more than one billion, followed by English and Spanish with about 400 million each and Hindi fourth with more than 300 million. There is a joke that broken English is the most widely used language across the globe. As golfer Pak Se-ri and Queens Park Rangers F.C. midfielder Park Ji-sung have been highlighted for their fluent English, speaking a foreign language has grown essential for Koreans.

Many people believe that women are better at language than men. The left side of the brain commands language and analytical thinking, while the right section is in charge of a sense of time and space and comprehensive thinking. A physiologist found in a study using MRI scans that men use the left side of their brains only while women used both sides and their corpus callosa that connects the left and the right sections. A German neurologist conducted a test of subjects getting out of a 3-D virtual reality, and found that men took 142 seconds and women 196 seconds. The result was in line with the conventional wisdom that women are excel in language and men excel in spatial perception. This is hard to accept as scientific fact because many studies have contradicted this theory.

The foreign language skills of President Park Geun-hye, Korea’s first female president, has attracted attention. She is known to speak English and French well enough to hold a discussion, and she is also known to be partially fluent in Chinese and Spanish. She is said to have recently surprised her interpreters when she used difficult expressions in a meeting with foreign diplomatic delegations. In her biography, the president said, “I learned English from an American tutor as a child while living in the presidential office. I learned French when I studied in France after graduating from college.” She made a speech in Spanish at age 20 in Spain in 1973, and self-educated Chinese for more than five years using EBS, the only educational broadcasting channel. Rhee Syng-man, the first president of the Republic of Korea, was also good at foreign languages. Having lived in the U.S., he wrote diplomatic documents in English even after taking over the newly independent state in 1948.

If President Park speaks five languages including Korean, she must be the best in foreign languages among Korean presidents. What impact a leader’s foreign language skills have on national affairs is difficult to ascertain, but this is better than nothing. Though official dialogue should be made through interpreters, if President Park can directly communicate with her counterparts on unofficial occasions, she could leave a good impression. The purpose of learning a foreign language is better communication with those from a different country and culture. How ironic, however, that President Park, who is fluent in four foreign languages, cannot communicate in Korean when it comes to domestic politics.

Editorial Writer Shin Yeon-soo (ysshin@donga.com)