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Who Needs English?

As South Korea's economy grows closer to China's, more people are studying Chinese. For some, the choice is a rejection of the U.S.

March 29, 2004|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

SEOUL — After years of slogging through her English lessons, stumbling over impossible pronunciations and baffling rules of syntax, Chae Chang Eun came up with a better idea.

The 33-year-old science teacher switched to Chinese.

It wasn't that the language was easier. But studying Chinese felt like a homecoming, a return to a culture and way of thinking closer to Chae's roots as a South Korean. Besides, with China on its way to surpassing the United States as South Korea's largest trading partner, she figured its language would be more advantageous in landing a job in the business world.

"When America was leader of the world, we all studied English," Chae said. "Now that China is rising to the top, the interest is swaying toward the Chinese language."

South Korea is known as one of the United States' staunchest allies and is host to 37,000 U.S. troops. But in what might be a sign of things to come, China is the object of infatuation at the moment.

The phenomenon isn't limited to South Korea. Chinese studies are booming throughout Asia. At the largest chain of private language schools in Japan, enrollment in Chinese in 2003 was double that in 2002 -- displacing French as the second most popular language after English.

For most students, the motives are strictly mercenary: They believe that command of Chinese will give them an edge in the job market, and they don't develop much of a corresponding interest in Chinese culture. Some study Chinese -- once scorned by a society intent on Westernizing -- as a conscious gesture of rejection of the United States.

"The interest in Chinese does reflect some antipathy to U.S. hegemony and arrogance," said Suh Jin Young, an international relations professor at Korea University in Seoul.

In the last two years, half a dozen private Chinese schools have opened in downtown Seoul, and posters for new ones are plastered throughout the subway system. In December, prestigious Seoul National University announced that Chinese had replaced English as the most popular major among liberal arts students. The country's largest electronics companies recently started offering free Chinese lessons for their employees in anticipation of expanded operations in China.

Since 2000, the number of South Koreans studying in China has more than doubled. There were 35,000 as of the end of last year, making South Koreans the largest nationality of foreign students in China. Meanwhile, the number taking the entry exam for Chinese universities has increased threefold, according to the Chinese Embassy in Seoul.

At the same time, student visa applications to the United States are down about 10% this year from the year before, a U.S. diplomat said. He attributes it to a combination of tighter security requirements and what he calls "the competing pole from China."

"People are sending their teenagers to China to learn Chinese. They are really crazy about China," said Nam Young Sook, an economist with the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy. "After all the hype about English, now everybody wants to learn Chinese."

In Thailand, so many students are taking Chinese that one university official calls it an epidemic of "China fever."

"They see that the future belongs to China," said Prapat Thepcatree, director of Thammasat University's Center for Policy Studies in Bangkok.

Prapat says it is not unlike the rage for learning Japanese in the 1980s, when Japan's economic might was at its zenith, but he believes that anti-American sentiment is also a factor. As a matter of simple practicality, more Chinese tourists are visiting Thailand while Westerners, fearful of terrorism, are staying home. The tilt toward China comes at a time when American policymakers are increasingly fretting about the U.S. image abroad.

"Net favorable sentiment toward China has since caught up with -- and on a number of occasions even surpassed -- that for the U.S.," warned a report on South Korea released this month by the Rand Corp., a Santa Monica-based think tank. "China's growing economic importance to South Korea and its increasingly important role in influencing North Korean behavior could portend more favorable attitudes toward China, possibly even at the expense of the United States."

Scott Snyder, a senior associate with the Asia Foundation think tank in Washington and until recently head of its Seoul office, said the U.S.-declared war against terrorism has alienated Asian allies not because they necessarily oppose it, but because they believe it is not relevant to their concerns.

"The Chinese are coming and essentially saying, 'Let's get rich together,' and that is a more compelling message for Asian partners," Snyder said.

At the moment, with the U.S. and China basking in relatively warm relations, South Koreans do not have to choose between the two. But they may in the future -- and it is not a given that they would side with the United States.

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