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Eureka: Ban Ki Moon and Gangnam Style
by Jay Gutman
2018-01-18 12:22:05
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When Ban Ki Moon was elected as head of the United Nations in 2006 and sworn in in 2007, South Korea's general reaction was “we need to speak better English.” Note that they did not say “we need to be polyglots.” It was “we need better English.” Then in the summer of 2012 Gangnam Style came along as the most viewed video ever on Youtube, and the general reaction in South Korea was “we don't need English, Korean's good enough to succeed.”

A little bit of history. World culture emerged in the 1980s as a concept where an increasing number of people were interested in “tasting” a little bit of every culture. That is you had people who wanted to taste a little bit of every cuisine, listen to a little bit of every music, watch a movies from as many countries as possible, learn as many languages as possible, follow sports from around the world and have a piece of furniture at home from a little bit of every country.

ban01_400_01Up until the 1990s it was mostly missionaries and Unification church converts who had any interest in South Korean culture. Anyone learning or studying Korean was probably a North American or European missionary, a Unification Church convert, a convert to one of Korea's mega churches or probably some Japanese youngster looking for a cheap and not too distant country to live in.

Then a group of North American, British, Australian and New Zealander teachers popularized Korean culture in their countries, while a group of Chinese students who took advantage of China lifting overseas travel permits in 2006 popularized Korean culture in China. A group of Southeast Asian students were invited on scholarships in South Korea and popularized Korean culture in their country.

Another group of students, ethnic minorities from Europe, popularized Korean culture in Europe. I'll insist on this, as a group of Muslim students went to Korea and were surpised they were not getting confused stares when they described themselves as “French and Muslim” and Koreans did not find a contradiction. Then a group of students on scholarships from the Middle East popularized Korean culture in their region.

This network effect between 2006 and 2012 is what led Gangnam style to become the huge hit that it was.

Now back to 2007. Ban Ki Moon's interviews were less than convincing. That led to a knee-jerk reaction where South Korea started investing 15 to 17 billion dollars a year on English education. At the per capita level, this means Koreans of all ages spent 300 dollars per person per year on English lessons of some kind. South Korea had the highest number of English test takers in the world, the highest number of English learners in the world on a per capita basis, and 10% of the world expat English teachers were in South Korea. Had the Latvian president or the Sri Lankan diplomat been elected UNSG, English education in South Korea might have progressed, but would not have taken the epidemic proportions it had taken.

Now to Gangnam style. Boy do South Koreans love simplifying complicated problems. Gangnam style became the symbol of Korean success without the need to use the English language. The song is in Korean and features an all Korean cast, and was written, produced and distributed exclusively in Korea. That's when I got banned from teaching in South Korea, thousands of English teachers lost their jobs and learning English was no longer viewed as a necessity.

Korean companies, who once thought they should perhaps adopt more flexible standards to be more in sync with globalization, had made suits optional between 2006 and Gangnam style. Jeans or trousers along with tieless shirts or even t-shirts could be worn in Korean business. Gangnam style meant you had to put that suit back on. Koreans had gradually shortened working hours, even voting a law forcing businesses to shut down for at least a few days a year in 2011. Gangnam style meant the return of the 70 to 80 hour workweek.

Gangnam style gave the misleading impression that Korean ways could lead to success, especially granted Korean exports were decreasing in the midst of the global recession. Going back to the Korean ways did not always work and Korea was in the news for tragedies in the following years.

What next? An idea that is foreign in Korea but familiar to us in the West is that we take problems for what they are: complicated. And we try to provide simple solutions to complicated problems. South Korea is famous for simplifying problems and offering complicated solutions to what are in appearance simple problems.

Ban Ki Moon's poor English is the result of the lack of a realistic language learning curriculum based on conversation, professional use of foreign languages and academic use of foreign languages. In South Korea, I think a couple of universities have Bulgarian majors but you can technically graduate with a degree in Bulgarian but without having attended a single class in Bulgarian. So it has a lot to do with realism and realistic planning. The idea is to look at society at large, rather than simplifying problems to Guus Hiddink, Ban Ki Moon or Psy and his hit Gangnam style.

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