Battle of the Languages: French and English

Charles Claude Aleveque teaches French in Seoul in the late 1890s. Robert Neff Collection

Korean is said to be one of the fastest-growing languages in the world. Undoubtedly, Korean movies, dramas and K-pop have influenced the popularity of the language. Not many years ago, speaking a few words of Korean garnished undeserved praise from elderly Korean shop keepers, but those days are gone. Korean-speaking foreigners are often encountered in the streets, seen on TV or on YouTube. The number of Korean language schools are constantly increasing, and for those who cannot physically attend a language school, there are many programs online.But what was it like to learn Korean in the 1880s? Most of the early American missionaries hired Koreans to teach them the language — many of these early students did fairly well, while others, like Horace Allen, gave up quickly.In the summer of 1885, Henry Appenzeller, an American missionary, studied every day for five hours with his Korean tutor and used a French-Korean dictionary as his textbook. In a letter to his father, Appenzeller noted that he was acquiring “quite a knowledge of French” in his pursuit of learning Korean.

Appenzeller probably learned some Korean as he taught English to his students. In a letter to his friend, he wrote:“Educational work is acceptable, especially instruction in the English language. It is truly wonderful how the East takes to the English language. Everybody is anxious to learn it and proud when he knows but a few words. Even my houseboy who has picked up a few words prefers to receive his orders in it. I never saw the superiority of the glorious English over other languages as I do now and I believe she is destined to be the language of the world.”This desire to learn and practice English was often described in letters home or in contemporary books and newspaper articles. Sometimes these anecdotes were rather amusing such as the young Korean boys who pestered British sailors for cigarettes and tobacco. When they were refused, the young English scholars expressed their dissatisfaction with “volleys of British oaths.”As Appenzeller predicted, English became the “language of the world” — at least in Korea — but not without some 메이저 challenges.

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