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NO. 3

English  / Korean  


What are the criteria for ‘good command’ and ‘be able to’ in a language?

Jonghee Kim
    I have been teaching languages for decades at domestic and foreign universities, international schools, and educational institutions. I often meet students who can speak three or more languages, especially in Europe. Most of the cases is a combination of mother tongue, English and the third language. For example, take a Turkish student; the student speaks English as the language of learning and communication with her classmates and is learning Korean as the third language at a Korean school in the Netherlands. Another student I taught speaks German and French as mother tongues, English as her official language at school, and Korean as the fourth language. Though her capabilities in each language might differ, it would be more than enough for her to communicate and even to live in those countries.

    However, the question that always arises is that it is unclear when Korean talks about what bilingual, trilingual, or multilingual mean. Technically, the dictionary definition follows:

  • Bilingual: A person who is able to speak two languages

  • Trilingual: A person who is able to speak three languages

  • Multilingual: A person who is able to speak multiple languages (including bilingual and trilingual)

    Upon the above explanations, the meaning of 'be able to' has no clear criteria on language capabilities, and expressions such as 'can' or 'be able to' is regarded as subjective and personal judgment.

    In Europe, the Common European Framework of Reference for Language (CEFR) is commonly used. All languages are roughly divided into six levels from A1 to C2, and these levels are used in various situations such as daily life, employment, and higher education. A1 is the level where learning the language has just started, and C2 means being closer to a native speaker. A specific scale of C1 or C2 indicates the standard of 'good command' in a certain language. For example, when one answers about his/her language skills with the phrase "I am good at the language", it implies his/her skills would be above the level of C1.

    In Korea, on the other hand, each language has its own standards and no commonly shared criteria across all languages. In that case, it is quite difficult and sometimes unclear to evaluate language skills, particularly when one is unfamiliar with the specific language. The evaluation can be misled by referring to other language's evaluation criteria or judging by three levels of beginner, intermediate, and advanced. These three levels are not enough to verify the exact and detailed language skills.

    I have witnessed several cases of parents boasting their children as bilingual when they communicate with friends in a foreign language in daily life, even when they are not proficient in the language. When I was working at a university in Korea, a broadcasting producer asked me to verify the skills of a language genius who can speak several languages, so I did a simple test. However, the professors from other departments and I were disappointed with the student's proficiency, and the producer had to change the program's direction rather abruptly. I often hear many students saying, "my friend speaks English better than Korean", "Her father works for a trading company, and he can speak three languages". At work, a manager praises an employee who has studied abroad, saying, "our new employee speaks English like a native speaker." All of these are probably misunderstandings stemming based on an ambiguous concept of language proficiency. Of course, some of them might have reached that level, but most cases might have not.

    It would be reasonable to have differences in language evaluation criteria between two cultures. Europeans are more familiar with interacting with foreigners, whereas Koreans are still more comfortable with the concept and background of "Minjok (Korean as an ethnic group)". Amid the widespread globalization, however, it would be desirable to reconsider the vague and uncertain evaluation standard of language levels and change the criteria into more objective and explicit expressions that anyone can understand.

    I would like to highly appreciate the fact that some foreign-language-specialized universities in Korea have recently made various attempts based on CEFR. However, the problem is rooted in the government's policies. As long as the government does not deviate from one foreign language policy, it won't be easy to develop a common standard that encompasses many foreign languages.


Jonghee Kim
    Kim has taught translation studies and the Japanese language at Busan University of Foreign Studies in South Korea, the national Mahasarakham University in Thailand, and Kajonkiet International School at Phuket for more than ten years. Currently, Kim runs a language academy in the Hague, specializing in Korean and Japanese education. Since he has taught interpreters and translators at higher education for a long time, Kim is interested in various types of teaching interpretation, including simultaneous and consecutive, CAT (computer-assisted translation), and post-editing.

English  / Korean