“Seoul International School develops inquisitive, independent thinkers and collaborative learners, who acquire the essential knowledge necessary to be caring and creative contributors to the world around them.”
Seoul International School Mission Statement
In response to the Western Association of Schools and Colleges’ visit in 2015, SIS revised and adopted a mission statement in order to clarify its intent as an educational institution. For the most part, our school has certainly delivered on the first half of the above statement, and past graduating classes are a testament to the spirit of independent thinking and collaboration the school intends to impart.
However, what is not so clear to us is how SIS helps us navigate “the world around” us. In particular, for a school a stone’s throw from Seoul, one of Asia’s largest, most metropolitan cities and perhaps one of the world’s most influential economic engines, it appears perplexing that SIS does not offer any Korean classes.
When SIS was founded in 1973, it was intended to be a foreign school, primarily for the children of diplomats and foreign residents. As such, its students desired Korean-specific courses, such as language and history, so they could better understand the local culture and communicate with people within the country where they were being raised. This demand for Korean language and history courses would continue for decades, at least until SIS’s student makeup began to change, around the 2000-’01 school year. According to SIS staff, around that year, ethnically Korean residents with a firm grasp of the language increasingly began to attend, many of whom had lived in Korea for their entire lives. With this in mind, parents and students began requesting alternative language classes like Chinese or Spanish, leading to the Korean language program’s removal about a decade ago.
At the time, it was understandable to remove Korean classes, at least given the demographic shift. Since the vast majority of students had lived in South Korea their entire lives, what relevance would a Korean course have?
By 2011, however, a second such shift began to occur. In response to domestic concerns that international schools in Korea were deviating from their intended purpose of educating predominantly foreign students, the government introduced a new policy that only allowed students who had lived three or more years abroad to attend. As the number of students who had lived abroad grew, so did the demand for Korean classes. Increasing numbers of students came to SIS with limited or no knowledge of Korean, resulting in a concomitant number of inquiries about Korean classes in recent years.
For many students at SIS, lessons on the country’s language, history, and literature used to be derived from a lifetime of growing up in Korea rather than any institutional source of learning. Given the shifts at SIS however, we can no longer rely solely on the limited number of years we have lived in the country to teach us all there is to know about it.
Considering modern concerns about nationalized curricula or language-specific programs, we must say that this editorial is not an appeal to some nationalist reactionary ideology. Rather, it is a question of preparedness for graduating students who are soon to enter the working world. It is no secret that many SIS graduates desire positions in Korean multinational companies, such as Samsung or Hyundai, but entering such roles can be extremely difficult for those restricted to the limited level of Korean they speak at home among family members, if they speak Korean at all. Additionally, there are others who wish to enter international organizations in which a bilingual background is a great asset for future employers, but who are similarly limited in their language skills.
This is also not to say that current language programs do not fulfill their roles. Our school’s Chinese and Spanish programs are fundamentally necessary to the existing curriculum, as we are exceptionally lucky to be able to learn about languages and cultures to which we are not regularly exposed. However, there is a clear difference between being able to understand the language of a country in which you live and becoming trilingual with the addition of an entirely new language you discovered for the first time.
To address such concerns, we must get better at preparing ourselves not only to get into university, but beyond. There are myriad methods to introduce a potential Korean program here at SIS. Just like in the 1990s, the school can introduce Korean, both with beginner courses for those who have just come to Korea, along with more advanced curriculum in subjects such as history, business-level language, and skills for long-time residents. According to Yangmin Kwak, Admissions Director, SIS could offer this course as an elective foreign language without jeopardizing its international school status, as all core subjects would still be taught in English. Such a program would ensure that we are not only ready for our freshman year in college, but moreover for that year after college graduation when we must set out and seek employment with the skills we have garnered throughout our lives.
SIS can and should adapt to the needs of a changing student body. Given the most recent demographic shifts present from 2011 onward, we ought to provide the opportunity to learn Korean and about Korea in an academic capacity.