By Tongil Tours partner Nikolai Johnsen who led, and took part in the program.
In 2016, Tongil Tours organised the first ever open language program for Western students in the DPRK (North Korea), in which our founding partner Alek Sigley became the first Australian to ever study at a DPRK university. We successfully arranged another language program this year (2017), in which the author, Nikolai Johnsen, became the first Norwegian to study in the DPRK. We had a diverse and much larger group than last year, with participants from Australia, Germany, Switzerland, Poland, Canada, Britain and the USA.
Overview: Classes at Kim Hyong Jik University of Education, Pyongyang
This year we had 2.5 hours of Korean classes at Kim Hyong Jik University of Education every weekday (in 2018 it will be 3.5 hours a day). We had quite a packed itinerary, going around Pyongyang every day, but we stopped by the hotel about 2 hours most days after lunch so we could finish the majority of homework before exploring the city. The itinerary was based on our online survey which all students participated in, and everyone got to see and experience all, or most of, what was on their wish list during our three weeks in the DPRK.
This year, we had nine participants. On the first day of school, new learners started their beginner’s classes, while the rest took a level placement test which divided them into intermediate and advanced classes. The group leader and author, who has studied the Korean language since 2008, was put in the advanced class. All three classes used a combination of official Korean language textbooks from our university, and digital media prepared by the teacher. The work load was heaviest for the beginners, who had to memorise new vocabulary lists every day. The intermediate and advanced classes also went through a large amount of new material every day, and studying in the hotel after lunch and/or in the evening was a must to keep up in class. In order to make it easier to memorise and use the material learned, we have decided to add another hour of class each day from 2018, dedicated to repetition and speaking practice.
It’s fair to say that most of the students experienced some culture shock in class, especially those who had not studied in an East Asian country before. Firstly, the teachers speak only Korean in class, and all explanations in the textbooks were exclusively in Korean. This is considered the best way to learn foreign languages in neighboring Asian countries too, and our teachers, who all have PhDs in Korean language education (teaching Korean as a foreign language) certainly have the experience and the skills to make it work. However, it also required a lot of dedication from the students who had to look up a vast amount of new words in the dictionary (without being able to check online), and during class were forced to ask all questions in Korean. Also, the teachers pointed out all our mistakes very directly, which can feel discouraging as one struggles to form a sentence with new words and grammar learned just minutes before. Others felt like they were back in elementary school as they were scolded in front of the class for not having finished all their homework.
That being said, everyone did a great job adjusting to Korean pedagogy, and not only improved their language abilities, but also got a real first hand DPRK cultural experience. The teachers also did an amazing job and, although strict at times, for the most part always had big smiles on their faces and became close with all students. The author talked to his teacher about a variety of topics from family, daily life, hobbies, traditions, politics, and more, both in his home country Norway and in the DPRK, and it felt like students and teachers alike learned a lot about each other and each other’s cultures.
We also learned a lot from visiting new places in the afternoon every day for three weeks. Many of the participants had been to the DPRK before, but everyone got to see many new places that aren’t so often visited on a standard six-day tour. Being able to communicate in Korean also made these visits much richer experiences. For example, when we visited the Munsu Waterpark to try out the waterslides and mingle with the locals, the Korean visitors and employees often signaled for us to skip the lines and go first, since we were foreign guests. It was fascinating to see their reactions when our group told them in Korean that we would rather just stand in line like everyone else. We were met by many smiles, and several groups of locals asked to take pictures with us. Thinking about how they probably will show these pictures to friends and families, telling them about their unexpected meeting with friendly foreigners who had come to learn their language certainly gives extra value to the program, and enforces our conviction that engagement is indeed meaningful. Another great experience was all the interaction with our devoted bus driver who really enjoyed asking and answering questions. He has driven foreigners around the country for more than 30 years, but has very rarely had any chances to interact more deeply with them as he only speaks Korean. The author spent many evenings with him, often together with other participants, talking about mutual prejudices between North Koreans and foreigners, and coming to realise how similar we all are despite the circumstances.
The Results of Three Weeks of Intensive Korean Language Study in Pyongyang, North Korea
After the program ended, the beginners had gained a substantial Korean vocabulary, and enough grammar to ask simple questions and understand the answers, and pick up the gist of others’ conversations. The intermediate students learned and became comfortable with a wide array of grammar points, and could converse in Korean with more confidence. The students in the advanced class improved their listening and speaking skills, and could understand much more of the Pyongyang dialect spoken rapidly in both formal and informal settings, having got a lot of practice using the correct terms and honorifics specific to gender and status in the DPRK too.
We also visited a vast number of attractions in Pyongyang, in addition to experiencing Kaesong, the DMZ, Sariwon, Shinchon, Wonsan and Hamhung on our weekend trips. A highlight for many was, perhaps surprisingly, a tour of the fertiliser factory in Hamhung, which is not often visited due to the fact it is difficult to make time for the long drive to the DPRK’s second biggest city on a standard tour. We also experienced the announcement of a successful missile test on TV, and got to talk to many Koreans about how they feel about their country’s rapid development of nuclear weapons. Despite the uncomfortableness felt by many of our participants due to such widespread support for weapons of mass destruction, no one felt that they themselves were in danger because we were taken good care of the whole way through and we were permitted to openly ask questions about the announcement.
Tongil Tours will continue our tradition of arranging language programs in the DPRK in 2018. Having the experience of arranging these programs numerous times under our belt, and the connections necessary to make them successful, we are confident that we will deliver a fun and educational experience to all participants year after year.
The next Pyongyang Summer Language Program (2018) will be run from June the 30th to July the 21st.
So what are you waiting for? Apply now!
Watch the video from this year’s program:
Interested in learning North Korean? See our blog series on differences between North and South Korean.