Jeju's 'endangered' dialect
Jeju's 'endangered' dialect
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An update on preservation attempts by the provincial government

Jeju Island has always been known for its unique culture, with the islanders’ indigenous language a significant feature.

Language represents a living connection to a culture’s past – its oral history, mythology, traditions and ancestors. When it is lost, a great amount of cultural lineage disappears forever.

According to linguistic scholars, once a language ceases to be native – that is, when children are no longer taught and socialized in the language as their native tongue – it will die out within one generation.

On Jeju Island, the local dialect is still viewed by those over the age of 40 as a means of deep bonding with other Jeju people.

In a recent linguistics class of approximately 100 students in Jeju National University’s Department of English, a request for a show of hands of those who use the Jeju dialect elicited a confirmation from fewer than a dozen students.

In December of 2010, following a careful on-site survey several months earlier, UNESCO added Jeju’s dialect to its Atlas of the World’s Endangered Languages. The organization made the following statement: “It is a critically endangered language spoken by no more than 10,000 people on Jeju Island in the Republic of Korea. Its intergenerational transmission has been disrupted, as it is spoken fluently today only by people who are more than 70 years old.”

For the full report, see:

Upon UNESCO’s declaration, the Jeju provincial government began an aggressive campaign to highlight the language’s impending loss and value to Jeju’s people.

According to Oh Seung-cheol, assistant director of the provincial government’s Cultural Policy Division, this UNESCO designation “means that the world has recognized the value of our unique language ... Korea is obligated to do everything it can to keep the dialect from disappearing.”

Kim Duck-sam, another assistant director in the same division, has a different view.

“Despite our best efforts, the dialect will be gone within 30 to 50 years,” he said with sadness, further citing Jeju’s “loss of identity” as a primary cause.

The provincial law regarding the dialect (which went into effect on Sept. 27, 2007) was modified on April 6 of this year. The director of the Jeju Language Center was given primary responsibility.

A new committee consisting of 16 members including Jeju linguistics scholars, a poet, two Cultural Policy Division staff, and representatives of local cultural organizations has been formed.

The committee is charged with formulating a basic plan for preservation, and a second committee will soon be formed for the purpose of research and publication.

A 2010 study of Jeju’s dialect and its usage was conducted under the auspices of Jeju National University’s Language Council by a research team led by Kang Yeong-bong. The resulting 300-page survey report forms the basis for the work of these two committees.

In 2006, the National Folk Museum and National Korean Language Institute signed an agreement to jointly pursue the dialect’s designation by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage. This has not been achieved to date.

Several other preservation efforts are currently underway.

The Jejueo Preservation Corporation is a private organization of scholars and concerned citizens which focuses on a variety of preservation efforts. For more information, see:

The Tamna Cultural Festival, an annual event held in autumn, includes contests in the local dialect. In 2009, a major folk festival which included dialect contests was held on Jeju in honor of the ASEAN-Korea Summit.

A Jeju dialect smartphone application has been developed by a Seoul National University student with the help of friends on Jeju. It can be downloaded for free on the Arirang Web site but is available for iPhone only.

An after-school program for learning the dialect is offered in a couple of public schools. When asked if there was an intention to reintroduce Jeju dialect into the standard public school curriculum, Kim Duck-sam stated that while the director of education was in favor, and the Cultural Policy Division was encouraging schools to do so, the budget for such an initiative simply does not exist.

The 2011 budget for dialect preservation totals 43 million won: 10 million won for the annual speech contest, 8 million won for teacher instruction, and 25 million won for Internet broadcasting, which was not further described.

“The people don’t want it – why force it on them?” said longtime foreign resident Eugene Campbell at the idea of reintroducing the dialect into public schools.

According to Uhm Seung-yong, director general of the Heritage Policy Bureau in the Cultural Heritage Administration of Korea, there is no central government effort at this time for the preservation of Jeju dialect.

However, he also stated that there could be efforts outside of his department and has promised to look into the matter further.

The future of Jeju dialect remains very much in question. The impact of its loss on Jeju’s culture is impossible to measure.

Dr. Hilty is a cultural health psychologist.  <Jeju Weekly>

<Anne Hilty eastwest.psyche@gmail.comJeju Weekly All rights reserved>

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