Learning English in the 1880s: History of learning English in Korea

The 1880s marked a transformative period in Korean history, as the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) began to cautiously open its doors to Western influence after centuries of deliberate isolation.

This era, often referred to as the “enlightenment period” or “gaehwa period,” witnessed significant changes across various aspects of Korean society, with education emerging as a critical focal point.

The introduction and development of English language learning during this time played a pivotal role in Korea’s modernization efforts and its nascent engagement with the international community.

Korea in the Late 19th Century

In the late 19th century, Korea found itself at a precarious crossroads. The country was facing mounting pressure from foreign powers, particularly Japan, China, and Western nations, to open its borders and engage in international trade. The Korean government, led by King Gojong (r. 1863-1907), recognized the urgent need for modernization to maintain independence and navigate the increasingly complex global landscape.

The introduction of English education in Korea was not merely a linguistic endeavor but a strategic move towards national development and international diplomacy, similar to the goals of modern English conversation academy. This sentiment reflects the broader understanding within the Korean leadership that linguistic competence, particularly in English, was becoming a necessary tool for national survival and progress.

The late Joseon period was characterized by a strong Confucian tradition that had shaped Korean society for centuries. This cultural foundation emphasized hierarchical social structures, respect for authority, and a focus on classical Chinese learning.

The introduction of Western ideas and the English language represented a significant departure from these traditional norms.

The clash between traditional Confucian values and the influx of Western ideas created a unique cultural tension that significantly influenced the reception and implementation of English education in Korea. This cultural context is crucial for understanding the challenges and resistance faced by early English education initiatives.

Early English Education Initiatives

The Tongmunhak (同文學)

The first formal institution for teaching foreign languages in Korea was the Tongmunhak, established in 1883. Initially focused on Chinese and Japanese, it soon expanded to include English in its curriculum.

The Tongmunhak represented the Korean government’s recognition of the importance of linguistic skills in diplomatic and commercial interactions with foreign powers, a value still emphasized in modern 화상 영어 programs.

The curriculum at Tongmunhak was primarily focused on practical language skills needed for diplomacy and international trade.

Students were selected from elite families and were expected to serve as interpreters and diplomats upon completion of their studies. The inclusion of English in the curriculum marked a significant shift in Korea’s linguistic priorities, signaling a growing awareness of the global importance of the English language.

The Yugyeong Gongwon (育英公院)

In 1886, a more specialized institution for English education was founded: the Yugyeong Gongwon, also known as the Royal English School. This school was established under the patronage of King Gojong and with the assistance of American missionaries, notably Henry G. Appenzeller and Homer B. Hulbert.

The Yugyeong Gongwon symbolized Korea’s commitment to embracing Western knowledge and marked the beginning of systematic English education in the country. It was a bold experiment in cultural and educational exchange.

The school’s primary purpose was to train interpreters and diplomats who could facilitate Korea’s international relations. The curriculum was more comprehensive than that of the Tongmunhak, including not only language instruction but also courses in Western sciences, mathematics, and history.

This holistic approach to education reflected the Korean government’s growing understanding of the interconnected nature of language, culture, and knowledge in the modern world.

Teaching Methods and Materials

One of the earliest English textbooks used in Korea was “First Steps in English,” compiled by Henry G. Appenzeller and published in 1884. This textbook was designed specifically for Korean learners and included both English and Korean text. It was groundbreaking in its approach, as it attempted to bridge the vast linguistic and cultural gap between English and Korean.

These materials not only introduced the English language but also served as a window to Western culture and ideas, playing a crucial role in Korea’s modernization process.  Today’s English education resources, such as those offered by 영어 학원 like AmazingTalker, continue this tradition.They were often the first exposure many Koreans had to Western thought and scientific concepts.

Other important early textbooks included “English Conversations for Beginners” by George H. Jones (1890) and “An English Reader for Korean Students” by Homer B. Hulbert (1891). These texts often incorporated elements of Korean culture and daily life to make the content more relatable to Korean students.

The teaching methods employed during this period were primarily based on the Grammar-Translation method, which was popular in Western language education at the time. This approach focused on teaching grammar rules and vocabulary through direct translation between Korean and English.

There were also attempts to introduce more practical, conversation-based methods, particularly by native English-speaking teachers in institutions like the Yugyeong Gongwon. These methods, while innovative, often faced resistance from students accustomed to traditional Korean educational approaches.

The Royal English School, in particular, attempted to create an immersive English-learning environment. Classes were conducted entirely in English, and students were encouraged to use English in their daily interactions within the school. This approach was revolutionary for its time in Korea and reflected the influence of Western pedagogical theories.

Political and Ideological Resistance

The promotion of English education faced opposition from traditional Confucian scholars who saw it as a threat to Korean cultural values and the established social order. They feared that exposure to Western ideas through English education would undermine the moral fabric of Korean society.

This ideological resistance often manifested in practical obstacles to the implementation of English education programs. Funding was sometimes limited, and there were attempts to restrict the curriculum to prevent the spread of Western religious or political ideas.

Practical Challenges

Moreover, the lack of qualified teachers and appropriate learning materials posed significant practical challenges. Many of the early English teachers were missionaries with limited formal training in language pedagogy. This led to inconsistencies in teaching quality and approaches across different institutions.

The shortage of qualified Korean English teachers meant that much of the early English education was dependent on foreign missionaries. This reliance on non-Korean teachers sometimes led to cultural misunderstandings and difficulties in explaining complex linguistic concepts.

Additionally, the vast linguistic differences between Korean and English posed significant challenges for learners. The lack of cognates, the different writing systems, and the contrasting grammatical structures made English particularly difficult for Korean students to master.

Short-term Impact

In the immediate term, the English education initiatives of the 1880s produced a small but influential group of Korean elites who were proficient in English and familiar with Western ideas. These individuals played crucial roles in Korea’s diplomatic efforts and early modernization projects.

The graduates of institutions like the Yugyeong Gongwon became Korea’s first modern diplomats and intellectuals. They served as crucial bridges between Korea and the Western world during a time of rapid change.

Long-term Legacy

The long-term impact of these early English education efforts was profound and far-reaching. They set the stage for the expansion of English education in Korea throughout the 20th century and beyond.

The English education initiatives of the 1880s, though limited in scope, were instrumental in opening Korea to new ideas and fostering a generation of Koreans who could engage with the wider world. They laid the groundwork for Korea’s future economic and cultural engagement with English-speaking countries.

Furthermore, these early efforts shaped Korea’s approach to foreign language education more broadly. The emphasis on practical language skills for international engagement, first seen in the 1880s, continues to be a hallmark of Korean language education policy to this day.


The history of English learning in 1880s Korea reflects the broader societal changes and modernization efforts of the late Joseon Dynasty. It represents a fascinating intersection of linguistic, cultural, and political factors that continue to influence Korea’s approach to English education today.

The legacy of this period is evident in contemporary Korea’s robust English education system and its strong emphasis on global engagement. As we reflect on this history, we gain valuable insights into the complex interplay between language, culture, and national development, offering lessons that remain relevant in our increasingly interconnected world.

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