[KS] Re: English in Korea
mgoodwin at greenvillenc.com
Mon Apr 10 18:47:31 EDT 2000
Frank Hoffmann wrote:
> Kim Mi-hui's article (link above) is indeed worth reading!
> I wonder if we could discuss were this comes from, and why there seems to
> be no
> change -- things in this respect may actually have gotten worse after
> the action-oriented rule of Park Chung Hee ended? I don't think the
> issue is English language. There were never more people in Korea who
> speak good English than today.
I think Frank makes some interesting points. It does seem odd that as English
language facility increases in Korea, concern for accuracy --in some cases
even a "semblance" of accuracy-- in areas as widespread as advertising,
public relations, and the media generally seems to be entirely absent. Where
does this come from Frank asks? I'll go out on a limb and venture the
following observations. (I imagine many find them glib.)
In an article entitled, "Koreans Redouble Efforts To Conquer Language Bar:
Inefficient English Programs Being Revised (see article at:
http://www.iht.com/IHT/DK/00/dk020100a.html) the International Herald
Tribune's Korea reporter Don Kirk writes, " In a country where everyone
studies English grammar from primary school through high school, Koreans are
awakening to a disturbing reality: No one can speak it without private
language lessons, and the ability to use it has become a requirement for
everything from college to the workplace."
Initially, I thought Kirk was overstating the case somewhat, and perhaps he
is --but only somewhat I think! On March 8, Korean novelist Ahn jung-hyo
discussed this issue as well! Unfortunately, in his piece (entitled, "Koreans
use own version of English; Media spreads 'phony English' words and phrases,
author says") Ahn made no attempt to explore why, as he said, "Koreans'
misuse of the language has a tendency to leave native English speakers
However, Ahn did have this to say: "I am not contending that Koreans
shouldn't speak English ... I think Koreans should speak Korean to Koreans.
If they want to speak English, they should learn it properly so that they can
communicate well with foreigners." But what does this say? A lot I think. I
don't need to explain that I'm being sarcastic when I point out how
"generous" it is of Ahn to not contend, as he says, "that Koreans should not
speak English." What a vacuous comment --and so revealing I think! What I
think it reveals is the strangely widespread view in Korea --even among some
of the cultural intelligentsia-- that a language is just a tool, just a means
of communication, a kind of utility. And indeed Ahn concludes in this way:
"English should be used as a communication tool to introduce Korea and its
people to the world .... To do this, we should learn our language and culture
first. Globalization is upgrading our standards to match those of the world,
not just learning to speak English."
There is, I think, latent in that kind of talk a kind of subtle
"ressentiment" (to use Nietzsche's language); i., a sense of being "pissed
off" about the fact that English is becoming a dominant language (which is
not something I'm pleased about but that doesn't make it any less true).
Anyway, who in Korea ever thought that globalization was "just learning to
speak English"? Well, ironically, I think a lot of people thought that way,
and still do --a hell of a lot! And it's easy to see why some come to think
that way in Korea!
In his book, "Think No Evil" Korean Values in An Age of Globalization", Fred
" Globalization is learning about other cultures so we can dominate them
economically.' So said a Korean student of naive virtuosity, one of almost
250 Koreans with whom I spoke about globalization ... Implicit in the
student's statement is a profound and far-reaching fantasy: that Koreans
could learn about other cultures at a distance and not be touched by them,
establishing factories in other countries and exporting to still others, but
remaining free of their influence. It is a widely held fantasy among Koreans,
and a destructive one. It is worth considering why it is so influential."
Now, I don't think that Alford can back up all of that! How does he know, for
example, that such fantasies are, in fact, "widely held" in Korea when he
himself only spoke to 250 people? But at the same time I don't really think
it matters whether he can back up his point. This is because I think his
basic intuition is correct. I think Koreans do feel in their innermost selves
that there must be a way out of this bloody globalization dilemma; i.e., a
way of going along with it, without being affected by it!
So how does one come to believe that it might actually be possible to be a
part of a global cultural/social/economic paradigm shift (i.e., gobalization)
WITHOUT at the same time doing any shifting? I think at least a part of the
answer is that you must have some very skewed basic concepts in the first
place; i.e., skewed ideas of what "culture" is, for instance, of what a
"language" is (or is not), of what "traditional values" are (or never were),
and even of who one is (i.e., questions around fundamental identity). And I
think that a crisis at the level of the meanings --and value-- Koreans attach
to these sorts of basic concepts is basically what's behind current attitudes
towards English in Korea --attitudes that range from the most glaringly (and
superficially) "utilitarian" (i.e., language as the right for the right job
--providing you wear gloves so as not to sully yourself too much with all
that accompanying cultural difference) to the most "slavish" (i.e., language
as little more than an obstacle to trade and not at all a source of cultural
''It is so stressful to study English just in order to graduate from college
and then to get a job,'' Kim Yun Soo, 22, a student at Sungshin Women's
University says in Don Kirk's article. ''It's such a burden on top of every
thing else we have to study.'' Notice, in the above, the key word: "just".
If Koreans can't speak English, Kim Dae Jung said, recently, ''we will not
win in world competition.'' Really, this kind of thing is
just...painful. Interestingly, Mr. Kim hedged, however, on whether English
should become an official language, saying, ''We will very seriously review
the possibility, but we haven't made any decision yet.'' Right! And I haven't
decided whether I'll wake up tomorrow and write a symphony or cure world
The laughably lousy English in Korea today comes from or, more accurately, I
think is rooted in deep insecurities around identity, fears of being changed
from without, and pitifully mistaken conceptions of language as an object
that can be "used" (and not as a complex cultural site where aspects of the
subjectivity of the speaker become apparent, and possibly even altered).
Well, that's my two bits.
Hey, big news in ROK-DPRK relations eh? I wonder how many of us really think
this "meeting" will happen. (I hear KDJung has made campaign videos that cast
him as some kind of super leader --in an almost "Kim Il Sung-like way" my
Korean neighbors remarked).
(Greenville, NC & Toronto, CA)
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