Am I ruining Korea?

South Korea

This article was in The Korean Herald on Wednesday. I found it very interesting in terms of the vitriole I’ve heard used toward all the “foreigners taking over Korea/stealing the language” etc, etc, and how it really can’t so much be blamed on the foreign English-speaking population as much as it is an internal issue to be dealt with among the Koreans themselves. On an interesting tangent slightly connected to a pretty visible distaste for any foreigner around here, Jeff-a teacher from Texas who works at RT-was punched in the face on Saturday night by a dude who said there were “too many Americans in Korea”. Interestingly enough, the guy doing the punching was of Middle Eastern decent, and not Korean at all. And was completely unprovoked, yet felt totally comfortable accosting poor Jeff. Sure, maybe beer was involved somewhere along the line, but damn. ¬†Anyway, check out the article.


The Ubiquity of Thoughtless English

I’ve been treated to some articles in the papers lately dealing with English in Korea and asking if there’s too much of it, specifically in restaurants, on billboards, and on product labels. I strongly believe there’s too much English used in Korea, that this overuse has negative consequences for students of English and regular citizens alike, and that it’d be healthy to use more Korean in Korean. However, one point I always like to make is that the overuse of English in Korea is a domestic phenomenon, one created and continued by Koreans, and any campaign to replace it ought to be a fight for thoughtful language use, not a crusade against a foreign invader. English in Korea is more than simply what students study or what menus misuse, so it’s important to distinguish the different sorts of “English” in Korea. Some English words – like bus, radio, and taxi – entered the language when these products entered the country. Some is considered “Konglish” and refers to English words – like sharp or officetel – altered when they entered Korean. Some “English” is company names or advertisements written in English, while some is non-English words written in Hangeul. Some “English” isn’t English at all, but merely random words and sounds used as background, as decoration, or for comedic effect. It’s the last few uses I’m not happy about. Some native English speakers mistake “Konglish” to mean incorrect English in Korea, and others use it to mean English words borrowed by Korean. I don’t suggest that all English in Korea and Korean is bad, or that using the language in new ways and unique ways is wrong. It’s beyond the scope of this column to discuss when it’s proper to borrow an English word, or even if it’s proper to discuss when it’s proper, though I do believe Koreans have taken to borrowing English words when a native Korean word would work just fine, or when a Korean word could be created to preserve the meaning. It’s not “Konglish” that I take issue with, but the recent trend of borrowing so many words at the expense of comprehension. The ubiquity of thoughtless English can have ridiculous or lewd consequences: a shirt that says “Just Do Me,” a snack called “Ricetard,” a telephone named “Magic Hole,” or a poster at a Lotte Department Store reading “Summer Bitch Festival.” When the English isn’t lewd, it often isn’t clear, such as a slogan for a cosmetics store, “beauty food for urban sweety,” or the one for an insurance company, “Bravo Your Life.” Some of the English here is what I call “Gibberlish,” a portmanteau of gibberish and English that means words or combinations of letters used for decoration. Gibberlish is found when online translation tools are used, creating a meaningless arrangement of words such the sign in Suncheon that reads “Rain blood vessel & skin the government serviece.” It is found in pop songs, where rappers and singers will randomly insert English words and phrases, and it exists to such a great extent in the fashion industry that it’s tough to buy a t-shirt without ridiculous English on it. Because much of the English in Korea doesn’t make sense to native speakers, isn’t created with the intention of being correct or comprehensible, and certainly isn’t understood by Koreans, it’s fair to ask, why use it at all? Indeed one of the consequences of the overuse of English or other foreign languages is that it prevents Koreans from understanding what the product or service is. People routinely complain that the menus in coffee shops are confusing because the names of drinks are “English” – actually, from Italian – or that the labels on cosmetics don’t make sense because they use too many foreign words written in Hangeul. Those who haven’t studied English extensively will feel confused and isolated. It’s ironic to see Hangeul – the alphabet created to let the masses read and write their language – used to exclude the bulk of the population. Another negative consequence is felt most sharply by students of English. The overuse of English in Korea and Korean actually makes it harder to learn and use the language. Having grown accustomed to pronouncing words the Korean way, students find it difficult and sometimes impossible to pronounce them comprehensibly in English. Korean lacks several important sounds used in English – f, v, z, for starters – and after a lifetime of exposure to the Hangeul equivalents, it’s hard to find even English teachers who can produce them. Additionally, though one might think the plethora of English words in Korean might be an advantage to students, that’s not really the case, both because of the pronunciation difficulties and because English words used in Korean are etymologically isolated. I wonder why words like “freelance,” “memo,” or “roadkill” were imported rather than creating native words that reflect the meaning. A little while ago I read about a website that has the right idea., created by the National Institute of the Korean Language, proposes Korean alternatives to recently-imported English words and terms, and lets users vote on which would be the best. When interviewed in another paper, officials recognized that some borrowing is inevitable, but that a Korean word should be used when available. Some recent examples they looked at are “couple look,” “junk food,” “bromide,” and “hot issue.” Three of the four aren’t used in English and “couple look” – a girlfriend and boyfriend wearing matching outfits – is a phenomenon popular only in Korea. The webpage is titled, in Korean, “Pruning Our Language,” though it’s something native English speakers can get behind, too, both for the sake of Korean and for the language for which we’ve grown to be proud. But what I’d really like to emphasize is the recent changes to “Our Language” were brought about by Koreans, and campaigns to prune it shouldn’t be waged against English itself or its speakers, but rather against the thoughtless use of it. It’s Koreans who choose to import these words, to use mangled English instead of Korean, to write their advertisements without Hangeul, to isolate Korean speakers, and to limit their language’s creative power. This isn’t a foreign invasion, and any efforts at Koreaning-up the Korean language really ought to be a fight against incomprehension and thoughtless language use, rather than a xenophobic one against a foreign language.


The Korea Herald-the go to English newspaper in Korea.

2 thoughts on “Am I ruining Korea?”

  1. A guy of Middle Eastern decent punches a guy from Texas in the face for being in Korea!? I’m packing my bags, somebody needs a good ol’ American ass whuppin’!!!

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