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Tom Coyner in the KT on Language Use in Int’l Business in Korea

Occasional commenter Tom Coyner has penned a piece on why Korean is rarely the medium of business communication between Koreans and expats. The topic of Korean versus English has been rehashed over and over, but his article provides a balanced view and is worth a read. He correctly differentiates between survival Korean and professional/academic Korean proficiency and contrasts language acquisition in Korea with its neighbors:

Korean is often classified by the U.S. government as one of the “hard” languages, along with Japanese and Chinese, etc. In China and Japan, however, medium- and long-term resident foreigners make a point to speak much better than “survival language” during their tenures there. And in all fairness, I have often witnessed foreign managers carrying on in Korean when dealing with simple issues such as asking for items, answering telephones, etc. What is rare, however, is to see foreigners in Korea carrying on serious business negotiations or handling complex personnel issues in the Korean language. In Japan and China, these days, if one has been in country more than a couple of years, it is generally expected to do business in the local language, with the possible exception of senior executives who are frankly written off as being “too old” to learn a new language.

He cites grammar and phonetics as obstacles to mastering Korean but says the biggest reason is cultural/social:

With the exception of blue collar labors who must speak Korean as a matter of survival, white collar foreigners find themselves in linguistic completion with English-speaking or wishing to learn English Koreans. This is also true in China and Japan, but what really sets Korea apart is the number of English-speaking Koreans at many levels of commerce. The sheer volume of bilingual or near bilingual ethnic Koreans or Koreans who have studied abroad one encounters in business frankly diminishes the incentive for many foreigners to try to become truly conversational or better in Korean.

Unlike the Japanese and Chinese languages, few students abroad study Korean as a foreign language. It is common to find people, such as myself, who studied Chinese or Japanese in university, before coming to Asia. The few universities that teach Korean language find most of their students being ethnic Korean who study out of family obligation and/or a desire to better connect with Korea. There are some notable exceptions of non-ethnic Koreans studying the language before coming to Korea, such as missionaries and military/government employees. But only few of these make it into business, albeit those who do generally do very well indeed.

 This isn’t earth-shattering news to us present and former expats, but it’s a good opportunity to remind folks that most expats start learning Korean from scratch as adults, and it takes many years to become fully proficient. A similar situation exists in the US with Spanish. Public schools, government offices, and health care facilities often have at least one Spanish-speaker on staff or available by phone to interpret for Hispanic immigrants, many of whom arrive with less than a high school education, nevermind a word of English. Many of the parents of my students take evening adult ed. classes, but as blue-collar workers or caretakers of young children at home, they have little time and few opportunities to extend their language skills beyond survival English.

This perception of Tom Coyner’s, however, I do not share:

Even today, walking into a common restaurant as opposed to an international class establishment, it is not unusual to get the “deer in the headlights” panic stare from employees. While a few, rudimentary words of Korean does work wonders in many cases, there are other times it can be painfully difficult as a foreigner struggling to be understood beyond ordering from the menu. While less common with younger Koreans, older Koreans can display a confidence-destroying reactive behavior to beginner speaker’s efforts by abruptly turning away, since they don’t wish to deal the hassle of communicating with a foreigner.

Granted it was a long time ago that I was a rudimentary speaker of Korean, but I honestly don’t recall too many occasions where I was given the alien/cold shoulder treatment by locals. Most folks were patient; the only difficulty I observed was that back in pre-Djamila days of the 90s, Koreans weren’t used to hearing their language get mangled, so communication breakdowns were not infrequent. In contrast, I found Chinese ears more tolerant of my non-native speech; a difference probably owing to the much wider language diversity in China. I have witnessed situations in which two Chinese struggled to communicate to each other between their dialects. As an example, I was on a bus one day when a man boarded and asked the driver how to get to a particular place. The man was not fluent in Mandarin and the driver struggled to communicate with him. “Where are you from?” the bus driver asked. “I’m Chinese,” the man replied matter-of-factly and identified his province of origin. This conversation would be highly unlikely in Korea or Japan.

  • http://squeakysoundsystem.blogspot.com/ Sodajonze

    In my experience there seems to be a kind of threshold below which your Korean is completely unintelligible to Koreans, above which it is enough for most Koreans to work through and attempt to figure out whatever basic thing you’re trying to say. I’ve only crossed over it within the past year or so, and have definitely observed people with some but minimal Korean get frustrated when they weren’t understood where as my success at muddling through various situations has increased. I do think that the popularity of Misuda has undoubtedly helped out the poor broken tongue foreigner.

  • SomeguyinKorea

    One very important point that seems to have escaped him is that Korean is not the international language of business whereas English is. The other socio-linguistic factors involved seem rather irrelevant.

  • dogbert

    In my years working here, I can count on the fingers of one hand (and still have some left over) the number of expats in business who can communicate in Korean well enough to hold and participate in meetings, conduct business, etc. in Korean on a day-to-day basis. The vocabulary is simply too difficult, not to mention the cultural nuances.

  • pixel

    While I’ve managed a few things in Korean such as finding an apartment (not that hard, really- it’s all prices and dates for the most part) I’m far from confident in negotiating anything more difficult in Korean. My vocabulary is pitiful, but being that I don’t use much Korean in my day-to-day I don’t practice very often (and I admit that I’m often too lazy to seek out opportunities). Cultural issues aside, if I were to work in an all-Korean environment my first year would likely be hellish.

    English is also pretty hard as far as the disparity between colloquial or conversational English and then Business English, which is a dialect unto itself in many ways. I’ve worked with Koreans who are fluent in conversational English on business projects and there’s quite a step to having them become more functional in biz-speak.

    As for the problem of the deer in the headlights reaction, I think there’s a difference between “not unusual” and “common,” and Tom picks the correct adjective here. I think it’s also a more common reaction outside of Seoul (and perhaps Busan, but I can’t speak to that) than inside of it. That has been my experience, anyhow. Those are the times that I really appreciate being functional in Korean, because it puts them at ease and heck- that’s just good all around.

  • http://www.jdlink.co.kr Linkd

    I’m always puzzled by how a night spent in the bar areas of Japanese cities turns up loads of foreigners (of all colors) who are comfortable rapping with the locals in Japanese.

  • http://www.seoulsteves.com SkinnySteve

    I’m very familiar with the “deer in headlights” look. Two weeks ago I attended a wine tasting at a bar in the JW Marriott Hotel in Gangnam. I walk in and it’s obvious where the wine tasting is going on, so I just stroll right in with heads turning the whole way. The employee that I approach to give the reservation name to won’t even try to speak at all, she just ran away to find someone with good English.

    Finally, the designated English speaker comes up to me to cautiously ask if I’m in the right place. I say yes, give my girlfriend’s name (she couldn’t make it and I was taking her place at the pre-paid tasting), and I’m shown to one of the few free seats, next to two very nervous women. I broke the ice in Korean pretty easily and they turned out to be quite fun to talk to, and we were having a good time.

    After the presentation my ‘handler’ returns to inform me that I look so bored so he’s going to introduce me to some people. He moves me to a table of all men, none of which were open to talking in Korean or any other language. I don’t think he realized I’d been having a good time where he was, but the two people I was sitting with were up at the buffet while I remained seated. He probably spotted me sitting alone and thought he’d try to help me.

    I think a lot of it has to do with WHERE you are. It seems like there are certain places where Koreans think that foreigners just don’t belong. Or maybe it’s that they expect foreigners not to know about it. It’s not intentional, it’s just a surprise. Kind of like the first time the Daily Show scored press passes to the Democratic and Republican National Conventions. No one really knew how to handle them at first and they kinda made people nervous. Once the ice was broken, though, everyone played along.

  • tmc1233

    I have a fairly decent command of Korean. The only things that ever grate on me are the people who automatically assume that because I am a foreigner, I can’t POSSIBLY mean that I mean what I say when I speak Korean. Hypothetical example: in McDonald’s I order a fish burger and they give me Chicken McNuggets. I couldn’t possibly have meant fish burger, after all! I have found that this happens more when I am with at least one other ex-pat. the second group whic really gets me upset sometimes are the people who laugh in my face when I speak Korean. It hurts my confidence among other things. These are the same people who comment on my chopstick usage even though they know I have been in Korea for the better part of a decade.

    In case anyone is wondering, my pronunciation is fairly good, and I have been known to a.) fool Koreans on the phone (A student’s mother called and I answered. She kept insisting on speaking to the native English teacher. I actually had to speak English to convince her.) b.) conduct transactions, such as buying and insuring a car– all in Korean.

    These attitudes have to change though, if korean is ever to become a language of international commerce. It won’t though, and for a different reason. Korean is not as precise as English.

  • http://thegrandnarrative.wordpress.com/ James Turnbull

    In my own experience, Koreans in the service industry, of any age, will barely give a second thought to non-Koreans communicating in Korean, so I’m also surprised that Tom Coyner has those difficulties in common restaurants.

    Outside of 김밥 천국s however, I AM constantly frustrated with most other Koreans not understanding me and/or not bothering too, and not because of impatience or avoiding the hassle. Rather, many visibily struggle with the very concept of a non-Asian speaking Korean. Given that very few can, then this reaction is natural and forgivable. But only to a certain point, as it can often mean that they can not understand the most basic Korean words, simply because a non-Asian is saying them. Sure, most of us readers are used to English being spoken in a variety of accents and abilities in our own countries, and Koreans aren’t for Korean, but when people don’t even understand you saying things like “가다”, “버스” or “돈”, which are almost impossible to mispronounce, and still don’t even when, frustrated, you’re using universally-understood hand gestures too, then you begin to realise that not being understood isn’t entirely your fault. Rather than being confidence-boosting however, it’s extremely demotivating.

  • cmm

    In my job, if you are not a native speaker, it seems that speaking Korean, even VERY VERY WELL, is not good for one’s career. It’s better to force our English upon the locals.

  • http://www.sperwerslog.com Sperwer

    I have witnessed situations in which two Chinese struggled to communicate to each other between their dialects. As an example, I was on a bus one day when a man boarded and asked the driver how to get to a particular place. The man was not fluent in Mandarin and the driver struggled to communicate with him. “Where are you from?” the bus driver asked. “I’m Chinese,” the man replied matter-of-factly and identified his province of origin. This conversation would be highly unlikely in Korea or Japan.

    I’m surprised to hear you say this. If you spend any time outside the major urban centers of Korea, it happens all the time. My wife and I, e.g., recently were offered a piece of property on the sea on a small peninsula on the western side of the south coast, about halfway between Yeosu and Mokpo. We went down to look at it, and the owner arranged to have one of his relatives who lives in the village (about 60% of the inhabitants are his relatives) to open the grounds and the unrestored hanok. After meeting him and introducing ourselves, I didn’t understand a word he said. That might not be too surprising, but then neither did my wife understand enough to make out what he was saying.

    Of course my wife is from Gyeongsang-do, but we’ve experienced the same thing in the southeast, and within line of sight of Daegu, and she knows the local saturi..

  • http://briandeutsch.blogspot.com Brian

    In my experience the people who give me the deer in the headlights look are young people, teens and twenties. Old people and I get along just fine, it’s the younger people that find it completely out of this world that a white guy is speaking Korean to them.

    I think most of our experiences differ from those of foreigners who frequent the Seoul Rotary Club *cough* but his point is valid that there’s little incentive to become fluent in Korean. I mean, outside of the intellectual challenge and the personal reasons some have. How many foreigners are in positions to really make a difference in Korean companies? Few if any. How many foreigners are in positions to really make a difference in Korean universities? Few if any. How many foreigners are in positions to really make a difference in Korean law firms? Few if any. Chicken or the egg argument, I know, but how many foreigners are there skilled in Korean who aren’t on TV talking about Hongdae and spicy food? Few if any.

  • tomcoyner

    Thanks for all the above comments. I knew I was setting myself as a bit of target when I wrote that column. But, as a partial defense, please understand the KT gives me a 1300-word limit to review a topic that probably could have covered a full page.

    But just to set the record straight on a few, small details, first, let me note that somehow when Sonagi posted his initial comment, his comment got run into my quote. Which is to say, I did NOT write the following – Sonagi wrote this part:

    “This isn’t earth-shattering news to us present and former expats, but it’s a good opportunity to remind folks that most expats start learning Korean from scratch as adults, and it takes many years to become fully proficient. A similar situation exists in the US with Spanish. Public schools, government offices, and health care facilities often have at least one Spanish-speaker on staff or available by phone to interpret for Hispanic immigrants, many of whom arrive with less than a high school education, never mind a word of English. Many of the parents of my students take evening adult ed. classes, but as blue-collar workers or caretakers of young children at home, they have little time and few opportunities to extend their language skills beyond survival English.”

    Second, I don’t have trouble ordering in restaurants, but I can have problems if I need to converse on some unconventional topic with a common restaurant employees. (Okay, Big Diff!)

    And third, the cold shoulder experience is becoming rarer these days and perhaps my ego traumas from my days as a Peace Corps Volunteer survive to torment me in my subconsciousness. Hell, maybe I should seek out a shrink. But I tried to insert the caveat that this behavior is/was found among oldsters.

    Since we are on topic and I’m no longer constrained by the KT’s word limit, I might as well make a few other observations.

    English words that have been adopted into Korean can be the most difficult to pronounce correctly sometimes because of how Koreans have adopted them. I first learned in Japan not to order at an international fast food joint until after closely examining the menu to learn how “Big Mac” is actually pronounced in Japanese — and now in Korean.

    Also, my Korean wife is the true polyglot in our household. She is damn close to being trilingual in Japanese, English and Korean. We often watch NHK on our cable and even she admits it is easier to listen to NHK than KBS given the clarity of Japanese phonetics compared to Korean. Well, I can imagine that listening to slurred English is no joy for non-native English speakers. But I think many Koreans would agree that few Koreans consistently pronounce Korean clearly and correctly. (I can usually take the moral high ground on this point so long as I’m talking to a Korean who has not visited some parts of the US where I swear some Americans learn how to pronounce English while sucking on door knobs.)

    Anyway, keep those comments coming. I may be short but I’m a wide target!

  • Wedge

    If anything, I’d say this is more common in Japan, where some people have a fixed–and I mean etched in stone–world view that gaijin don’t speak the lingo, and no amount of fluent speech in their face will convince them otherwise. Of course, the further from a metropolitan area, the more likely such encounters.

  • http://www.zenkimchi.com/FoodJournal ZenKimchi

    I’ve also had both the “deer in the headlights” and cold shoulder experiences. The former quite a bit–but that’s just in seeing that I look different than who they were expecting. I remember one lady at a restaurant jumping and going 어머머머!

    I agree with most that it has been rare for Koreans to hear their language spoken by non-native speakers until recently. Non-Seoul Korean dialects are still the butts of humor. Just this past weekend I saw a comedy show where the entire joke was that someone spoke a different region’s dialect.

    Then again, it’s still funny in the U.S. to have a character speak with a Southern drawl or Indian accent. And it was the root of much humor in The Canterbury Tales of people in different parts of England not understanding each other because of their dialects.

    My point is–it’s going to take some time, yet less time than we think, I believe.

  • seoulmilk

    I think Brian hits the mark. There is no incentive for foreigners to learn Korean. For those who have lived in Korea for more than five years, almost all of them say they never expected to stay beyond the first year (and the following year) so they never saw the need to learn Korean beyond the basics. And in some sense, in Seoul at least, it’s English-friendly enough for non-native speakers to get by.

    And as for getting deer in the headlight looks, people shouldn’t feel discouraged. In English, people are usually able to make out what you are trying to say despite slight variations in your pronunciation of words. In Korean, a slight variation in a word can mean something other than what you intended. You would think they should be able to make it out based on the context of the conversation but for whatever reason, a slight mispronunciation sometimes lead people to that confused look.

  • http://thegrandnarrative.wordpress.com/ James Turnbull

    Seoulmilk, I think you missed the point I made in #8. English speakers don’t have as many problems with different pronunciations of words because we have more experience of non-natives doing so. Koreans generally lack this, and either don’t understand and/or don’t know how to react, ie by replying slowly, clearly and using simple words. This accounts for most of the problems people like me speaking Korean have here.

    But most importantly, back home we don’t freak out when a foreigner speaks acceptable English. Slight variations in the pronunciation accounts for some communication difficulties foreigners in Korea have for sure, but what you say – “in Korean, a slight variation in a word can mean something other than what you intended” – is true of almost any language. Actually, it sounds like you’re speaking about tonal Chinese, not Korean.
    When some Koreans do not understand the most basic words you’re saying, even ones that are almost impossible to mispronounce, like the ones I gave, then clearly something other than mispronunciation is to blame. Like other people have had happen to them, I’ve ordered things at restaurants in Korean over the phone with no problems, but then they won’t understand a single word I say when I turn up!

  • http://www.korealawblog.com Brendon Carr (Korea Law Blog)

    How many foreigners are in positions to really make a difference in Korean law firms? Few if any.

    If you think Kim & Chang would have become what it has without Jeffrey D. Jones, you kid yourself. Same for Kim Shin & Yu and Tom Pinansky. And I daresay I am making a difference for my clients, and the kids who help me support those clients, as well as for this firm as a whole.

  • http://www.xanga.com/wangkon936 WangKon936

    # 2,

    Did you read the same article I read? He takes that into account actually but also says that more people still speak, or make an effort to learn, Japanese and Chinese.

  • Bad Monkey

    Tom C,

    Enjoyed your article, and your comments, and everybody else’s comments too. And I accept the validity of all the other experiences shared so far in the comments… Nobody has the last word on THIS topic!
    I studied both Japanese and Korean back in the 60′s in the US and eventually went to graduate school in Japan and then taught there at the college level. In the first few years all they would let me teach was English but eventually I was allowed and encouraged to teach ‘content’ courses in Japanese in my own areas of expertise (geography, international and regional studies, environmental studies) and that’s when I discovered just how much harder it is to really function professionally as someone who learned the language as an adult. It is only when I started, for example, to write memos and research papers and committee reports in the language, or correct the students’ term papers and exams, that I discovered how much I didn’t know or had never paid enough attention to.
    Anyway, I agree that for a number of reasons Korean is far more difficult to really master. Partly it is because of some of the cultural reasons other commenters have mentioned, and certainly the phonetics are far more complex and difficult than Japanese (which is phonetically one of the world’s simplest languages). For me personally, since I read Chinese characters quite well, Korean has ironically become much more difficult since it mostly all-hangeul these days. Incidentally, the ‘deer in the headlights’ and the being-totally-ignored phenomena are often encountered in Japan as well, outside Tokyo or Kyoto. But these days you will find many foreigners, especially younger ones (i.e. under 50), holding their own in Japanese in companies and universities. Perhaps, because the Japanese themselves are not good at languages, they more easily accept foreigners who can speak passable Japanese?
    Like Tom, I often find the borrowed words from English or other European languages in Japanese or Korean to cause lots of trouble… they’re never pronounced the same, and usually don’t mean quite the same thing, as they do in their original tongues.
    As for dialect variation, it’s much less noticeable in Japan these days than thirty or forty years ago, but it’s still quite pronounced the further one gets from Tokyo physically and mentally. If one speaks standard Japanese, one can always make oneself understood easily (because of schools and TV), but hearing and deciphering the reply may be a lot harder, especially in Tohoku and Southern Kyushu among rural people.
    Lest anybody think I am a Japanophile, let me add that I love the Korean language, even though I am nowhere near as fluent in it. A lot of the time on the street it’s slurred, gruff, abrupt. But it can be truly eloquent and beautiful as well. I hope to have the chance to use it more so that I can become loquacious rather than halting. Trouble is, as you can tell, I usually have too much to say!

  • dogbert

    These attitudes have to change though, if korean is ever to become a language of international commerce. It won’t though, and for a different reason. Korean is not as precise as English.

    Why do you believe this?

  • natto

    #18

    The popularity of a foreign language is proportional to its cultural and economic clout.

  • http://21cseonbi.blogspot.com sewing

    Wow, this thread may have set a record for the number of long, substantive comments with no slams against another person or group whatsoever!

    Fascinating comments…I would just be echoing a lot of others’ sentiments, vis-a-vis my own experiences and observations. Over half my time, when in Korea, is spent in Daegu and environs. I speak halting “pyojunmal,” and can understand basic Korean spoken in a Gyeongsang accent. (But sit me down with my blessed mother-in-law with her farmtown accent, and it suddenly gets a lot more difficult.)

    I get by, although occasionally, I have encountered that “deer-in-the-headlights” look, where the first time I go to a business or somewhere else, and before I’m spoken, the other person has a visible look of vexation like, “Is he going to speak to me in English? What is he doing here? What do I do?” But once I start speaking in Korean, it goes okay.

  • mashimaro

    At a Japanese restaurant in Seoul, I ordered my food in Korean. The waitress goes, “I don’t know,” in Korean without really listening and spins away. She sends the manager over, and I order the food again. The manager walks away and tells the waitress that my Korean is really good (in Korean, of course).

  • soondae

    Here’s another possible factor to take into consideration: As the frenzy to learn English in Korea shows no sign of abating, the ability to communicate in English with non-Korean, or at least non-Asians, has become another criteria by which to evaluate a person in the general social scheme of things. Good family – check, good university – check, good English – check. What a lose of face it is then, when a person who has invested a lot of time and money in English education is reduced to speaking Korean, especially in front of observers. This may be even more true when the conversation is serious, e.g., business negotiations. I know this is based on personal observation and is anecdotal, but my wife and her friend (Korean), sitting in the living room helped me develop this hypothesis.

  • dogbert

    What a lose of face it is then, when a person who has invested a lot of time and money in English education is reduced to speaking Korean, especially in front of observers. This may be even more true when the conversation is serious, e.g., business negotiations.

    I believe this is true for some individual Koreans, but certainly not all.

  • joe

    @24, what the hell are you talking about.

    The majority of people who learn Chinese or Japanese are IT nerds. This is from my experience.

    So how many people learn Chinese or Japanese to do business in that said language? I doubt many do.

    English is the language of business. Many people in the higher echelon are educated in the states and as far as socio-linguistic factors go people generally do not expect foreigners to speak Korean.
    Its a common sense thing. Some people like the Japanese take offense but Koreans for the most part do not care if a foreigner can’t/won’t speak in Korean.

  • http://sungnyemun.org/wordpress/ dda

    In my years working here, I can count on the fingers of one hand (and still have some left over) the number of expats in business who can communicate in Korean well enough to hold and participate in meetings, conduct business, etc. in Korean on a day-to-day basis.

    I happen to be one of these few, although not on Dogbert’s list, since we’ve never met. And I agree with him, with one more point: it’s not just a question of pure language proficiency. There’s an element of cultural proficiency too, which is very important, and that has to be acquired along with the language.

    In the end, it’s a question of whether you want to spend the years learning the language and the business practices, and whether it’s worth it for your career. It paid off for me, but it’s probably not something I am willing/capable to repeat in Hong Kong/Canton.

  • http://www.korealawblog.com Brendon Carr (Korea Law Blog)

    I happen to be one of these few, although not on Dogbert’s list, since we’ve never met.

    I’ll say you are!

  • Sonagi

    @#12:

    Problem fixed, Tom. I’m new at formatting and used only italics to set off your quotes. I think the boss might have gone in and put in the blockquotes.

    One very important point that seems to have escaped him is that Korean is not the international language of business whereas English is. The other socio-linguistic factors involved seem rather irrelevant.

    Then how does one explain the more widespread use of Japanese and Chinese in Japan, China, and Taiwan? I think Tom is aware that English is the international language of business, but as he noted, expats in some countries do become fully proficient in the language. Getting a head start back in the home country helps. After four years in China, I spoke far better Chinese than after four years in Korea because I took a few courses first, so I was able to hit the ground running. Once a relationship is established in one language, it’s hard to switch over. From the first day in China, I was communicating with strangers and forming relationships using Chinese for communication, so my fluency took off. The Chinese also seem more willing than the Koreans to socialize or form friendships with foreigners using the Chinese language. Middle-aged people usually have no interest in learning English but do want to diversify their circle of acquaintances by conversing with foreigners, and they seem more comfortable communicating with non-native speakers of their language. These are just my perceptions.

  • SomeguyinKorea

    “In Korean, a slight variation in a word can mean something other than what you intended. You would think they should be able to make it out based on the context of the conversation but for whatever reason, a slight mispronunciation sometimes lead people to that confused look.”

    That’s just an excuse. A small mistake shouldn’t be enough to create complete confusion, especially in contexts where the possible outcomes of the exchange are pre-established and fairly limited, such as when one orders food from a menu.

    I remember ordering food from McDonald’s once and the cashier couldn’t understand a word of what I was saying despite the fact that I can speak relatively unaccented Korean. She saw my foreign face and automatically stopped listening. It just didn’t compute with her that the words coming out of my mouth were Korean. After a couple of minutes of me patiently repeating my order and her not listening, the guy behind me interjected, “Are you stupid? He’s talking in Korean. He said he wanted…”

  • http://21cseonbi.blogspot.com Stefan

    Another factor to consider:

    One of my Korean relatives actually advised me (without solicitation) to always speak in English in professional settings, as the dynamics involved in speaking Korean would put me at a disadvantage, both conversationally and perceptually.

    For all I know, he might not have given that advice if I were fully fluent in the language, but the way it was phrased, it sounded like he was suggesting it as a universal rule.

  • http://21cseonbi.blogspot.com Stefan

    …Of course, I use Korean in non-professional settings: sightseeing, shopping, with the family, eating in restaurants, mingling with locals, etc. In those situations, insisting on speaking English would just make things awkward and uncomfortable.

  • http://21cseonbi.blogspot.com sewing

    I forgot to log in (and somehow was able to post anyway), but my last two comment are stuck in moderation.

    Basically, there’s another factor to consider: one of my Korean brothers-in-law actually advised me to always use English in professional settings, since the dynamics of speaking in Korean would put me at a disadvantage, both conversationally and perceptually.

    Of course, I use Korean in non-professional settings: sightseeing, shopping, eating at restaurants, travelling around, mingling with locals, etc. Insisting on using English in those situations would just make things awkward or uncomfortable (not to mention render communication impossible!).

  • MrMao

    “I am making a difference”

    And I’m the King of Siam.

  • http://sungnyemun.org/wordpress/ dda

    I’ll say you are!

    /me looks suspiciously at this statement, but will assume it was positive…

  • http://sungnyemun.org/wordpress/ dda

    Basically, there’s another factor to consider: one of my Korean brothers-in-law actually advised me to always use English in professional settings, since the dynamics of speaking in Korean would put me at a disadvantage, both conversationally and perceptually.

    My wife, aka He-Who-Should-Be-Listened-To-More-Often, says I should use English for a similar reason, but seen from the other side of the table. She says that using English would provide my Korean clients fewer opportunities to argue, since their English skills are limited, at best, and would say “Yes!” to me more quickly, just to make the pain of speaking English go away.
    Of course, the fact that many of my Korean clients can’t make a full sentence in English without resorting to major web browsing makes this solution a bit of a moot point, but I do enjoy the fantasy of quiet, tongue-tied clients…

    On the other hand, being able to quote paragraphs from a contract in Korean to the client did make my life easier quite a few times…

  • Smackem

    If Koreans wanted to do local business in Korean, they would. They just don’t walk into a meeting and expect a full meeting done in Korean with some white folks.

    To me this is what sets apart Korea from the rest of Asia. They are practical about things and they don’t go running around expecting things from others.

    The Japs and Chinese resent white folks from my personal experience.

  • Mizar5

    The fact is Koreans don’t want foreigners to be fluent in Korean- just to speak enough to be cute and entertaining. Those who do speak well Like Robt. Haley, should at least be clowns by affecting a dialect.

    And they most fervently don’t want foreigners to have any more than a surface familiarity with the nation and the culture. They should just know enough to mindlessly parrot that they love Korea and that it’s so surprisingly excellent. Once they dig in deep enough to see the warts, it becomes much too embarrassing, and it’s time to move them out.

  • Smackem

    I get the feeling Mizar5 is another pissed off ESL teacher.

  • Nappunsaram

    I think that earlier access to Eastern languages would go a long way to increasing proficiency. My high school, for example, offered Japanese classes, which would potentially give someone an eight-year head start (assuming they studied all four years of high school and then university) over someone who went to Japan after graduation and started learning from scratch, as most (from my understanding) learners of Korean in Korea are. I started learning Korean from scratch when I arrived a few years ago, and I really had no reason/opportunities to learn it before.

    I have encountered the “deer in headlights” situation, as well as most of the other McDonald’s situations and such mentioned by others.

    I find that becoming a regular at a place where you feel comfortable makes the whole situation better. There was a pizza place on the way home from my school, so my co-workers and I ordered from there fairly regularly, on the way home and over the phone. We loved them and they loved us in return. They were really patient with our pronunciation, which helped us, and they got to listen to different people speaking Korean, which arguably helped them.

    Of course, man cannot live on Im-Shil Cheese Pizza alone, so venturing out is a must.

  • Mizar5

    “I get the feeling Mizar5 is another pissed off ESL teacher.”

    Lol, no, neither of the above, just a straight shooter.

    By the way, I did use Korean as my first – and sole – language in the workplace in meetings, in reporting, for everything. And since I had been away from Korea for so long, I did have to pick up a great deal of new language because Korean is a very dynamically changing language, very trendy. New phrases are coined daily and, you’d better jump on them right away lest you be deemed ignorant.

    One of the newly coined phrases that made me laugh was “salarydent” – a student earning a salary on the side.

    The most difficult words for me by far were the English Korean words. A new English phrase would suddenly come into vogue and people would use it repeatedly although its meaning was definately at variance with the true English meaning.

    After a while I discovered that the people using the phrase didn’t really understand its import at all but were simply parroting it for effect.

    For example, at one point the Division began to extol the concept of “Top down brainwashing” as some wonderful organizational tactic. Most people assumed that it was something American. Of course, if I were to point out the fact that in US distribution channels, leadership was drawn from the bottom up and that brainwashing was a pajoritive term – well, I would have been dispissed as ignorant.

    Much like American companies, there are a lot of people who justify their existence in the organization through double speak. In the bloated mens clubs that are the chaebols in Korea, it is just more widespread. Speech is not a means of communication, but a means of delineating status.

    There was even a large volume given to each employee to instruct them in the proper format for making written reports to management. A certain number of Chinese characters and English phrases needed to be used. Reading these reports, I was often amazed at the simultaneous degree of detail and lack of actual content.

    The same goes for the endless, meandering. droning meetings, at which nothing was said – but said very well, and nothing ever resolved.

    Reporting existed for the sake of reporting. I often joked that the product of the company was reports, but there is a great deal of truth to this.

    Finally, let me say that I was advised more than once that my weakness was in speaking Korean fluently, and that, since I had been hired from overseas, had I pretended not to speak Korean, it would have been better for me. I don’t believe that this was true, but it was a general perception nontheless.

    Whenever a foreigner was hired on as a consultant they were effectively marginalized and isolated by reporting to a lower level employee who would report their statements up the chain of command until, when they emerged at the top level, they were so effectively edited that they reflected no more than the personal biases of the Exec VP.

    The reason foreigners struggle with language in Korea is that it is not really a means of communication, but a tool used to maintain a status-based system.

  • http://www.occidentalism.org Matt@occidentalism.o

    I have never been able to understand the ‘blame the native speaker’ of whatever language for not being able to comprehend the words the learner or expatriate. Some people absolutely insist that Koreans (or Japanese) cannot accept that a non-Asian person can speak Korean, and thus even if they are spoken to in Korean, they cannot understand. Well, that has never happened to me. It doesn’t happen to others that are fluent in Korean, either. That means there must be another factor :)

  • Bad Monkey

    I think Mizar5 (esp. #41) is on to some interesting insights and I would say that a lot of what he says is ditto in the Japanese work context. However, when he says:

    “The reason foreigners struggle with language in Korea is that it is not really a means of communication, but a tool used to maintain a status-based system…”

    I agree up to a point. But surely language is many other things as well? Given the acute differentiation in status that is at the very core of Korean grammar, syntax, and usage, it is almost a non-sequitor to say it’s a tool used to maintain a status system. On the other hand, in my (somewhat limited, I agree) experience, Korean is actually a much more verbal and loquacious linguistic culture than Japanese. What I mean is, people actually put more self-expression, content, individuality, and pungency into their language. Japanese is almost all very heavily formularized, programmed, scripted… and very few people actually can or will attempt to say anything other than the totally expected and overused scripted phrases. Language is not a vehicle for self-expression the way it is in loquacious cultures like the English, French, Irish. Creativity in Japan is overwhelmingly directed towards the visual and not the verbal. My feeling is this is somewhat less true in Korea.

    With the obsessive emphasis in Korea put on acquiring English fluency, it would also be unreasonable to expect Koreans not to try to use English to increase and maintain their own status. Previous posters have commented on this, no need for me to elaborate. But what about foreigners looking in the mirror on this one? In my experience, whether in Korea, Japan, China, Thailand, or Indonesia (and certainly in France!), foreigners who have some facility in the local language often self-define their own status by how good their language mastery is, and look down on those less fluent. Understandably, to master another language, especially one as difficult for Westerners as Korean, Japanese, or Chinese, is an acheivement and represents an enormous investment in time and energy. There’s a great satisfaction in being able to function in that language, in that culture… it’s part of the sense of adventure that makes life rewarding for some expats. But I suspect it also leads to some hubris… Americans in particular seem to have rather low expectations for what constitutes ‘fluency’ and to exaggerate their own abilities, even to themselves (naturally this does not apply to any Marmot’s Hole posters! I’m talking about other people, of course…) Certainly in Japan I observed many young and not so young foreigners eager to show off their language skill (obviously picked up mostly in bars and from girlfriends), when they would have been wiser to keep their mouths shut, listen, and learn… I’ve been guilty of this myself many times in both Japan and Korea. It took me years to learn (re Stefan’s advice above) to answer the phone in English… because even though I could handle phone calls in Japanese or Korean, by starting out in English I was making the caller hit a speed bump, slow down, and think a lot more carefully about what they were going to say. Let them do the work for a change!

    A final aside… my ability in spoken Chinese (putonghua) is really quite rudimentary compared to my Japanese or Korean, but I too have found, like some other commenters, that the Chinese in general are extremely patient with bad pronunciation, inaccurate vocabulary, and halting speech, and I too ascribe this to the multicultural, multi-dialect, melting-pot nature of Chinese culture.

  • Mizar5

    bad monkey
    good post.