The Marmot's Hole

Korea... in Blog Format

Tag: Korean language

Hostility? For speaking Korean?

Over at the Chronicle of Higher Education, Geoffrey Pullum looks at some curious anecdotes of locals discouraging multilingualism.

Surprisingly, one of the anecdotes dealt with Korea:

At the same table was the applied linguist Robert Phillipson, who told me about a native speaker of English he knows who is living in Korea and is experiencing the same thing even more sharply. The man in question has learned Korean really well, and uses it to talk to students and colleagues, but he reports encountering real hostility over it. Colleagues and students alike seem to think it is distasteful that he should do such a thing. Some almost seem to regard his speaking Korean well as almost racist—as if by speaking Korean to them he is stereotyping them as gooks, or even mocking them.

His honest efforts to accomplish the very difficult task of learning Korean (it is totally unrelated to English and other Western European languages, of course) are being not just spurned but regarded as a kind of insult. He wrote to seek advice. He thinks he may actually have difficulty getting further employment in Korea now that employers are beginning to realize that he is fluent in Korean.

Honestly, I’ve never met a Korean who regarded it as racist for a foreigner to learn Korean. To the contrary, I’ve heard Koreans experience resentment/bewilderment at the refusal/failure of (especially) Westerners to learn their language despite—in some cases—many years of living in Korea. When I relayed this story to a Korean coworker of mine on Tuesday, I was met with a “WTF?” expression. True, some Koreans might prefer to speak English when speaking with a Westerner, but that’s almost always because they want to practice their English-speaking skills, not because they regard foreigners speaking Korean as a racial insult.

For that matter, I can’t imagine an employer seeing the ability to speak Korean as a negative. In fact, the only place I can imagine this would possibly be true is the English-teaching industry, where some employers might be concerned that a teacher would speak Korean with his/her students rather than English.

Still, I suppose experiences can differ. ICG analyst Daniel Pinkston, for instance, tweets:

Alrighty. John Power of the KH seems to have gotten some hostility, too:

Curious stuff.

(HT to Benjamin Lukoff, whose dad wrote the first Korean textbook I ever had, given to me by my first roommate when I came to Korean in 1997).

Elephant speaks Korean

According to the BBC:

An Asian elephant called Koshik has astounded scientists with his Korean language skills.

Researchers report that the mammal has learnt to imitate human speech and can say five words in Korean: hello, no, sit down, lie down and good.

The zoo animal places the tip of his trunk into his mouth to transform his natural low rumble into a convincing impression of a human voice.

Dr. Angela Stoeger, from the University of Vienna, flew here to verify the claims. She told the BBC:

“We asked native Korean speakers, who had never experienced the elephant before, to write down what they understood when we played back recordings from Koshik.

“We found a high agreement of the overall meaning.”

This certainly doesn’t bode well for my pride –considering Koreans often have trouble understanding my pronunciation and yet, an elephant vocalizing with his trunk in his mouth is perfectly recognizable. Oh, the pachydermity!

Granted, he is an Asian elephant, but perhaps Korean Air can sign Koshik up as a spokesanimal for its Seoul to Kenya route.

[HT to reader]

Interesting Column on Foreigners and Korean Language

If you still need something to restore your faith in academia after an overdose of Jon Huer, SNU’s Robert Fouser discusses the impact non-native speakers of Korean is having on the Korean language landscape, namely, the natural development of a “shared language” between native and non-native speakers.

Unfortunately, the column is written in Korean, which means foreigners won’t really be able to understand it, the fact that it was written by a foreign professor of Korean education not withstanding.

A New Language? Really, Jon?

Classic Jon Huer:

In truly scientific systems, there are no inner and outer circles. But the Korean language is generally considered the most secretly-guarded code system among the world’s major languages. There is no way an “outsider,” who is not born into this circle, can crack the code of the Korean language, no matter how long one devotes oneself to its mastery. Its grammar and syntax are capable of so much situational variation and impromptu adaptation that only the native can get the feel of the language. Anyone who is encouraged by the scientific claim and tries to learn the language soon finds that he is merely scratching the surface after years of devoted study.

If Korea is serious about its ambition to be an advanced nation characterized and united by a middle-class medium of communication, it must seriously consider developing a national language that would be functional, rational, and democratic for the middle masses of Korea. As Korea’s middle-class expands, it will be imperative that its communicative system be something that all middle-level Koreans can understand and use, in writing and speech. As it stands, Korean society is divided between two languages that are almost as impossible to bridge as the two languages in China.

Korea is already a rigidly divided society: Some go to college and work for companies and some don’t go to college and work as laborers. The new government seems to be determined to narrow the economic gap between the two classes. But it would behoove Koreans to seriously consider the language divide as well.

I’m not going to ridicule it. I’ll just let it stand as is.

OK, I’ll make one comment. It’s true that Korea does have a language issue that separates social classes, one so bad that it has become one of the most contentious issues in Korean education. It may even serve as a barrier to unification — North Korean defectors complain about it all the time. That language issue, Jon, is English.

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