Saturday, April 25, 2009

Mastering English for Koreans Hopeless?

The Korea Times presents us with another "Opinion" piece, which is of course brilliantly annoying.

John Huer poses the question "Why is English so difficult for Koreans to master?" and comes up with the conclusion that because the Korean language is so different from English and that Korean bases itself on high class and low class that English just wont fit in to Korean society.

In other words, he doesn't believe Koreans can master English. Again why is the Korea Times publishing such pessimistic point of views? Who knows... but let's take a look at some of the highlights from the article.

In the very way the language is structured, English tends to encourage individualism and personal freedom.

Even during the feudal era, English-speaking nations tended to avoid the extreme forms of tyranny or despotism. When bilingual Korean children switch to English, their self-assertion becomes instantly obvious. Unsurprisingly, many Koreans find the intrusion of English a threat to this stratified society that binds their subconscious with one another.
Ahhh English threatens are hierarchical society!! Ahhhhh Don't speak English kids you will find yourself ostracized. But seriously folks if you start to think about this assertion than you can kind of understand how Koreans view speaking English.

In many cases, English speech has one subject and one verb. In Korea, everything is assumed whereby one Korean tries to guess another Koreans disposition, intention, or mood swings, without getting clear, assertively formulated messages.
This makes sense but on the flip side of things. For example, when conversing in English with my co-teacher or coworkers about something going on at school usually the answers are very ambiguous. In general when you speak to Koreans you never really know if what you are being told is the final answer. I have gotten use to this.

Korea, on the other hand, has two effectively unrelated languages. One for the upper-echelon Koreans in business, news reports, education, government bureaucracy and law, that rely almost exclusively on borrowed Chinese characters. The other is spoken Korean reserved for family interactions, neighborly exchanges, and other street-level encounters.

Those Koreans who learn English find it impossible to imagine that they can speak like that to their superiors or their children, uniformly and simply.
This might shine light into BK's life and cause me to have sympathy for him. Due to that speaking English to me in front of colleagues may have caused him discomfort. But let's not make this personal.

I don't know if this guy is only speaking to a certain generation here in Korea or to all. I would wonder whether the kids who grew up in English hagwons and gone on to University may be more comfortable with English than the older generations.

They tend to verbalize their emotional states quite directly, as in ``I love you,'' ``I am depressed,'' or ``I am angry (sad, happy, whatever)'' and so on. English tends to promote adherence to agreed-on procedures, parliamentary rules of the majority, elaborately written paperwork, self-assertive exchanges of verbal statements and evidence if in dispute.

In general, emotional pleas or outbursts, when presented, tend to be calculated for theatrical effects. In Korea, on the other hand, all is emotion. Koreans have developed themselves into the world's most dramatically effective pleaders of their cases ― all on the powers of emotion and tears, screaming thrown in for good measure.
What the heck is he rambling on about here? Hmm ok I can agree hearing Korean can sound pretty theatrical at times. But I would bet Koreans find ways to assert their knowledge.

Can such a culture genuinely adopt a foreign tongue that is basically cut and dried, with no room for emotional grandstanding (``Please!'' being the most effective plea-making word)? Not very likely.
What the .... ?

And finally...

He said something to the effect that expecting democracy to bloom in Korea is like expecting a rose to bloom in a trashcan. Korea was naturally up in arms over this comment. In a similar vein, I will say that expecting world-class English aptitude in Korea is about as unlikely or just as impossible.
Wow just throw out any hope of optimism. I guess the hagwon kids should pack their yellow backpacks and go back home. But I am sure that there is a feeling amongst Koreans to just give up on getting English perfect. As a nation though I don't think Korea should throw in the towel. And Korea should thank the presence of Foreigners because we give Koreans the opportunity to speak to us in comfortable settings. John Huer recognizes the social blockades that is preventing English from becoming perfected in his nation. Yet he stalls to provide insight to where it has triumphed.

All in all it is just interesting to think about and consider how these two languages clash with each other and make it difficult to learn and use English on the academic and personal level.


  1. the article was defeatist and condescending. I don't dare write about it because Huer's had enough press already and needs to be ignored now, but reading the article gave me a sinking feeling of utter frustration and disgust at how deeply Huer dehumanizes Koreans into his perception of their national traits.


  2. The article is stupid (esp. the bit about the emotions and Koreans being pleaders--what is that about) but I really don't see how it's much different than what happens in America and other English speaking countries? (People like to think it's only Americans who are mostly monolingual, but most English speakers I've met--no matter where they're from, are.)

    There are thousands of articles out there on the internet titled something like "Why Languages Are So Hard to Learn" or "Why Americans Can't Learn a Foreign Language" or "Most English Canadians Want to Speak French, but Can't."

    And so on and so forth.

    The majority of Koreans who study English won't learn it, just like the majority of English-speakers who study X language won't learn it. Coming up with reasons why the majority will and should fail at learning another language makes the majority feel better.

  3. Hi Joy,

    I wrote a long rant to post to your blog, but then thought better and wrote this instead. Thanks for bringing the article to my attention. Huer is making some sweeping statements that I find disingenuous when it comes to describing both Korean and English.... I might write a proper retort on my day off, but like Roboseyo says we shouldn't be giving this quack more press.

    Thanks for your always interesting writings...


  4. Personally, that sounded a lot more like he was saying Koreans will never be able to adapt to modern AMERICAN culture and had very little to do with /actual/ English language. Just from the sections you quoted, there are so many things wrong with this piece..

    I'm no history major, but during the era that counts as "feudalism" in Europe, was England not the /only/ English speaking nation?

  5. OMG! Korean is......unusual to say the least. I'm still upset at the North for holding those American journalists.
    Ideally the two Koreas would unify and allow true freedom to their people. I'm realizing more and more that a democratic society is a gift from our forefathers and it needs to maintained constantly. My hope is that President Obama and his secretary of state continue on a smart path towards giving N. Korea, Iran, etc incentives to allow greater freedoms

  6. For someone who is usually so pro-Korea, Huer is really dehumanizing them in this!


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