Sunday, April 24, 2011

Busan e-FM Week 24: Korea and the English Language

The english waves come inAbout 'Open Mike in Busan'


Now this probably a very important subject in Korea – especially for Busan e-FM listeners – today’s subject is Korean and the English language.

The Korean English language school

I met my wife in England, where she did some postgraduate studies at the local college and university in my home town. Both were quite popular with overseas students, and perhaps that’s what led to the story of the Korean English language school.

In my job as Student Union President, I spent a lot of time liaising with the university’s management. One day they called me up and asked “Do you know anything about the plan to open an English language school for Koreans here?” Well I didn’t, but the story was this: apparently some Korean businessmen intended buy a building near the university and turn it into a school that would just teach English to people who would come over from Korea. Then the businessmen actually came to the city, met local council leaders, and finished up having their pictures taken, shaking the mayor’s hand, which then appeared in the local newspaper.

And that was the last I heard of it, until six months later, when suddenly the first Korean students arrived. There first question was naturally, where is the school? Exactly. Where, indeed, was it? I knew the building the Korean businessmen said they were intending to buy, and I’d looked at it every time I walked by – and there’d been no visible signs of any activity at all. I had contacts in the local council as well as with the university, and they hadn’t heard anything about it since the businessmen had gone home either. Didn’t the plans work out suddenly, or was it a con from the beginning? I don’t know, but it didn’t look good.

The students had spent all their money in some cases. Some returned to Korea, and some transferred to the local city college. But I specifically remember the story of one girl, who had no money and felt too ashamed to go back home. What I took from this was how important English must be in Korea, and what a big business it seemed. But it didn’t always seem a fair business.

Fusion-combination under fusion-combination environment

And then I came to Korea and saw it for myself. I was shocked by the number of hagwons. Yes, you know there are going to be a lot, but I wasn’t expecting there to be ten within a hundred meters of my apartment. I guess there are thousands in Busan alone. It’s mindblowing. But I can’t help feeling that despite all this it doesn’t really work.

At first – I admit – it was funny to see all the badly written English signs, and all the badly used English, such as the Korea Literature Translation Institude and the restaurant advertising Spaghetti with swimming crap. But soon it made me a little sad because of all the money you can see being poured into it, and it can have consequences.

For example, one wedding album we looked at started off “You will always have a special place in my hear”. Then, under a picture of the bride you’d have the words “with palpitation just like the fist time”, and it finished with what appeared to be a disastrous cut-and-paste failure from Ben E. King’s classic song ‘Stand By Me’, where the main line “Just as long as you stand by me” became “hust as ling as you stand by me”. Well, that’s not a wedding album I can send back to England really, because it creates a bad impression of Korea, and it kind of makes the whole wedding seem like a bit of a joke.

It’s not just companies that end up with odd English. The Ministry of Health and Welfare sent out a multi-language leaflet on the importance of having children vaccinated “in order to ensure our children grow up to be healthy human resources of the future.” Then again, this is Korea, maybe we are all just ‘human resources’ to the chaebol in the end. But my favourite is the Korean Internet & Security Agency. Recently I visited their English page trying to find out why a website I’d tried to visit was blocked. It explains “We need to prepare a counter-measure system against infringements related to fusion-combination under fusion-combination environment.” The page goes on to talk about the need to create “digital warmth” for minimising the ‘dysfunction’ of the Internet. What is ‘digital warmth’? [The whole page is worth reading because it essentially encapsulates so many of the failures that English translations have here - and translations into Korean from English can raise very serious issues too].

The english waves come in [sic]

I became more sympathetic as I struggled with the Korean language, but it’s still surprising though when you see these really big brands using bad English – why don’t they pay for proper translations?

Then I started to hear a few stories from foreigners doing the translations. They were rewording advertising material from a first draft in English done by a Korean, but after they’d corrected it, the company would often go back to the first one, because they said it sounded better.

[I can’t believe they let me mention this on air]. Take the Busan e-FM slogan for example. “The english waves come in” - it’s on the signs and advertising. This is a small issue, but it makes a big difference: there’s an apostrophe missing between the ‘E’ and ‘S’ of ‘waves’. So instead of “The English Wave Has Come In”, instead it really states that the waves come in around the coast of England. 그래서, 영국의 파도가 옴니다, 그리고 나감니다. There’s no capital for the word ‘English’ either.

Working in a Korean business environment is hard [story pending]

So seeing all this makes me think that working in a Korean business environment could be very hard for a foreigner. My impression is that whatever foreigners might say, Korean businesses just plough on regardless. They don’t care.

Whose language is it anyway?

But then I had a revelation, at least about the English language. Maybe these Korean companies don’t even want good English... because they’re not pitching their messages at English speakers, they’re pitching it at people who ‘speak’ English in Korea. And who’s to say they can’t? Perhaps Korean English is a new language like American English [an earlier bastardisation of the original language – although modern British English is in itself arguably a bastardisation of ‘olde [sic] English’]. If people are happy with this new version of English - ‘Korean English’ - then maybe it’s OK.

And really, the way some ‘native’ English teachers write on websites here – what language is that? I call it “native English teacher English”. Maybe that’s a new version of the language – with bad grammar, awful spelling, and a general inability to communicate. My God, I wouldn’t want some of them anywhere near my child teaching English.

To quote the playwright George Bernard Shaw, “Britain and America are two nations divided by a common language.” What he meant by that of course is that you can have two groups, essentially using the same language, but still not communicating well. So maybe this is the problem with English written in Korea – or Korean English, and we can’t necessarily expect it to ever change. And looking at it from a Korean language point of view, perhaps when I reach Korean fluency I’ll still have problems communicating, so the Koreans and I will still be divided by a common language too.

And that might be the world we live in today anyway – everyone’s talking but many people are not understanding what’s being said.

Busan e-FM
Inside Out Busan

Air date: 2011-04-06 @ ~19:30


John from Daejeon said...

I do think that a lot of blogs have taken informal to a new level, but we also now live in a world of shorthand character-driven communication thanks to the Internet’s (de-) evolution into instant messaging and tweeting.

I know that in my communication, I sometimes don't proof read what I've written if it is just a short note or comment (especially, if it is to a friend or relative); however, when dealing with a business letter or official government communication, I go overboard when it comes to double, and triple, checking every communiqué I send on to those types of establishments. Nowadays, most kids don’t see the need to dot every i or cross every t as long as you get the gist of their hipster shorthand verbiage. And as I can see, good luck getting a kid to talk (or return a phone call) to you today, all they seem to know how to do is text. I guess they aren’t very concerned about all the damage that repetitive keyboarding (does anyone still type) will do to their fingers and wrists in their old age.

Mike said...

I think the Internet has probably accelerated the evolution of the English language, and to an extent I accept that change has always happened and this is a part of that. But I believe it's destroying civil discussion - because the first casualty of that kind of 140-character shorthand is diplomacy, and on the evidence I've seen, it's also actually destroying the ability of many such people to even communicate properly with each other.

This kind of simplification of language reminds me of Orwell's 'Newspeak' in '1984', where ever more restrictive vocabularies were employed to prevent rational and creative thought among the population. But instead of some totalitarian government doing this to us, we've walked into this dumbing-down of our society voluntarily.

Of course we don't quite have the rigid Korean-style levels of formal and informal language, but we all change the style of our English language to suit the medium. The problem is that in the worst examples, I've seen English teachers here trying to get information or help on message boards, but their requests have been ambiguous or simply incomprehensible - even to those of the same generation. And yet they are teaching English here, which makes me curious as to how that's playing out in the classroom.

John from Daejeon said...

As a foreign language student myself (Spanish/computer languages), I would have thought that understanding/comprehension would be tops on the list of learning and using a new language, but in South Korea it is all about passing a test to get into the three best universities in the country, so whether or not you can understand, or can be understood, is not really all that important to those in charge.

Anonymous said...

Well, we share views on the dumbing down of communication. I can easily rant about that all day.

However, I was actually commenting on the fact my local Mr Big restaurant also does spaghetti and crap. I pointed it out to them months ago but English is only on the menu to make it look trendy and they haven't bothered changing it.

I haven't eaten it. After the monster craps in the UK, with enormous pincers, I find Korean crap leggy and pretty boring. Korean squid however are of monster proportions. Have you ever bought squid in a UK Tesco? Pathetic!

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