Posted : 2009-04-24 20:17
Updated : 2009-04-24 20:17

Why Is English So Difficult for Koreans to Master?

By Jon Huer
Korea Times Columnist

Why has Korea failed in English mastery? Why can't Koreans learn English like the way they learn mathematics or science, or technology?

Explanations are legion, but let me introduce the most obvious of them all: The difficulty of planting the English language on Korean soil. Ignoring this difficulty, I believe, is the first wrong step in the whole story of Korean's English failure. In the service of simplicity and clarity, let's highlight the most obvious:

Egalitarianism and Stratification

English tends toward the middle masses, by its very structure and usage. With no special variations for social statuses, English is fairly consistent in all social situations.

The highest person (the president of the U.S.) and the lowest (his White House gardener) do not vary their speech for their different standings.

Parents and children use basically the same patterns.

Korea, on the other hand, is a highly stratified society, upper-class Koreans and lower-class Koreans having virtually no middle ground.

In place of the old feudal structure, Korea now has company-class and labor-class, between those who go to college and the rest.

In its language, its social custom, its human interactions, and in so many other subtle and obvious ways, Korea's vertical class society cannot embrace English's horizontal tendency toward the middle.

Koreans feel compelled to speak up or down, and English challenges that very cultural framework.

English is not just another means of communication. It is a wholly new way of thinking that verges on revolution in every dimension of Korean society.

English capitalizes the pronoun ``I,'' which begins many sentences.

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.

Culture of Ambiguity

Little or nothing is ever assumed in English, as one must speak one's mind clearly, directly, and assertively. Rarely does an English speaker find it necessary to repeat, as one simple statement is enough.

Thus, English encourages the speaker to articulate the content of his speech as clearly, as simply, and as directly as possible.

In many cases, English speech has one subject and one verb. In Korea, everything is assumed whereby one Korean tries to guess another Korean's disposition, intention, or mood swings, without getting clear, assertively formulated messages.

Koreans find themselves having to repeat their messages constantly as if to overcome the inherent ambiguity in their communication.

For example, it is not uncommon for a Korean to say to another. ``I am going to Busan, Busan, Busan.''

Rarely, does a Korean speaker use the one-subject-one-verb speech form to convey a message.

English and Korea clashes everywhere, in business deals, in government actions and in interpersonal relations, because of this precision-ambiguity conflict.

On the other hand, the few Koreans who succeed in mastering English rather relish the virtues of precision and clarity inherent in the language and wish all other Koreans would speak English.

Almost every statement in Korean ends with ``appears,'' or ``seems,'' seldom direct even when the statement has to do with a matter of fact like ``It is raining.'' The Korean version would be: ``It appears or seems to be raining,'' while in fact it is pouring down.

Different Languages

There is little difference between spoken English and written English. Especially with the influence of television, English has virtually become a uniform language, whether spoken or written.

Naturally, this aspect of English is what makes it attractive to the needs and functions of today's world that requires simplified, clear means of communication.

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.

In short, English is an extremely un-Korean and uncomfortable language for Koreans accustomed to two separate varieties of expressions, high and low.

It is perhaps for this reason that two Koreans of different social standings could never converse in English even if both are fluent in it. It is just too impolite and bold to do so.

Emotive Society

When certain news items (say, former President Roh Moo-hyun's bribery charges) are reported in both English and Korean, the difference is so great that one can hardly believe they are about the same things.

In English the report is efficient, calm and factual. In Korean it is charged with emotionalism and sensory effects.

Among English speakers, emotion tends to be subsumed within the functional-technical requirements of their language.

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.

``Han'' is the basic material of all such scripts. Everywhere in Korea, on the street, in families, in government offices, in love-relations, every human encounter is said to be a series of long or short emotional encounters, pleas and outbursts.

Naturally, few Koreans pay attention to procedures, orderly debates, or presenting convincing cases.

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.

Given such an impasse between English and Korean culture, any optimism seems simple dishonesty, not to mention impracticality and unreality. The situation recalls a comment made many years ago by an English journalist about Korea's possibility of attaining democracy

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.

The opinions expressed and the observations described in these articles are strictly the writer’s own and do not represent any official position of the University of Maryland University College or the USFK.
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