Is English in Korea Only for Koreans?
By Jon Huer
Korea Times Columnist
My continuing search to explain Korea's miserable English leads me to another one of the ironic reasons. Koreans learn and use English with other Koreans, not with English-speaking people. Among the thousands upon thousands of English words and phrases that are used in Korea, so few are learned or used to communicate with foreigners.
When the issue of revising the Korean Romanization system was raised recently because foreigners in Korea have been voicing unhappiness with it for some time. For example, the main objection to returning to the old romanization system among Koreans was that the current system is ``good for Koreans.'' This is at once as shocking as the idea of learning English is just to use it among Koreans. Romanization for Koreans?
With all the money, time and effort poured into English education, Koreans end up wasting their resources and perpetuate bad English among themselves. This is indeed strange to most rationally-thinking people, but not to Koreans.
Needless to say, poor English is enforced, and legitimized, among Koreans when it is used by Koreans among themselves. Most of the time, the users of poor English do not even recognize they are using poor English because no one among them recognizes it or, for fear of ostracism, points that out.
In the fashion of the blind in a nation of blind people, blind English is so completely understood and effortlessly used that Koreans naturally fail to realize that they are all English blind. More radically than the blind-nation analogy perhaps, Koreans are so used to incorrect English that they are quite surprised when told that their English is incorrect.
When one Korean speaker says ``bi-jun'' or ``pi-ja'' to another Korean, the listener easily and instantly understands those words to mean ``vision'' and ``pizza'' (taking ``pizza'' as an American-English word). It is unlikely that anyone recognizes that the words they are used incorrectly. To them, as to most Koreans, the word has always been ``bi-jun'' and ``pi-ja.'' If someone tried to correct them, saying that the words are ``vi-sion'' and ``pi-zza,'' the Koreans would give him a very odd look of incomprehension, as if he is trying to correct their ``Korean'' words.
On the other hand, if the Korean speaker (because he learned correct English) tried to say ``vi-sion'' or ``pi-zza'' properly, this correct usage of English would be perceived by the listener as incomprehensible, and hence as incorrect, words.
In the land of the blind, those with sight are handicapped. In the land of the dead, the living are in trouble. In the land of incorrect English used as correct English, those who use it properly are likely to fail to be understood.
Because Koreans who use bad English are so perfectly understood by their peers who are equally apt at sharing the bad usage, they perpetuate this error among themselves as if it is the normal thing to do.
Nobody in Korea who says ``bi-jun'' for vision or ``pi-ja'' for pizza is the least bit self-conscious or curious about his usage. In fact, most Koreans have come to accept them as if they are Korean words, or, at least, foreign words that should be accepted and recognized as part of the legitimate Korean language.
More recently, the phrase ``mo-gi-ji-ron'' was so commonly understood as a Korean word that when it was pointed out that the phrase meant ``mortgage loan,'' even seasoned Korean teachers of English were quite surprised it was not a Korean word. This cultural thinking explains why no one cares to ever correct the widespread usage of Koreanized English words. In a land where incorrect English is the norm, correct English is naturally shunned.
Thus, most Koreans acquire the habit of thinking (no, assuming) that their incorrect English is actually good English. Reinforced by Korea's unique solidarity and national pride, a legacy from its feudal past, their habit becomes solidified and routinized into their daily consciousness or un-consciousness.
Koreans are happy as long as their English is understood by other Koreans. Anyone who tries to point out that they are perpetuating incorrect English is the odd man out, which often includes a foreign teacher. In their legendary closed society and tribalism, Koreans close ranks even on the matter concerning the English language.
In a typically Korean fashion, Koreans use Korea as the standard of what is correct and incorrect, even when the object of their standard is a foreign language. Since Koreans understand one another perfectly in their communication, why should they correct their usage? This thinking is, of course, more unconscious than deliberate, which makes it all the more difficult to point out or correct.
In this culture of unconsciously wrong English, correct-English users are at a disadvantage as Koreans approve and enforce one another's bad English. Some Koreans who have mastered English must be careful not to use the correct version of English, as their colleagues are already accustomed to thinking their incorrect version IS the correct one.
So the ultimate irony is that the more English Koreans learn, the more they perpetuate bad English with one another. Every time new English words become popular in Korea, like ``mo-gi-ji-ron,'' Koreans add new English words to their Koreanized vocabulary that nobody but Koreans understand.
Because the new words, like all the others in Korea's English vocabulary, are changed into the Korean-version pronunciations and meanings that are totally alien to their English origins.
As only Koreans understand these words when they are used in speech, Koreans fortify their reputation as stubborn people who expand their ``stupid English'' that only they themselves ― and nobody else in the world ― can use and understand.
The English language has become Koreanized in Korea and has become just another added part of Korea's cultural arsenal for themselves. Instead of Korea becoming part of the English-speaking world, the English-speaking world must become part of Korea!
With increased import consumption in Korea, English becomes just another import item that merely adds to Korea's consumer culture, rather than expanding Korea's ability to communicate globally with foreigners. Korea is rather proud that its consumer culture is expanding, even to include the English language among its consumed goods and services.
But, considering the size of its national investment in learning English, this is a pitifully ironic twist: All that English learning, just to add a few extra words to the Korean vocabulary that only Koreans can understand!
The writer can be reached at email@example.com.