Shin Kyung-sook vs. Hemingway
Comparing two novelists and their works ― Shin Kyung-sook and Earnest Hemingway ― might be inappropriate and controversial. But for Koreans aspiring to improve English proficiency, the comparison is logical and necessary.
They need to read the translated English version of Shin’s “Please, Look After Mom” before reading Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea.”
Readers can learn Korea-specific expressions and words through Shin’s book. Through the novel depicting the contemporary Korean society, Koreans can easily use such expressions as “rice-boiled-water” (숭늉), “blood-sausage-soup shop” (순대국집), “seaweed laver toasted with perilla oil” (들깨기름으로구운김), and “extra-strength fart”(초강력방귀).
These days, many Korean children read American elementary-, middle- and high-school textbooks. This might be an effective way for learning their subjects and improving English. However, it is necessary to translate Korean school books into English. The English versions of local textbooks would be more effective for Korean students to learn English than the American ones. This would enable local students to learn both Korean school topics in English. It is advisable to have Korean history textbooks in English.
Policymakers and educators have yet to appreciate the importance of local content in helping students learn English. Many English textbooks and material available in Korea, originate from English-speaking countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand.
Korean students learn foreign cultures through English books. In other words, they must talk about King Sejong the Great after learning the English expressions on the biography of Abraham Lincoln. They also must talk about K-pop stars after learning about Hollywood actors. Language is imitation. Creating and expressing unlearned expressions is almost impossible.
The same analogy is applicable to English dailies produced in Korea and English-speaking countries. Comparing The Korea Times with The New York Times is like comparing kimchi with hamburgers. Koreans can learn things Korean and its culture mostly by reading a homegrown English daily. Americans know the contemporary U.S. society through a U.S. daily.
The Korean expression 시큼하다 reflects the “unpleasantly-quite-sour” taste of local foods. Probably, no American food is unpleasantly quite sour. Fermented bean soup (청국장), spicy soybean sprout soup (콩나물매운국), and soybean paste soup (된장국) are expressions Koreans can find in local dailies. Only through Korean content, can locals learn 대포폰 (mobile phone registered under a borrowed name) and 신토불이 (the homegrown-product-best-theory). Indeed, language is culture.
From time to time, readers can detect sloppy translations in Korean papers and novels. For example, Kim Chi-young, a translator of Shin’s novel, awkwardly expressed the expression 태몽 as a “dream when I was being born.” A dream of the forthcoming conception of a baby might have been a polished translation. This technical ambiguity should not lead to questioning the quality of the translation of Shin’s book. More than 95 percent of the translated content is professional, with the remaining subject to different interpretations.
A graduate of a Korean high school learns 4,226 English words. Theoretically, they can speak only 10 percent of them or 423 words. They have difficulty in using even the 423 words daily as they learn these words from non-Korean contexts.
Learning English through local content is a well-established theory. A graduate of an American university can recognize 60,000 words. He or she can speak only 10 percent or 6,000 words daily. He or she can use more than 6,000 words in writing.
In the same vein, high TOEFL, TOEIC and TEPS scorers know up to 10,000 words. Even such high-scorers have difficulty in speaking and writing as they can use only 10 percent of them or 1,000 words daily. For the past 15 years, The Korea Times has used about 10,000 words in publication although efforts are under way to reduce the number of words for the convenience of readers.
Many Korean high-scorers of English proficiency tests admit that they have difficulty in reading English newspapers and English-translated Korean novels. They know the high-score does not necessarily mean English proficiency. However, avid readers of English dailies can get a high score in the tests and be more fluent than the worshippers of TOEIC, TOEFL and TEPS.
William Shakespeare used about 34,000 words in his writing, but the bulk of the 16th-century words have disappeared from current daily use. In the 16th century, only 60,000 English words existed. Now the number is about 1 million.
Linguists say 10,000 words are the heart of the English vocabulary. Koreans capable of using 10,000 current English words should be confident in their English proficiency. Even U.S. President Barack Obama may not have used more than 10,000 words during his presidency.
Many Korean college graduates learn more than 10,000 English words. Many of them feel frustrated in their use of English, however. The reason is clear. They have failed to learn English through local content. The time has come for Koreans to learn English through local content ― translated novels and Korean textbooks, and homegrown English dailies. Like forests pumping out oxygen, the translated local content is a wellspring for Korea-specific English vocabulary.
Koreans are learning English to speak and write mostly about Korea. Then why should they waste time by learning English through non-Korean content? Before the government adopts a local-content-based English education policy, it is wise for learners to adopt this method. It is worth trying.
Lee Chang-sup is the chief editorial writer of The Korea Times. He is the author of the Korean-language book titled “How to Read The Korea Times.” Contact him at email@example.com.