Posted : 2008-02-28 19:19
Updated : 2008-02-28 19:19

Korean Language in Int’l Business: an Apology

Tom Coyner
By Tom Coyner

In a literary sense, an apology can be an opportunity for not having to say one's sorry. If one looks up the word in any good English dictionary, one definition of "apology" is a formal statement of justification or defense. With that word use in mind, I'm going to get something off my chest that has really bothered me for at least the past decade. Namely, the dearth of the Korean language in international business ― including when conducting commerce in Korea ― continues to exist.

This matter has come up several times over the years among my discussions with both expatriate and local business people. The most notable, recent example was a couple of weeks ago. At Seoul Rotary Club, we honored a departing German executive who had been a leader in the EU business community. A long-term member of the British community softly challenged him about his ― and others ― not learning Korean, while allowing quite modestly he himself had not mastered Korean as well as he should be given his long tenure in Korea.

The German noted, in English of course, that when he was assigned earlier in his career to Mexico, he had learnt Spanish as a matter of necessity, but he had not found it truly necessary to learn Korean.

Over the past several years, I have had multiple conversations with foreign professionals on this issue. Many other mature business people, who have lived and worked abroad, have found the time and incentive to master the local language, at least to the business conversational level. And, parenthetically, the last time I lived in Japan, for a decade, I spoke and wrote in Japanese as a matter of course in doing business in Tokyo.

Korean is often classified by the U.S. government as one of the "hard" languages, along with Japanese and Chinese, etc. In China and Japan, however, medium- and long-term resident foreigners make a point to speak much better than "survival language" during their tenures there. And in all fairness, I have often witnessed foreign managers carrying on in Korean when dealing with simple issues such as asking for items, answering telephones, etc. What is rare, however, is to see foreigners in Korea carrying on serious business negotiations or handling complex personnel issues in the Korean language. In Japan and China, these days, if one has been in country more than a couple of years, it is generally expected to do business in the local language, with the possible exception of senior executives who are frankly written off as being "too old" to learn a new language.

So what makes Korea different than the two neighboring countries?

Over the past years talking with polyglot expatriate managers who have fairly consistently given up learning Korean, I have found some common reasons, which I may lump into two groups ― linguistic and cultural.

Linguistically, beyond the brilliance of the hangeul writing system, Korean is a very difficult language for two major reasons. First, while the grammar is similar to Japanese, it is not as consistent as Japanese and as such it needs to be learned more in terms of sentence patterns than grammar. So while memorizing sentence patterns can be applied to new situations such as learning a grammar, sentence patterns are not so readily applicable as grammar.

But, second and much more significantly, Korean has fairly unique phonetics. The closest I have so far found among Western languages may be German, but only as far as the vowels. Yet while there are many Koreans who speak German beautifully, there are few Germans who can do the same in Korean. Even worse is the case for other foreigners. The reason is that many of consonants and vowels do not correspond with most other languages' phonetics. Consequently, if the ear ― and the tongue ― have not learned to differentiate correctly among sounds of a foreign language, it is almost impossible for the brain to internalize and replicate new vocabulary. And even if new vocabulary is studied and yet the foreigner cannot properly pronounce the words, quite understandably he or she is not going to make as much progress as hoped.

(I have noted that skilled musicians and those who easily sing in tune have an obvious advantage over tone-deaf people such as me. But perhaps I am just adding another layer of the apology in my own case.)

The second group of reasons for foreigners not really learning Korean ― and this is a big one ― is cultural and to a degree social.

With the exception of blue collar labors who must speak Korean as a matter of survival, white collar foreigners find themselves in linguistic completion with English-speaking or wishing to learn English Koreans. This is also true in China and Japan, but what really sets Korea apart is the number of English-speaking Koreans at many levels of commerce. The sheer volume of bilingual or near bilingual ethnic Koreans or Koreans who have studied abroad one encounters in business frankly diminishes the incentive for many foreigners to try to become truly conversational or better in Korean.

Unlike the Japanese and Chinese languages, few students abroad study Korean as a foreign language. It is common to find people, such as myself, who studied Chinese or Japanese in university, before coming to Asia. The few universities that teach Korean language find most of their students being ethnic Korean who study out of family obligation and/or a desire to better connect with Korea. There are some notable exceptions of non-ethnic Koreans studying the language before coming to Korea, such as missionaries and military/government employees. But only few of these make it into business, albeit those who do generally do very well indeed.

Having gone through the elementary phases of learning Japanese in Japan and replicating the experience here in Korea, I find the experience to be remarkably different. And from my conversations with other foreigners who have studied foreign languages abroad, my encounters with Koreans are not at all unique.

Even today, walking into a common restaurant as opposed to an international class establishment, it is not unusual to get the "deer in the headlights" panic stare from employees. While a few, rudimentary words of Korean does work wonders in many cases, there are other times it can be painfully difficult as a foreigner struggling to be understood beyond ordering from the menu. While less common with younger Koreans, older Koreans can display a confidence-destroying reactive behavior to beginner speaker's efforts by abruptly turning away, since they don't wish to deal the hassle of communicating with a foreigner. The Japanese, on the other hand, may actually have the same feelings, but a strong cultural trait of ``tatemae'' or social decorum mandates that they smile and at least pretend to be nice, regardless of whatever they may be thinking. For the beginning Japanese speaker, this is a good thing, since it gives to the foreigner, at the worst, a false sense of competency.

So is there hope? Maybe. When I first lived in Tokyo in 1970, no one expected foreigners to speak Japanese. Just saying ``ohayo gozaimasu'' each morning earned us foreigners undeserved accolades for our fluency. Today, if one cannot carry on a reasonable conversation as a Japan resident, one is regarded as being, well, culturally challenged, to put it nicely.

Decades from now, in spite of Koreans' fanatical drives to master English, will Koreans expect others to speak their language as the Chinese and Japanese do today? We can only hope they may. We may likewise hope future foreigners will resume the challenge of truly learning Korean for use in business and elsewhere.

Tom Coyner is president of Soft Landing Korea, a consulting company focusing on sales and human resources issues. He is co-author of Mastering Business in Korea: A Practical Guide.
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