While learning English is an obsession with many South Koreans, it is considered a downright betrayal for locals to speak to one another in the global language.
JEONG So-hee, a young professional was surprised when a co-worker complained about “people who speak English when they are fluent in Korean”.
The 26-year-old works at a company which deals with foreign clients daily. Every employee is considerably fluent in the English language, although not everyone has studied abroad.
“I think it’s rude to speak to your co-workers in Korean when you have a foreign client with you,” said Jeong, who is bilingual and spent more than 10 years in the United States (US) as a teenager.
“But after hearing that, I try to be very careful to speak only in Korean to my co-workers, even though they understand English.
“I can speak both English and Korean, but why can’t I speak the language that I’m more comfortable with, especially when my colleagues understand both languages?”
While South Korea is known for spending large amounts of money on mastering the global language, it is quite rare to run into locals who speak in English to each other in public.
And that’s not necessarily because they can’t speak the language, but because it’s almost a social taboo to do so, Jeong said.
“If you are in South Korea and speak English fluently, people think you are a show-off,” she said.
“And if you are not fluent and speak English to a Korean person with a Korean accent, that is also not acceptable. But no one expects a foreigner to speak Korean in South Korea, and when they do, it’s much appreciated.
“In any case if you’re South Korean, you are expected to speak the language fluently, even if you’ve spent many years abroad,” Jeong shared.
The public perception of South Koreans who are fluent in English with a North American accent, is complex and strongly linked with Korea’s modern history, experts say.
In the popular 1994 TV drama series All My Love for You, the male protagonist Poong-ho, played by Cha In-pyo, was a sensation and was idolised because of his US education.
He spoke English fluently with an American accent and played the saxophone.
Over the last decade, more South Koreans have been sending their children to study overseas, and characters like Poong-ho, wealthy, sophisticated and well-educated were replaced by English-speaking K-pop idols who did not exactly deliver the same image.
Culture critic Lee Moon-won said that the way the public perceived locals who speak English fluently is somewhat similar to what they thought of Koreans who were fluent in Japanese during the Japanese colonial era: they were secretly admired, were objects of jealousy and were despised for “betraying” their Korean identity.
After the 1997 Asian financial crisis, those who studied in the US were seen as a threat by locals in the competitive South Korean job market.
“In the early 90s, not all Koreans were required to learn Japanese in school. So those who were fluent in Japanese, most of whom had the opportunity to study in Japan, had a better chance of getting better-paid jobs,” Lee told The Korea Herald. By the 1930s, more people became fluent in Japanese as Koreans were forced to learn the language in school.”
Lee points out that Koreans’ obsession with the American accent is linked with the post-war American influence of the 50s and 60s.
While the American accent is perceived as a sign of fluency in English, speaking English with a Korean accent or “Konglish” is frowned upon.
“I’m not comfortable speaking English in front of my peers who’ve been or lived in the US, I get self-conscious,” said an office worker, adding that she will never be able to speak the language with an American accent.”
“It’s about being more American. We are exposed to so many Hollywood films compared to movies from other countries,” said Lee.
“During the ’60s and ’70s, American missionaries in Korea commented that they almost had ‘star status’ as people cheered and clapped at them.
“Things are different now, but this kind of admiration still exists,” Lee added.
English has been a subject of envy and a means of social advancement in Korea since it opened its doors to Western powers in the early 1900s.
Kang Jun-man, media professor at Chonbuk National University, portrayed English as “the most powerful survival tool under the new occupation of the US forces” in his recent publication Koreans and English.
In his book that was recently released, Kang offers social, cultural and political explanations behind Koreans’ passion for English learning.
After US. troops took control of South Korea, being able to speak English and communicate with Americans became a “symbol of authority,” Kang said.
The first president of the Republic of Korea, Syngman Rhee, was among the early Koreans to have learnt English at the country’s first secondary school, founded by an American missionary.
In the ’60s and ’70s companies encouraged employees to learn English and private language institutions flourished.
Measure of social status
English officially became a subject in elementary school after South Korea hosted the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul.
Parents who could afford to send their children overseas did so, while others relied on costly private English language tutors.
The amount spent on private English tutoring reached US$578mil in1996.
While a child’s English language fluency was determined by his family’s economic status, it only drove home the point that there was indeed a new social divide.
It was further aggravated after a tragic incident where two men in their 20s beat a college student to death on a subway platform because he was speaking to a friend in English.
While Koreans see the importance of the international language to move up, the use of English in their daily lives is limited. It is usually limited to textbooks, business letters and meetings.
“South Koreans rarely speak the language in everyday life. There is also this false perception that the language should be spoken formally without grammatical errors,” explained Lee Byung-min, English education professor at Seoul National University.
He attributed the phenomenon to the nation’s exam-driven education system.
“South Koreans whose English has been evaluated through standardised testing, develop a fear of the language.
“They think the sentences coming out of their mouth have to be grammatically correct. But it’s impossible to be fluent in the language without making mistakes,” he added. — Asia News Network