Welcome to Linguistics and Korea

Ever wondered why Koreans speak "bad English"?
Why it's so hard to learn Korean?
Why it's so hard to have "normal" conversations with Koreans?
Why it's so hard to fit in with Korean culture and society?
We don't claim to have the perfect answer to these questions, just a few hints that we hope will clarify the situation.
If you have questions, comments or suggestions, we'd be happy to hear from you. Email us at raphael.hadid [at] gmail [dot] com

What is a Korean?

The question may sound philosophical and may be subject to heated debates, but to understand this question one needs to look at the structure of Korean society in a sociological, anthropological and cultural context.

So what is a Korean. Or more precisely who is Korean?

Legally: a Korean is the holder of a Korean passport regardless of place of birth, descent, heritage, culture, ethnicity etc. Some people are accepted by society as being Korean but are not Korean citizens (naturalized Korean citizens who immigrated to foreign countries, Korean born abroad to Korean parents but who moved to Korea at a very young age, sometimes as young as a few days old - some parents give birth to their children abroad so they can get foreign citizenship). Some are Korean citizens, but Korean society does not accept them as Koreans.

Sociologically: a Korean person is someone who does not deviate from the social non-written norms that Koreans acquired since childhood. Education, written documents or any form of brainwashing can not change this perception that Koreans have of what a Korean is.

A Korean is in sum, someone who has physical features that are accepted as Korean (people with physical features deviating from norms will not be considered Korean no matter how culturally adapted he may be). It is also someone who has perfect knowledge of Korean language, that is, who speaks Korean with an accent, words and grammar that are accepted as being Korean. So far, anyone who looks physically Korean and who speaks Korean is Korean. But there's more to that.

A Korean is someone who has the linguistic competence of a Korean. That is, a Korean should know what is acceptable to say, what is not, when to say what, what to tell a person he meets for the first time, a taxi driver, the President, using accepted norms and rules for such use of the language. Any deviant use of this kind of language and the person is not considered Korean.

In addition to physical features, language and linguistic competence, a Korean is someone who makes accepted use of body language. Koreans have distinctive ways of walking, reacting to shocking news, and use different body language to show anger, fatigue, despair or pride.

Being Korean is also making accepted uses of the social etiquette. Etiquette can not be put on paper, as there are various variations of single norms which are accepted. But any norm that does not correspond to those variations exclude the person from being Korean. Etiquette includes dress code, handling objects, and subtle things like eating food or drinking coffee, and even lighting a cigarette or taking notes in class.

Note that there is not one single norm for language use, physical features, linguistic competence or etiquette. The exact same rules can have various variations (in opposition to law where often one aspect has one single law), but those variations are finite, and anyone who does not belong to one of those variations is considered deviant, and society questions his being "Korean", or belonging to the nation.

Note that all people belonging to that social definition of Korean are Koreans, or "mirrors" of society. Those who have the physical features of Koreans but deviate in some way, whether linguistically or in terms of etiquette in a blatantly obvious manner (someone who looks Korean but as soon as you talk to him you realize that he's not) are called "hidden immigrants" of society. Those who observe all the linguistic and cultural norms of society but have foreign physical features are called "adopted" Koreans. Finally, those who neither look Korean nor act Korean are called "immigrants". Except for "mirrors", others are not accepted as fully being part of Korean society.

The government may take as much action as it wants regarding the promotion of minorities, it will not change societies perception and exclusion of those who society does not accept as Koreans. That is, the government may criminalize some types of behavior towards minorities, promote the image of minorities, but it can not tell society to treat foreigners the same way they treat Koreans. Such behavior is encoded in the brain, ask a neurologist or a psychologist, and they will tell you that neurons, hormones and what not interact and react in uncontrollable ways when human beings see someone "different".

Is hangeul scientific?

The word "scientific" is perhaps the word which is the most associated with "hangeul", but is it really scientific? Well, as a linguist, I have to say no, it's not scientific.

Having myself thought about the word "scientific" a lot and about its definitions, I think that a lot of people use the word "scientific" to mean "good" or "correct" in opposition to "unscientific" meaning "bad" or "flawed". As a linguist, I know two things:
-everyone has his own "mental" dictionary and world visions and different words mean different things to everyone
-In linguistic terms, no writing system has ever been, and will ever be, scientific.

We linguists frown upon the use of the word "scientific" for any writing system. In fact, while most Korean linguists have been told that hangeul was scientific since they were kids and write that in their dissertations and papers, linguist Robert Ramsey, a specialist in Korean language, has avoided the use of the word scientific to describe hangeul.

What linguists say in order to avoid offending Koreans is that hangeul is a great thing because it provided an "easy" alphabet to educate the masses. Well, I wish that were true. Hangeul was invented in the 15th century, and in 1950 only 22% of the Korean population knew how to use hangeul, an alphabet that I, like most foreigners, learned how to use in 2 hours. By this I don't mean that 50 years ago Koreans were stupid, but I mean that while spoken language is vital and acquired by all human beings without having to be taught, writing requires years of training among children to be mastered fully.

So why isn't hangeul scientific? Linguists know that writing is a "bastardized" form of speaking and that writing systems fail to transcribe sounds in an exact way. Different people pronounce sounds differently, sounds evolve, and there is more to than just letters, there's intonation, pitch, length of sounds etc. In fact, the letter ㅅ can be pronounced "s", "sh" or "t" depending on where it stands, ㄱ "k", "g" or "kh" depending on where it is. Not so scientific indeed.

But there's a reason people call it scientific though. In fact, Korean language has something in its sounds that many other languages don't have: words are pronounced differently depending on whether there's a vowel, consonant or nothing preceding the word. 가다 ("to go") will be pronounced "kada" but if you ask someone "where are you going?" you'll say "odi Ga", but it's the same ka as in kada. So the alphabet had to take this relationship into account and therefore drew letters that could represent several sounds at the same time.

Some Koreans are trying to export hangeul, but this would require adding a significant number of letters to make it exportable. Let's say we used hangeul for English. would "cap" and "gap" be spelled the same way? What would be scientific about that?

I would add that there's a difference between knowing an alphabet and actually reading. While foreigners easily memorize hangeul as an alphabet, all sorts of complicated rules make it difficult to read. Of course, those who were trained since they were kids will know the rules, just as those who were trained to memorize Chinese caracters or kanjis since they were kids will learn how to use them properly.

The point is linguists have stopped searching for a scientific way to codify language and have agreed that writing, in any form, is a misrepresentation of speaking. While hangeul may be called scientific for political reasons, may have been voted "scientific", if it were really scientific, no voting would be needed, just as doctors don't vote to determine whether patients have cancer or diabetes.

Explaining Korean nationalism

Many foreigners argue that promoting Korea through hangeul and kimchi is probably not going to improve the country's image. Before we start criticizing hangeul, kimchi, or the Korean government's attitude towards promoting their country, let's find out why they do so.

If you watch CNN international you will find several emerging countries encouraging viewers to invest or to visit their countries. All of them except Korea are clear when they advertize: it's either "invest in our country" or "have fun in our country". I noticed a peculiarity with the Korean government's advertisement as I noticed that it was very ambiguous. The advertisement showed a mixture of shopping, nightlife and men working, no clear message other than "Dynamic Korea". What is the message that the Korean government is trying to get across.

Well Korea is trying to attract both investors and tourists at the same time. In fact, anyone who has the slightest interest about Korea is welcome. Anything that can be promoted about Korea will be promoted by the government. That could be "starcraft", kimchi, hangeul, dramas, music, anything really.

Why is that? Korea is a small country whose international reputation has suffered from division and because of North Korea. And, believe it or not, during the 1980s, when major Korean companies started exporting products abroad, they did not want to adverise such products as being "Korean". That because in the minds of many, Korea was still a poor developing country which was still technically at war. Still today, Samsung, LG, Hyundai and Kia try to avoid mentioning that they are Korean companies because of that reputation problem, notably in the west.

But now that the Korean economy is fully developped, it can start rebuilding its "image". Korea is perhaps the only country with a television station fully aimed at advertising the country's products, "Arirang TV", and has several institutions which are dedicated to improving the country's image abroad. Korea paid CNN international to show a different image of the country, or else I see no other explanation to so many adverstisements about Korea, two "Eye on South Korea" one week specials in 2009, with several programs giving a positive image about South Korea... the South Korean press is not the only media which seems to be ignoring media ethics.

Within the country, with the risk of war with North Korea, the presence of a US military base in its capital city, and very little agricultural resources, Korea had to shape its national identity among its people. Talking about any country other than South Korea in a positive way would lead to a potential "brain drain", therefore Korea needs to show that the country is performing well. This is why Korean newspapers and the Korean media in general dedicate a signifant portion of their stories to Korea's internal and external successes. You may see entire shows dedicated to Korean singers performing abroad in front of elated foreign crowds, foreigners studying hangeul in crowded classrooms etc. etc.

Note that when Korean people say "uri nara", or "our country", they are not exaggerating their love for their country of viewing their country as a group, as "uri" semantically means both "my" and "our" in Korean, as it does in more than 50% of the world's languages.

Also note that Korea being a small country, it will try everything to appear in international headlines. Claiming sovereignty over Dokdo and renaming the Sea of Japan the "East sea" is one of them. Anything that will make people notice Korea abroad other than riots or war is welcome.

Finally, Koreans define themselves as a group rather than individuals, because in a country where until recently there was not enough food for everyone, defining people individually would lead to conflict. Koreans give special importance to their identity, just like in every country, and view themselves as part of the Korea group first (in opposition to some Americans who view themselves as "white" before they are American and don't identify with African Americans or Hispanics). Therefore, you may be a foreigner and complain about crime rates in the US, because in that American's mind, crime is about African Americans and Hispanics, not Caucasians. However, as it is impossible to criticize Caucasian traditions with American Caucasians without having them be angry at you, Koreans do not want foreigners criticizing Korean traditions.

Why is Korea a hierarchical society? The confucian myth

Why is Korea a hierarchical society?

Hierarchical societies are in fact common among societies where agricultural resources are scarce and can not feed an entire population.

Korea used to be an agricultural society until about 40 years ago. Since most of the country is made up of mountains and land that can not be cultivated, very strict rules governing society were needed in order to avoid internal conflict. Within families, since harvest was sometimes scarce and very vulnerable due to climatic conditions, there had to be a leader in families and in societies to decide what would happen in case harvest failed.

Confucianism only partly codified these hierarchical uses, parts of those codes evolved, others were ignored and others were adapted to local circumstances. It was decided that hierarchy would be based on age rather than any form of merit, since Korea is a homogenous land with similar topographic features in most parts of the country, and it was considered that farming was learned through experience rather than ability. Of course, those who failed to be good farmers were outcasted regardless of age, but in order to prevent a race to who would control land and production, older people would teach younger people.

These principles did not evolve when Korea moved from an agricultural to an industrial society. Economic development was so sudden that they could not have changed overnight. Social codes evolve over years and only economic, military and natural needs make those changes evolve (natural disasters, war or economic change) produce such changes.

Since things have worked out for Korea so far, Koreans are convinced that hierarchical systems work. In fact, since Korea is still a relatively homogenous country in economic terms, if there were a merit based system, the competition for who would get to the top would be fierce and conflicts would arise. As for hierarchy, one needs to understand that few Koreans are actually in control of the economy, and they don't want other people telling them what to do.

Regarding respecting teachers, in agricultural soceties where resources are scarce and harvest is not guaranteed, listening to those who will teach you farming is essential. As for parents, since they were often those who taught their children how to farm and provided them with the little food that they had, respecting parents was viewed as important. Religious authorities, shamans or anyone who was believed to communicate with nature was respected because such people could guarantee better harvests.

Western societies either have diversified economies and agricultures or small populations or both, and therefore do not require such strong hierarchical systems to govern society. To each according to their needs...

The history of English education in Korea

To sum up, the history of English language education can be divided into "two and a half" period. To many, it can be divided into three periods, but my view on this is that we are still in the second period.

The first period: 1950-1970s

Back then, English was taught in Korea essentially for military purposes. South Korea had a US military presence in its territory and therefore had to train its citizens to be competent in communication with the US army and with the US ally in case of war. The United States technically has "wartime operational control" in South Korea meaning that if a war were to break out with North Korea, the United States would be in charge of leading the war. Korean men, considered potential future soldiers, had to be good "followers" of the US army.

How is language taught for military purposes? Focus is put on a comparison between the native language, Korean, and English. No conversation in class, classes are taught in Korean and Koreans were essentially taught aspects of English grammar that they were expected to be able to translate into their language. Exam questions were in Korean, and students had to answer in English.
This method was used worldwide when training spies who were expected to translate confidential documents into their native language, or by Europeans learning Latin and Ancient Greek.

The second period: 1970s-1990s

During the 1970s the South Korean economy grew considerably and the government expected students to have "business" knowledge of English.

In language there are three aspects: Competence, performance and communicative competence.

-Competence is the ability to know what is right or wrong in a language, say knowing that "I did it" is right and that "*I it did" is wrong.

-Performance is the ability to speak a language. Most speakers of a second language, despite knowing what is right or wrong in a language, reproduce what they know in the language. Say they know that "*I it did" is wrong but they still say it.

-Communicative competence is the ability to speak a language and also to know what to say, when to say it, and what is not appropriate to say in the language's culture.

So while the first period focused exclusively on competence, the second period started focusing on performance. That is, students were put under pressure to write and speak English properly, asked tricky grammar and vocabulary questions, and were rebuked when they made mistakes.

The curriculum was essentially grammar based and test based: students were tested and heavily sanctioned if they made mistakes speaking English, thus viewed speaking English as a continuous test and thought that native speakers were actually evaluating them when they were speaking, and Koreans were obsessed with "mistakes"

The third period: 1990s-today

In 1997, the Korean government decided to bring native speakers to help students focus on "communicative competence", that is, to communicate effectively with American businessmen. Soon after, the 1997 financial crisis delayed the project, and once Korea recovered, native speakers were invited to the country.

What happened? Though the government wanted students to focus on their ability to communicate with foreigners making colloquial use of English, students and companies focused on "performance": the less you make mistakes, the better you are, regardless of whether you are actually able to converse with foreigners.

Test scores became primordial, and surprised and disillusioned English teachers ended up torn between teaching "performance" and "communicative competence". While the government keeps reiterating its idea that Koreans should focus on "communicative competence", students return to "performance". A funny example is that when Korean students are asked to hold conversations in English, they write down what they have to say first, proofread grammar mistakes, double check meaning in the dictionary, and then recite their sentence. Typical behavior of people who focus on "performance" rather than "communicative competence".

This is why I argue that Korea is still in its second period. While the Western world is learning English to improve their "communicative competence" through watching English language movies and interaction with native English speakers, Koreans have decided to remain economy oriented and to focus on making less mistakes when they speak English.