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.

Love and marriage in Korea 2 - who Korean people marry

In an agricultural Korean society marriage used to be about having children who would work in farms. Koreans chose healthy women who could bear healthy children, that is, women with fat (because fat helps ovulation, therefore lack of fat causes problems with ovulation, menstrual disorders and eventually infertility) and strong women who could handle everyday chores. But with the advent of modernity things changed.

While in the past families played a critical role on who their children would marry, the role is decreasing. Let's have a look at the criteria Koreans look at when they look for potential spouses:

-Physical features ("beauty"): In Korean society, like in most modern societies, a spouse is a reflection of who a person is and tells more about a person than anything else. Spouses need to be slender or thin - a sign that they control their desires to eat and rest, a sign of being active - and needs to have "western features": "big eyes" (compared to average Koreans), "a bridge at the top of the nose", "double eyelids (the famous ssangkopeul)", an oval face (most Koreans have round faces), a "small face" (Koreans tend to have more voluminous faces than Westerners)... any feature that is common among Western people.

The reason: Koreans view westerners as a symbol of economic wealth, and want those wealthy westerners to have a positive impression of their spouses, therefore any physical feature that westerners don't have may be viewed as "deviant" by westerners, and westerners may therefore have a negative appreciation of their spouse. In Korea, it is out of the question to marry a person with any form of handicap, including Albinos, people with any form of skin disease or any other physical handicap.

-Family background: Family ties are very strong in Korea and families are very interdependent: parents give money to their children as long as they can afford to and regardless of age, and children are expected to give money to their parents. Parents therefore don't want their children to marry people with families that have a significantly lower income as theirs, as they may consider that the person is marrying for the sole purpose of money and inheritance. Families want their children to marry people who will contribute financially in some way to the family.

-Educational background: belonging to a university means belonging to a group. In Korea, alumni associations are very active because of the very strict social rules on networking. Being from a university means having access to numerous connections which will help a person develop economically (in terms of business) and in practical issues, such as when help is needed in case of emergency. Therefore both men and women are expected to have strong connections.

Since historically women from Ewha Women's University have tended to marry men from Seoul National University, both prestigious universities, women from Ewha tend to have strong connections with their alumni who married men from SNU. Ewha is a prestigious university for women for that particular reason, SNU is always a favorite, Korea and Yonsei are acceptable. Note that while graduate school in the United States is always appreciated, people tend to prefer marrying people who attended some form of college in Korea.

Job: Though money is not always important, women tend to prefer marrying men with promising jobs or even men attending promising universities that will lead them to getting a promising job. Though lawyers and doctors tend not to make a lot of money when they start their careers, they tend to have the reputation of making money as they advance in their careers. Businessmen, people who work in the broadcasting industry and professors are also considered prestigious careers.

Note however that men never marry women with careers, or ask them to put an end to their career after marriage. Why? The most common answer to this question is that women are expected to take care of their children, but I would add that there is a social taboo on women working at higher or equal positions than their husbands. In any case, Korean society accepts the fact that no woman should make more money, or even threaten to make more money than her husband, because society accepts the fact that men should provide economic comfort to their wives. The reason I'm saying this is that men who marry secretaries or flight attendants usually don't ask them to quit their jobs, even after they have children. But men who marry singers, actresses or any high income job do ask their wives to quit.

Love and marriage in Korea 1 - how Korean people date

"Promise you'll marry a Korean woman and she'll do anything" is a common stereotype among foreign men which is not always true.

Needless to say that no two Korean women or men have the same criteria when they date, or the same principles about dating behavior. As a linguist, I am interested in how Koreans talk when they date, and a common denominator is that compared to many Western societies, a lot of things are left unsaid. If you think that this "indirect" way of talking is a peculiarity among Asian people, I heard that Scandinavian, especially Danish couples also had that "indirect" way of speaking to each other.

Some couples date for years, 4 years, 5 years, 10 years, without ever mentioning to each other that they are in love or that they will one day marry each other in Korea. Korean society has very specific gender roles among young people, and men are still expected to do all the talking related to where the couple is heading.

But dating in Korea, just like everywhere else, is a little more complicated than that. Some men and women want to date exclusively in order to marry, while others want to try experimenting before getting to marriage.

How does it all start? Remember that Koreans never talk to people they are not affiliated to. This means that it is technically out of the question to go to a bar or night club, dance or have a drink with a man or woman we are physically attracted to or exchange phone numbers.

This is why the concept of "소개팅" (seogetting) is so popular. Seogetting is when a friend - "the third party" - introduces a friend -"the potential soulmate"- to a friend "the single friend" - so that they can eventually date. The process involves the third party talking to his single friend about the potential soulmate giving every detail: age, college attended, company attended, parents' job, family situation etc. etc.

Koreans take every detail into account and one small flaw can end up in rejection. Say, if the father died of a genetic illness, the single friend may refuse. Or the single friend may accept to meet the potential soulmate a few times, but may make him or her wait until progress in career is assured. Say, if the man or woman are expecting a promotion, the single friend may wait until the promotion is effective to engage in any form of dating.

Other forms of dating involve people dating people who are from the same organization, but since dating someone from the same school or company often involves a lot of gossip from former classmates or colleagues, the most popular affiliation for couples are churches or temples. The funny thing is a lot of single Koreans attend churches only in order to find soulmates, and then quit attending church as soon as they find their significant other.

There is no conventional definition for dating in Korea. Some couples claim that they date but never actually kissed each other, others engage in sexual relationships but deny to their friends, and to each other, that they are dating. It is not uncommon for foreigners to think they are dating Koreans until they ask them whether they are "boyfriends" or "girlfriends", and to their surprise, find out that they are not.

As I mentioned, gender roles are very important and men guide women in dating. Men usually choose appointment places, pay for meals and do most of the talking. Korean couples tend to avoid topics that they may disagree upon or which demand specialization: politics, society, the economy etc. and tend to discuss lighter topics: entertainers and yellow papers. Note that if they belong to the same organization, gossip may take an important portion of their conversation. If they don't belong to the same organization and one of the people in the couple has no interest in yellow papers, conversation may simply involve planning where to go next, what to eat etc. It is not uncommon for couples in Korea to have very little to tell each other.

Of course, men are expected to plan the future in an almost "unilateral" way: men plan everything, and women either agree or disagree, but never directly offer alternatives. Women may indirectly suggest alternatives for the future, as in saying "We should really go to the Maldives one day" rather than saying "let's spend our honeymoon in the Maldives".

Also note that it is considered "deviant" for a woman to "break up", so women will do everything, including date someone else, rather than tell their boyfriends "let's break up".

When hagwons go out of business - and don't pay you

The hagwon industry is a very competitive one in Korea. Teaching English is a lucrative business which requires little effort and where profits can be high, but still a lot of hagwons fail.

If your hagwon didn't pay you, this is what might have happened:
There are big hagwons in Korea whose reputation is intact and who make record profits every year. Some dream of reaching such a level and open such hagwons.
Reputed hagwons have everything a decent hagwon needs: they are expensive, but their teachers have experience, they are very strict about what should be taught and how, that is, they delineate the curriculum very carefully and train teachers to teach efficiently. For example, they will tell their teachers that if a student asks a question, they provide a simple answer, and if the student is not satisfied with the answer, they just tell him that the question will be studied later.

However, a number of hagwons open without knowing anything about language teaching. All they think about is the money they will make teaching English. So they find a building, hire the first teacher who applies for the job, and don't provide teachers with teaching guidlines, and sometimes don't even give teachers textbooks.

Such hagwons practice low prices to attract as many students as possible. But they don't divide students by language ability or by level, they mix students using arbitrary criteria such as age, or sometimes don't have a policy on how classes should be divided at all. So teachers end up without textbooks, in classrooms where some students speak advanced English while others don't speak a word of English.

Teachers end up being clueless. They don't know what to teach or how to teach, and can not manage a class where students' levels are heterogeneous. Some focus on students with advanced knowledge of English and forget to take care of those who have more difficulties, while other teachers focus on students with difficulties. Also, rather than advancing steadily in curriculums that teachers often designed themselves, they tend to stop at one particular point of English grammar or one particular word, and may spend a whole class teaching that particular point.

A blunder that such hagwon managers make is that they don't take into account the fact that parents and adults in Korea often attend hagowns in order to get better tests at their scores. While experienced hagwons tell their foreign teachers how to focus on such tests and to teach what might come up in such tests, many hagwons do not tell their teachers to focus on students' tests. So angry parents and adults attending such hagwons find out that what is taught there is not related to the tests that they are taking.

Parents notice that their children are not making progress in class, adult students notice that they are not learning much from the class. Test scores do not improve for both students and adults. Such parents or adults often post negative reviews on Internet forums related to the hagwon, and the hagwon has difficulties attracting new students. Such hagwons often end up going out of business.

So, if your hagwon did not pay you or paid you late, it is a better idea to quit, because such hagwons are often in difficult financial situations and their reputation is so damaged that they can not attract new students.

Are Koreans losing their Korean to the expense of English?

Let me reassure you: no person has ever lost its first language. That is, no matter how much time you may happen to spend abroad or how much you may study a foreign language, your ability to speak your native language will be intact.

The Korean taught in schools, just like all other languages taught in school, is the form spoken by the older upper middle class people and does not take into account the evolved form of language that students speak. The form that students speak will then be taught in schools years later, and that generation will again accuse youngsters of not speaking their language properly, or of losing it, and so on.

The point is that language evolves, and most of the evolution takes place among junior high and senior high school students. These students will come up with new grammar patterns, new words and so on which will not be taught in schools.

Korea is a socially stratified society, just like the United States and many other countries. Yes their is a lower class in the US even though Americans tend to claim that they all belong to that middle class. As for Korea, there is an upper class, a middle class and a lower class, and the middle class tends to try everything in order to one day belong to that upper class.

During the 1960s, linguists discovered that upper class people had a distinct dialect, which tended to be the one taught in schools in developed countries, and was therefore referred to as the "official language" or as a "language" in opposition to what other classes spoke which tends to be referred to as a dialect.

So when Koreans are not speaking the dialect of the "upper class", society tends to be worried that they are not speaking the language properly and that they are losing it. Society will find every pretext to blame these kids for not speaking the proper dialect: they will call them "lazy", or blame them for spending too much time studying foreign languages.

While speaking the upper class dialect in Korea is a big plus to enter upper class circles, the ability of children and lower class people to speak Korean should not be questioned: it is intact, as grammatical, logical and advanced as any other dialect spoken in Korea, including the upper class dialect.

Is English a difficult language to learn for Koreans?

We native English speakers have our prejudices. We see all those Dutch, German, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Scandinavian or Israeli people speak fluent conversational English and feel like English should be an accessible language to everyone.

Let first set things straight. English is from the Germanic family of languages, which includes Yiddish, Dutch, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, German and many other languages. Those languages have similar grammatical structures and their basic vocabularies have the same roots. As for French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and Romanian, they are Romance languages, and English has borrowed many many Latin and French words throughout the years. Note that modern Hebrew has lots of borrowings from Yiddish.

Speakers of these languages are the foreigners Americans are the most likely to meet, as whether they are Latinos, Africans or Europeans, there is a big chance such people speak one of those languages related to English or from which English borrowed significant portions of vocabulary.

And then there are the Asian, who borrowed some vocabulary from English, but not enough to make learning learning English easy. While Dutch and German people can easily infer what an English word means by looking at their native languages, Koreans can't.

Koreans have this disadvantage compared to speakers of other languages. And with the prejudice English speakers have that most foreigners have a language related to English in some way, we think that Koreans are slow at learning English.

While Dutch and German people may still make "cute" grammar mistakes when they speak English, they are not afraid of the "unknown": if they hear a word they never heard before there are high chances that such words will be in their native language. That is not the case for Koreans.

Koreans therefore go through what linguists call "language shock". Just like culture shock, when people experience language shock, they refrain from speaking the language that they are learning from fear of not understanding what the person is saying and being considered "stupid". Native English speakers learning Korean also have their "language shock" phase.

The rest is a question of motivation and need: Koreans who need to learn English to communicate with their husbands will speak English better than those who need to learn it to get a decent score at the TOEFL test which will guarantee them a job.

Is Korean a difficult language?

A common myth about language is that some languages are more difficult to learn than others because they are more "complex". Let me reassure you that so far, no linguist has managed to prove that any language is more complex than any other.

There is a common misconception among some people, and non-linguists who claim that they are linguists (translators, language teachers and polyglots) who claim that linguist Noam Chomsky classified languages by order of difficulty. While Chomsky did classify languages by grammar typology, his classification was never intended to show that any language was more difficult. Some people do claim that Chomsky classified English as easy, Korean as medium and Russian as difficult, but such people never actually read Chomsky's typology.

Is Korean a difficult language? Every language is equally complex, and past the age of 12 every language is difficult to learn. This for two reasons:
1- the part that processes language in the brain is fully developed around puberty
2- Human beings need to understand 98% of the vocabulary used in a conversation or book in order to understand it.

Yes, if you're reading a book or listening to someone talk and that you don't understand 98 of every 100 words he says, you will not understand his message. This implies that when you read that book or take that class in your native language and that you don't understand what it's trying to say, you may feel stupid because you think you should understand it since it's your native language. But the reason you can't understand a book or a class, even in your native language, is because you're not understanding that 98% words that you should know to understand it.

For speakers of Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese or any language that borrowed a lot of Chinese words, Korean may be an easier language to learn and understand because though they may not know all the words that are being used in the conversation or book, they can infer its meaning because the word in their native language is likely to sound similar. For speakers of languages which did not borrow a lot of words from Chinese, understanding Korean can be a bit of a challenge.

Korean teachers often encourage their students to watch the news, listen to the radio and read the Korean press, but many foreigners will be nowhere near understanding 98% of the words used in such contexts. Experiments on children revealed that children learn how to use a word after hearing it 14 times in different contexts and sentences. So indeed reading or listening to anything in Korean will teach foreigners Korean long term, meaning that if you watch the news everyday you may end up being familiar with the vocabulary which is being used. But that is only related to the understanding part.

Speaking Korean involves two things: the raw language and the "pragmatics" or culture and etiquette surrounding the language. While most foreigners form sentences with minor grammatical mistakes, errors in body language, intonation, and the rules of conversation may not get the message across. These rules are very different from society to society as it is even difficult for Americans of a certain society to adapt with Americans belonging to a different subgroup.

Finally, Korean, just like any other language, is spoken and understood the same way as it is learned. If focus is put on conversation with Koreans, that aspect of the language will be mastered, if focus is put on reading, the foreigner will be fluent in reading but perhaps not in conversation, and people practicing sets of grammar exercises will be good at solving grammar problems but not at actually speaking and understanding the language.

Korean language education in Korea - common misunderstandings

Figures show that around 70,000 Koreans attend English hagwons. English in Elementary school from 3rd grade on, and 1 in 5 TOEFL test takers in the world is Korean. The English teaching business is a 10 billion dollar business. Yet few Koreans seem to be proficient in English conversation. Why is that?

First of all, I did not get grants or money to do research, but I am convinced that more than 71,000 Koreans speak fluent or proficient conversational English. As to those school children who seem unable to speak conversational English, I would ask how many of us are able to have conversations in that French, Spanish or Japanese that we studied since Junior High school...

Korean people don't like foreigners moralizing them on how they should learn or not learn a language, as much as Americans don't like French people moralizing them on how they should learn French. Several factors need to be taken into account when judging Korean people's language ability.

First, Koreans learn English to enter a job market which does not require knowledge of conversational English. In fact, if there is any language Koreans should learn, it should be Chinese, because half the 850,000 legal immigrants living in Korea are Chinese. English speakers only represent a small proportion of the foreigners living in Korea, and Korean workers will encounter very few opportunities to meet such people.

When it comes to tourism, a vast majority of tourists entering Korea are Japanese, and they don't seem to complain about communication problems. Most touristic venues have fluent Japanese speakers in Korea, but due to the lack of English speaking tourists in Korea, Koreans don't see the need to employ fluent English speakers in that industry.

Academia is one area where you will be likely to meet English speakers. In a competitive educational system, Koreans highly value degrees from the US and most professors do speak English fluently. However, such professors will refuse to speak English the Korean introduction etiquette was not respected by English speaking foreigners. Korean professors have no reason to act like Americans when dealing with foreign students, as much as American professors have no reason to act French when dealing with French students.

Universities and the job market are highly competitive in Korea. There are only three top ranked universities requiring very difficult examinations -examinations including questions that students may not have come across during their high school years and involving very specialized knowledge - and prestigious jobs require three, four, or five rounds of selection. Koreans are too busy preparing entering such universities and getting such jobs to meet foreigners on regular basis with whom they may practice conversational English.

What matters is the grade, grade to enter college, grade to get that prestigious job. English teachers in Korea can't tell Koreans "listen, forget about entering that prestigious university or getting that prestigious job, try to learn conversational Korean, will you?" As for usefulness, the only people Koreans may actually practice their English with are English teachers or Philippino migrant workers. Might as well learn Chinese or Japanese, which have much more diverse populations living in Korea. Ironically, those Chinese and Japanese people are learning Korean, not asking Koreans to speak to them in English. Finally, if native English speakers are complaining about Koreans speaking to them in English rather than Korean, then why are they putting so much pressure on them to learn English?

Networking in Korea

Since talking to someone in Korea requires that the person be introduced by a third party, Koreans view networking as crucial to meeting people of higher rank, getting a job or even dating.

Meeting people of higher rank in Korea can be helpful for Koreans who own businessmen, work as businessmen or any profession that requires having a large network of acquaintances. In order to meet potential clients or associates, Koreans attend a high number of social gatherings, dinners, and will occasionally spend significant amounts of money to eat in restaurants or join clubs where they have no guarantee of meeting important people, but may still have a small chance of doing so.

Some Koreans will even start attending churches which important people are rumored to attend. Though such Koreans have no religious convictions whatsoever, they "act" religious in order to meet important people. Others will join social clubs which require prohibitively expensive membership fees just to meet such important people. Office workers also join such organizations with the hopes of meeting a businessman looking for an associate, as it is their only way to escape from jobs where they have to fight for promotions and social recognition.

Social gatherings, dinners and conferences are another way to establish connections. Students and young professionals often join such meetings, sometimes volunteer to work in such meetings so that they can meet potential future employers without having to take competitive company entrance examinations. Students often have business cards they give to professors or company executives and try to make the best possible impression. Students will do anything to get that connection with important people, including engage in an extra-marital affair with such executives to enlarge their social network, or accept jobs consisting in working long hours for little or no pay with professors or company executives with hopes of being introduced to important people.

Finally, some people will pay fortunes to go to golf clubs or expensive restaurants where they hope they can meet the owner of such clubs. If they happen to meet the owner, they will cease all activity to engage in conversations with the owner. People going to such places often take foreigners with them: foreigners will often attract the curiosity of the owner hopeful of expanding his clientele to foreigners, while the Korean who brought him there will have the opportunity to establish a connection with the owner.

Some Koreans attend as many social gatherings as they can and may aggressively ask their friends to take them to social gatherings where their friends are invited. Also note that while claiming heritage or connections with very powerful people (the president, ministers or CEOs) was very common in the 1960s and 70s, some people still claim such "fictional" heritage.

Koreans and friendship

Like many things, the notion of friendship differs from country to country. In many Middle Eastern countries, people consider themselves "friends" the minute they meet, in some European countries, continuous contact is required in order to maintain friendship, in the United States, both distances and caring are necessary for two people to be considered friends.

As I mentioned before, Koreans place high value on trust and do not trust people unless they are affiliated in some way. "Affiliation" differs from person to person in Korea. Some people require that their friends belong to the same big organizations: company, school, church etc. Others consider that smaller organizations like clubs, cafes or housing can be considered as a common affiliation. Others consider that a friend's friend can be a friend, while others reject this idea.

After introducing each other, Koreans tend to be quick to exchange their phone number. However, it usually takes time before they actually call each other, and if they call each other relatively shortly after meeting, the person who receives the call may feel suspicious.

In schools or companies, Koreans will build friendships by having common luncheons or drinking parties. Koreans seldom have lunch face to face at the beginning, as they prefer social gatherings where a group of people is involved, and will select their friends from that group.

Koreans don't feel the need to call their friends continuously to maintain the friendship or to meet everyday, they only call each other or meet when they have very specific purposes. Calling "just to say hello" is not common in Korean culture.

Koreans call their friends when they have specific needs: they may ask their friends to help them find a significant other, for advice regarding jobs, or for information regarding the organization or when they need any other favor. Koreans may be in permanent contact when such issues require long actions. They will call each other every day to see how a situation progresses. It is not considered rude to call several times a day to see whether the person responded to the favor, and to remind the person to take quick action.

Korean friends of the same sex may walk hand in hand (women) or arm in arm (men), touch each other's hair (women) and compliment each other on their beauty (women). Men however do not appreciate compliments on their beauty, but do not mind compliments on specific attributes like their eyes, skin or weight, as long as those compliments are from a person of the opposite sex.

Men and women tend to be highly suspicious of their intentions when they are friends. Men seldom meet women face to face with no specific purpose. Often, women will bring another friend along when meeting a man.

Finally, in big cities, it is not uncommon for friends not to meet for months, if not years, despite living in the same cities. Koreans are often busy with work, family or preparing for competitive exams to get a job and don't view meeting friends as a necessity. Friends are in no way offended by this and will help their friends out when in need.

Note that it is acceptable for friends to ask their friends to pay if they give them a favor requiring long work, such as writing a document, proofreading something, teaching, and in some cases, when the favor involves traveling. In that latter case, friends will give pay for their friend's transportation, and will give them extra money. For other favors, the tradition is that the person who receives the favor buys lunch or dinner to the person who gives the favor.

How "smart" people speak and behave in Korea

Let me start this post with a personal story. I entered graduate school in Korea 4 years ago. It was an international school and the curriculum was in English. I had attended college in France and was accustomed to a certain way of "smart" or let's say "wise" discussion.

As I said in my previous post, in France, the more facts one knows, the smarter he is. So I was sitting there taking my first class, and the professor asks us something about democracy. I raise my hand and start blurting out the raw historical facts I knew about democracy, from Plato's criticism of Greek democracy to a democratically elected Adolf Hitler and so on. Professor stops me and redirects the discussion, and I looked like an idiot.

Anyway, knowledge of historical facts do not make look one smart in Korea and are considered useless. So how should I have answered the question?

In fact, content of the answer is not what makes look someone "smart" in South Korea. Koreans don't care about how much people know about the world, they care about how people say it.

First, diction and pronunciation are key when addressing a Korean public. President Kim Young Sam was called an "idiot" by many including the press, for the mere reason that he could not get rid of his Kyeongsan accent. His catch word was his pronunciation of the word "확실히" (certainly) which he pronounced "학실히". And I'm going to stop there with facts. The point is accent, diction and pronunciation have an enormous impact on how Koreans evaluate each other. People who use standard pronunciation, the kind of pronunciation prescribed by the National Institute of Korean Language, are viewed as "smart" people.

Another determining factor in how Korean people view each other as smart is the choice of words. Exact use of complicated words derived from English or old Chinese (hanja) are an excellent way to give a good impression at a job interview or a social gathering in which academic or economic stakes are high. This is why, by the way, when Korean people speak English they tend to prefer using all those words we only come through while studying for exams like the GRE and no one actually uses.

A third, very important factor on how Koreans consider someone "intelligent" is the proper use of grammar, honorifics in particular. The use of Korean grammar is different when talking to friends and in formal occasions. 이랑 is replaced by 과, 께서 has very precise uses, 요 and 입니다 have "should" be used alternatively and have very precise rules as to when they should be used, rules that no school actually teaches, and many other rules.

Interventions should be concise and informative at the same time, but most importantly, group harmony should be maintained, meaning that it is a taboo to mention facts people might not know during discussions. In a way, Koreans make sure that people have previous knowledge of what is being said. I noticed that when Koreans argue about a subject in particular, they use the 잖아 inflection (meaning "as you know") more than at any other time, to make sure that their "opponent" knows what they are talking about. If new facts are to be taught, they should be done conventionally: through books, lectures, television but not during discussions.

Finally, body language should be reduced to a minimum, Korean people don't value people who move and gesticulate when they are trying to make a point. Korean prefer the tone of the voice to be kept low.

During my class intervention, I committed three social blunders: I was laid back and used rather colloquial English, gesticulating, and giving out information people were not always aware of. Foreign students have a harder time when trying to discuss their thesis content or paper content with their professors: professors will often tell them to write the thesis or paper first before discussing the contents, rather than hear their students telling them things they may not know. Some consider it is a sign of lack of quality in education, but I personally argue that it is purely cultural.

Who Korean people consider "smart people"

Every society has a different definition for intelligence. There are no universal values for being smart, and no test, even the IQ test, is indicative of what society considers an "intelligent person".

Before I talk about Korea, I'd like to talk about the difference between two societies many think have similar standards when it comes to judging what is an "intelligent person", France and the United States.

In France, a "smart person" is a person with a lot of factual knowledge. French people will think you're smart if you're good at remembering dates, people, events, sayings, or any factual knowledge, and the further you go back in history, the more you will be considered smart. French people say that such people have "encyclopedic knowledge", smart people in France are living encyclopedias who can recite any entry of a decent encyclopedia and who know a little bit about everything. This fact does not suffice to qualify to be regarded by society as intelligent, as, in order to be admired by society, one must attend a "grande ecole", one of those prestigious schools with very competitive entrance examinations.

In America, having factual knowledge and graduating prestigious schools does not automatically mean people will regard you as smart. In fact, most people regarded as "smart" in the United States have limited factual knowledge, and some of them never graduated from college. In the US, being smart means being innovative, any idea, any invention that has the qualities of being new and useful qualifies people to be considered smart.

Unlike France, perfect use of the English language does not automatically make one "smart", it is what one does that counts, and not what one says. In fact, any idea or invention that brought changes to society which are considered positive are attributed to "smart people". While those who popularized Starbucks or McDonalds in the US are considered "smart" by Americans, they are considered "shrewd" rather than "smart" in France.

This has implications as to when French students travel to the US or American students travel to France, think of themselves as "smart" and are surprised not to considered smart. It has implications when one comes to Korea as well.

Who do Koreans consider a "smart" person. Factual knowledge or innovation are not criteria which Koreans consider when they judge someone to find out whether he's smart. In Korea, numbers make all the difference. People are considered smart when they attend prestigious universities, just like in France. But unlike France, Korean people are considered smart when they are good at getting high numbers at tests. While job interviews in both France and America tend to select people depending on how well people performed at the interview and how much experience they have,

Koreans put much more weight on tests results: college GPA scores, standardized test scores and college attended, which is itself often a reflection of college entrance exam scores. Another factor to be considered smart is the job or position one has: lawyers, doctors, professors and to a certain degree journalists and clergymen are considered smart. Finally, in Korean society, a student can never be regarded as smart by the overall society, nor can a young person in general.

To summarize here are the criteria to qualify for what these three societies regard people as "smart" people:

-Lots of factual knowledge, "encyclopedic knowledge"
-Good rhetoric, correct use of the standard spoken and written languages
-Attendance of prestigious schools
-Respectable jobs (writers, journalists, lawyers, doctors, public officials, CEOs but NOT professors, teachers, any businessman who is not a CEO,)

the United States:
-Ability to analyze and take quick decisions
-Innovative ideas and products
-Problem solving ability
-Ability to "sell" products
-Economic wealth and power
-Jobs don't matter as long as you make a lot of money and you like your job

-Test scores
-College attended
-Ability to speak foreign languages
-Ability to use standard spoken and written forms of the language, especially pronunciation
-JOB (professors, lawyers, doctors, news anchors, CEOs, managers in major companies, politicians, diplomats, any profession which requires to take competitive examinations, people who work in the broadcasting industry, clergymen (among religious people) and to a certain extent flight attendants (because they can speak languages), researchers, translators, language and math teachers).

Defining racism towards African and African-American people in Korea

Anyone who is African or African-American will tell you that they have trouble taking taxis in South Korea, that people refuse to sit next to them when using public transportation and that some stores refuse to sell them anything. Other complaints include Koreans refusing to speak English to them even when they do, or Koreans telling them outright that they dislike "black" people.

Where does this originate from? I will argue that there are two origins.
The first one is an older version, when in the 19th century European scientists attempted to define "black" people as the "inferior race". Let me explain. It was argued that the human being evolved in Africa, thus starting off as black, then moved to Asia, thus becoming Asian, then to Europe, thus evolving to its final, most perfect state-white. Therefore scientists argued that fetuses started off as Black, evolved as Asian and then came out as white. Fetuses that came out black meant that they did not evolve properly, and those who came out Asian only evolved partially. Dr. Down, who discovered the Down syndrome was himself a supporter of this theory and coined the term "Mongolian" to describe his patients who had the down syndrome because he argued that they had stopped evolving at the "Asian" phase. Of course this theory has been completely discredited since World War II.

This means that for a number of years, many people in the world did believe that black people were primitive men who had failed to evolve as "perfect" men. Though few Koreans would directly prove this theory right, you will often hear Koreans say that "Black people are primitive", that they "still marry several wives" and that they "refuse to dress up as westerners" and are not "suitable for an industrialized economy".

Let me stop here for a second. As a linguist, I should argue that one of the first theories to demonstrate scientifically that all men regardless of color or ethnicity were equal was a linguistics theory: Noam Chomsky's Universal Grammar. Chomsky argued that all men had a "grammar component" in their brain that made them acquire any language they were exposed to, and that therefore you could be from a hunter-gatherer tribe in Africa, then be adopted by a family in Cambridge, Massachusetts, grow up in a White middle class environment, speak just like people surrounding you speak, and why not end up attending Harvard or the MIT.

The second theory is a socio-economic theory which encourages racism towards black people in Korea. Koreans are convinced that most countries with majority black popualations are poor countries, and that African-Americans and black minorities around the world tend to be economically deprived. This fact tends to confirm their first intuition according to which black people are inherently inferior. But let's stop here again. Bermuda, a British territory but which is partly independent, is mainly populated by black people. It is by far the richest territory in the world. Its per capita GDP is 91,000 US dollars. It is a territory where you will see black people working as CEOs, chairmen, doctors, lawyers and any fine profession you can think of. The Bahamas, another country with a majority of black people, also ranks higher than South Korea in per capita GDP.

Fear of black people and racism towards black people has the same roots in Korea as it does in other industrialized countries where black people are minorities. Racism has been somewhat appeased through black role models in some countries (African-American singers and actors in the United States, soccer players in the UK and Turkey, tennis players in France) and while Hines Ward's popularity did change Korean people's views on biracial children, it certainly did little to change Korean people's views on Africans and African-Americans.

Defining racism in Korea

Foreigners tend to jump to conclusions and are quick to say that whenever something does not please them about Korean people, it's because Korean people are racist.

Before we start asking the question of what is racism in Korea, we should ask ourselves the question of who is racist in Korea: the Korean who refuses to sit next to a foreigner, who openly states that he dislikes foreigners, laws that prohibit foreigners from buying cell phones and limit their right to having health care?
Or the foreigner who calls Koreans "stupid", "insular", "sectarian", who claims that they are incapable of learning English, that they are "weird" people who don't fit in the global community etc. etc.?

Defining racism without judging a person is a hard thing to do. But let's try to do that. Most societies in the world have a story, a legend or a book that claims directly or indirectly that their way of life is the best. With the advent of science and technology, there was even an attempt by white people to define themselves as scientifically superior to all other people. Until as late as the 1950s, many scientists considered valid the theory according the which white men had evolved from black and Asian men and that they represented humanity in its perfect state. Even in recent years, scientists have tried to demonstrate that AIDS was related to race in some way, that black people were predisposed to getting AIDS and that Asians were not. Other theories have suggested that black people were biologically more fit for activities like sports and dancing and that white people were biologically more fit for intellectual activities. These theories still have not been discarded, although there is very strong scientific evidence contradicting these facts.

Geneticists and biologists have demonstrated that in fact black populations and Asian populations had as much variation as their genes as any other people and that genetically there is no such thing as "white people", "black people" or "Asian people". Calling someone a "white" person has social implications in the sense that it does define his identity, but very little genetic implications as he may be genetically very different from any other white person.

What does this mean for Korea? Over the past 4 centuries white people have tried every method to prove that they were superior people. White people stopped using the term superior or explicitly claiming that they were better than other peoples after the Holocaust, but Korea is one of those countries where it can clearly be seen that white people do have this heritage of thinking of itself as a "superior" race.

If not, why is it then that foreigners criticize everything in Korea from food to people ("Koreans lack self-confidence", "Koreans don't want to mix with foreigners", "Koreans are too stupid to learn English"), to the culture ("Koreans have a hierarchical society which is bad", "Korean workers kiss their boss's behinds", "Koreans are hypocrites and will never say the truth to your face"). From what perspective are all the things that I just described "bad"? Certainly not from a Korean perspective... Just like every society on earth, people tend to think that their way of doing things is the "best" way. More so that for centuries now the white race has been trying to prove that it is a superior race, and that therefore its way of life is superior to other people's way of life, and that with globalization some non-white people have actually bought this theory and started questioning themselves.

As for Koreans, there have been some verbal assaults on foreigners reported (marginal ones) and I've never heard about a physical assault on a foreigner. Here's a Q and A session on the reasons Koreans behave in what some call a "racist" way:

Why aren't foreigners allowed to buy cell phones?:
As I have said many times, Koreans place huge importance on trust. They feel that they can not trust someone who will buy a cell phone and who may leave the country without paying his phone bills. Koreans want to identify people who use cell phones through a very strict identification system because of a security law since the country is technically at war. Since foreigners' identification usually expires within a year, and that contracts tend to last for at least a year, they do not allow foreigners to buy cell phones.

Why can't foreign students get health care?:
Koreans consider a wife or a boss at a company to be legal sponsors, but not universities. The health care system requires that foreigners get a sponsor, be affiliated with an organization to get health care. Because universities are large crowded areas where people have relative freedom and no official sponsor, Korean authorities don't consider universities as organizations. Health care is partly covered by the Korean government, partly by companies, but is not covered by universities. And foreign students do not pay taxes and do not have parents who pay taxes in Korea, and it is therefore considered that the government should not pay for things that citizens do not pay taxes for in return.

Why do Koreans refuse to sit next to foreigners in buses or subways?:
There is an etiquette for who to sit next to in buses or subways in Korea. People should choose to sit to the person who resembles them the most. Young men will chose to sit in priority next to young men, then old men, then old women, then young women. Old women will choose to sit next to old women, young women, young men, old women. Foreigners are considered not to fit in the "identity criteria" and are placed last in the list, because they resemble Koreans the least. That is because while Koreans can act in predictable ways, foreigners act in unpredictable ways.

Why do Koreans use 반말 when they speak to foreigners?
Any older person can use 반말 with a person who is visibly younger or the same age, and the same is done with Koreans. Though it is not the "recommended" thing to do, many do not follow the rule.

Other questions, including why Koreans don't hire non-white people for English teaching jobs, why Koreans grab and push foreigners rather than talk to them, etc. have been answered in this blog.

The point is that while some Koreans may claim to dislike foreigners, it may not compare with how much foreigners claim to dislike Koreans.

How the Korean media portrays infidelity

Anyone who has watched Korean movies, dramas or who reads the Korean press will get the impression that there are no happy Korean couples and that they all cheat on each other.

Korean movies and dramas know that they increase their audience by portraying extramarital relationships more than "normal" relationships. Any decent movie or drama needs something "unusual" to happen in the storyline, something that shocks the public and that makes them reflect on the issue. You will thus find way more extramarital relationships in Korean movies and dramas, as it is the easiest way to portray something unusual.

Let's take a look at media figures on infidelity: some newspapers reported that as many as 70-80% Korean men cheated on their wives and 20-30% women cheated on their husbands. How true is this? It is a known fact among sociologists that only frustrated people respond to surveys. Think about it for a second: would you bother to participate in a survey if you had nothing to complain about? My view on this is that figures on infidelity are much lower in Korea.

The other thing is that the Korean media portrays couples as frustrated couples. There are several reality shows on how men cheat on their girlfriends, husbands on their wives, news reports on how actors and singers cheat on their significant others. But think about it... how many people would read articles or watch television shows about couples living happily?

Finally, entire radio shows in Korea are dedicated to callers complaining about their love lives. How many people would call such shows to report that everything is
going fine with their couple? Wouldn't they destroy the atmosphere?

This is not something true only to Korea, it is true of most modern civilizations. Victimization in the media ends up making people feeling victims themselves, as happy couples may suddenly feel deviant for being happy, as the accepted norm for love and relationships in the modern world is that it should be complicated and extramarital relationships should be part of every relationship. My view on this is that most Korean couples live happy lives and have harder times struggling to make a living than to be happy with each other.

Explaining "bad Korean English"

When human beings enter a new country, they tend to compare everything they see with what they had previously experienced. They tend to think that what they experienced until then was "right" and that what they see is somewhat "wrong". In a Korean context, Koreans bumping into you and not excusing themselves is "wrong" because the "right" thing to do in your country is to excuse yourself.

The same thing happens when people learn a new language. Foreigners learning Korean tend to think that a lot of the aspects of Korean language are "wrong" and that the way to say things in our language is "right". It is something hidden in the subconscious, but when people learn foreign languages, they tend to use the same grammatical structures, pronunciation, word formation rules and meanings of words as in their native language.

Linguists argue that Korean is a "mirror" language of English. That is, if you put English on a mirror, you will get the Korean word order. Verbs at the end, post-positions instead of prepositions etc.

However, when Koreans speak English, they have their rules, which they think of as best, and when Americans speak Korean they have their rules which they think of as best.

Korean has different pronunciation rules from English which are as follows:
-There can not be two consonants at the beginning of a word or syllable
Therefore Koreans will add the "eu" (으) sound between consonants at the beginning of a syllable: Christmas becomes "Keurismaseu"
-Some sounds have to be followed by vowels in Korean: ㅎ (h), ㅅ (s), ㅈ (j), ㅊ(ch), ㅌ (t), ㅋ (k) have to be followed by vowels. Therefore, if such sounds are placed at the end of a syllable in English, Koreans will add "eu"(으), and "i"(이) if they are "j" or "ch" sounds at the end of a word: "mask" becomes "maseukeu", "bench" becomes "benchi"
-Some English sounds (mostly consonants)do not exist in Korean. They will therefore either be replaced by Korean consonants or will alter between them.
"f" will tend to become "p", "z" will become "j", "r" will either become "l" or a "flapped r", "th" will become "d" or "s", "v" will become "b". Note however that Koreans alter such consonants and give them "allophonic" values, meaning that they are the same sound but change pronunciation depending whether they are preceded by a consonant, vowel or nothing. "p", "b", "f" and "v" tend to have the same value among Korean speakers as they may say things like "vanana" instead of "banana", "fancake" instead of "pancake" etc. They may also say "Zames" instead of "James" and the like.

Korean is an agglutinative language where parts which have meaning stick together to form words in a regular way. If one combination is word parts is possible in Korean, it is possible for all other words. Explaining this would involve complicated "morphological" analysis so let's just put it this way:
In Korean, 조심-스럽-게, 건강-스럽-게 or 흥미-럽-게 are all possible words (note that 스럽다 becomes 럽다 when preceded by a consonant), as is any adjective with 스럽/럽 and 게. If Koreans know that "care-FUL-LY" is a possible word, they will think it is possible with all adjectives: "health-FUL-LY", "interest-FUL-LY" etc.

There are a number of grammar rules that Koreans calque from their native language when they speak English. An example of this would be that Koreans do not need an auxiliary (to be) when an adjective becomes a verb: to be handsome in Korean would be literally "to handsome". In fact Koreans tend to drop the verb "be" all together. Therefore "he's gonna come" becomes "he gonna come" etc.
Koreans also use particles differently, since they are used differently in Korean. For, to, at, from etc. are all used differently from American English. Koreans may say "I gave it for someone" instead of "to someone" etc. because in this case 에게 can sometimes be used in contexts meaning "for" in Korean (ㅇㅇ에게 케익 만들었다= I made cake for someone).
Koreans may add articles to names of people, cities and countries (the Australia, the New York, the James) because in Korean, if you apply a preposition to a noun, it should be applied to all nouns in the context
While Koreans use "the" a lot, the preposition "a" seems to be omitted. Koreans will often say "I am man" or in some cases "I man" (instead of I am a man) or "He works for company" (instead of "he works for a company". That is because in Korean there is no equivalent of the preposition "a".


Korean has a lot of loanwords from English which experienced semantic change over the years. Some words were also loaned from British English, from 19th Century American English through Japan or recently from Singapore, and have different meanings in American English today.

Koreans still borrow words from English and use them differently, not because they are stupid, but because they have a different vision of words and life.

Koreans may use "one piece", "hand phone", "overeat" in English sentences to mean "dress", "cell phone" or "throw up". A large number of technical terms were coined in Korean with no equivalent in American English. Americans working in the broadcasting industry in Korea may hear a lot of words they are not familiar with, including "VJ" (video journalist), "announcer" (reporter), "UCC" (video as in youtube video), "NG" (no good, when the scene needs to be shot over again) etc. Koreans use such words when they speak English.

As I argued, they "calque" Korean when they speak English, which is something every human being does when he speaks a second language. Calling Koreans "stupid" for not being able to learn and use English "properly" is equivalent to calling human beings "stupid" for having unsophisticated brains which calque native languages when they speak foreign languages.

Interpreting the "swine flu" media sensation

A lot has been said about swine flu in the Korean media. The government also took strict safety measures regarding swine flu. Schools had to close if a certain number of people caught the flu, company and school meetings were canceled... what was the government and media's message behind swine flu?

Every disease carries a message to society. In the 1920s, tuberculosis was a serious disease, which appeared in cities and was considered a lower class disease. The media's message at the time was that "people live too close together in cities, people don't have their personal space, and lower class people live too close from upper class people and are transmitting a disease".

Then there was cancer, and the media tried to give a message: "we live disorganized lives, don't eat healthy food, don't exercise, we are a lazy society pursuing comfort and luxury at the expense of hard work and chores, therefore we are getting those kinds of diseases". Though genetic factors are critical among cancer patients, the media usually omits that factor.

With AIDS, we saw the same thing. The media was telling people "we have accepted homosexuality, we have too many drug addicts and there's too much promiscuity and AIDS is the price we're paying for all that".

What's the message behind SARS, bird flu and swine flu then? Swine flu is said to have originated in Mexico and was revealed by US press agencies. US press agencies seemed to insist on the Mexican origins of the disease so much (though today no one is sure whether it really originated in Mexico) that some countries systematically refused visas to Mexicans. In Korea, the message seemed to be: the virus originated from foreign countries, Koreans have too much contact with foreigners, travel too much, we have no personal space, we live too close together...) thus the suspicion raised by Korean authorities on people who traveled, foreigners and people who went to crowded places.

Many took crowded subways in Seoul and did not get the virus, and less people died of swine flu than of other diseases. By renaming swine flu H1N1, the media also wanted to avoid offending cultures which considered pigs improper animals. Behind every news headline, there is a subliminal message to society.

Gender and Korean language

Korean may not be one of those languages which marks gender grammatically, it is a language where there are clear but subtle differences between men and women.

Let's first talk about the role of Korean women in society. There are some societies where women dominate social life (notably in the Pacific), some societies where women are increasingly vocal about changing their role in society (in most modernized cities around the world) and some societies where women are reduced to "minor" roles in society. Anthropologists argue that whatever the society, no society is necessarily "better".

Korea has experience a dramatic change, going from an agriculture society to an industrialized society within a span of 20-30 years. Alvin Toefler, a sociologist who is unheard of in western societies but very popular among societies which experienced such abrupt and dramatic change, coined the term "future shock", where people within the same society are disoriented and do not recognize the society they live in after it experienced dramatic changes within a brief amount of time.

What does this mean for Korean women? Korean women used to have the traditional roles of bringing up children and taking care of house chores. Women did not interact with other men and women working in companies along with men was considered "inconceivable" until the 1970s. Until then, most college students were men and college was considered an improper place for women to be. Women did attend high school, but without having college in mind. Women married some time after graduating from college, and marriages were in most cases arranged, as women did not have the opportunity to meet other men. Men and women were segregated from junior high school onwards, and in some cases, from elementary school. I am no fan of the Confucian explanation of these gender roles, and my view on this is that socio-biological elements played a crucial role, though I will not elaborate this here.

Women were considered inferior to men in the sense that they had to show respect to men, and men had to protect them. Note that words like nuna and oppa were strictly restricted to the family circle and were not used for people with whom no blood ties were established.

This is when future shock came in. Korean economy became industrialized, it was easier to find food, and women were needed in the workforce. Women entered the workforce, but were still considered inferior to men. Though today there is a significant number of congresswomen, CEOs (yes there are!), professors etc., one should note that they almost exclusively work with other women and limit their interactions with men. Men still won't take orders from women, won't listen to them and will only accept orders from a male boss. Though things changed in 30 years, the older generation of men which witnessed women confined in their role as "mothers" is still alive, therefore it may take some time for women to be considered equals with men.

When it comes to language, women and men differ in their prescriptive use of "polite speech". While women directly or indirectly invite those younger than them (men and women) to use "plain speech" (반말) as long as the women are not married, men will tend to impose "polite speech" to those who are younger than them. Note however that both men and women tend to use "polite speech" with married women.

Children may use "plain speech" with their mothers in public, however, while many children will use "plain speech" with their father in the private sphere, they will use "polite speech" in public.

Women also differ in the sense that they tend to view conversations from a more "equal" perspective and tend to agree on the fact that both should "lead" the conversation. This is not true of married women. Men, in contrast, tend to think that there should be a "leader" in the conversation. Note that, regardless of age, men tend to lead conversations even when they are with older women, but not with married women.

Finally, at the workplace, women tend to mix "polite speech" and "plain speech" with their subordinates. Women will tend to use polite speech when they give orders to their subordinates ('해 주세요') whereas men will exclusively use plain speech with subordinates.

Finally, there are some differences in the way men and women formulate their sentences:

Women: Tend to be more careful when they use "polite speech" with men, tend to use longer sentences, to color their speech with more "hesitation" words when asking for a favor (저 있잖아...), tend to speak with more intonations and their voice tends to be more nasal, tend to formulate questions rather than make assertions, use body language a lot when they talk.

Married women: Sentences tend to be shorter, careful with polite speech when speaking to men, use very few "hesitation" words, tend to refute what younger people will tell them (often use the phrase "그개 아나라" after younger people make a statement), tend not to look at men when they talk to them, little body language.

Men: Less careful with polite speech when talking to women, very careful with polite speech when talking to superiors, use few "hesitation" words, make more assertions and ask fewer questions, very short sentences, body language is still make little use of hands or body when talking, though they do tend to touch their hair a lot, tend to giggle while they speak when speaking to hierarchical superiors or women.

Upper class men: speak with long sentences, use "plain" speech (반말) with virtually every group, vowels tend to be longer than other groups, smile a lot but laugh very little when they talk, few "hesitation" words, constant interruptions, constant refutation of what the other person says (using 그개 아니라), very little body language, higher voice pitch than other groups.

First contacts with Koreans

A fundamental rule in Korean society is that Koreans should not "reveal their feelings" to strangers, whether Korean or foreigner. What this means concretely:

-Koreans do not excuse themselves when they bump into people in the streets
-Koreans do not greet people they meet for the first time, unless it is ritualized (two beautiful women standing at the entrance of a supermarket and bowing at clients)
-Koreans do not engage in any form of conversation with strangers who do not have an established relationship with them and only say what has to be said (as I argued before, the owner of a business and his clients may consider his relationship established as owner-client, others ignore this relationship, but in any case, a part-time worker will not engage in conversation with clients unless it is the business's policy)

These rules may sound complicated, but to sum up, Koreans don't talk to strangers. You may notice that in a bus, an old man may pull you out of your chair reserved to the elderly without saying a word. You may also notice Koreans pushing you in the subway or crowded areas without saying a word, or with people in the streets bumping into you or stepping on your feet without saying a word to excuse themselves.

Note that Koreans rarely ask for directions in the streets. They only ask for directions when they are inside a car and the person they are asking directions to knows that they will be out of the way within a few seconds. Therefore, Koreans will switch sidewalks if a stranger is looking at them or approaching them in some way. They leave without saying a word when evangelicals approach them to convert them. And they look into different directions when a stranger approaches them with a question, though they will feel forced to answer if eye contact was established with the stranger.

Koreans use English with foreigners for two reasons: as I argued before, they want the foreigner to know and acknowledge the fact that they are bilingual. They also want to keep the conversation as short as possible, as the foreigner might not understand what the Korean said in Korean, which may lead to a longer conversation. Koreans try to keep conversations short with strangers.

When a third party brings a stranger to a party, the rule is that he must introduce the stranger to the group, doing so loud and clear and giving as much information as possible about the stranger. When introducing a stranger to a group, foreigners often introduce them by saying their names, and then expect the stranger to complete his own self-introduction. Koreans do not communicate with people they do not have enough information about, and not introducing a stranger properly to a group may lead the stranger to be an outcast for the rest of the party. Koreans will avoid looking at the stranger and talking to him.

When a third party introduces a stranger to a group, he usually gives information such as name, age, job, and nationality if it's a foreigner. The third party will then add relevant information regarding why he brought the stranger to the party or how the stranger is in some way affiliated to the group. It is not uncommon for third parties to mention marital status or dating status in introductions.

As some third parties do forget to introduce their guests, it is common that the stranger will ask his third party to introduce him to the group. Once the relationship is established, conversations can go on normally, and Koreans will actively engage in conversation regardless of whether it is a foreigner or a Korean as long as:
-the foreigner observes the local etiquette
-the foreigner speaks at least basic conversational Korean

Note that Koreans refuse to speak languages that may not be understood by some. The reason is that Koreans are highly group oriented and are worried about offending people who may not understand the language. It is therefore important to speak conversational Korean.

While it is considered rude to interrupt a conversation or to comment on what two people are saying during the first meeting, it is important to wait for that conversation to be over and to start the conversation. Starting a conversation includes asking several questions which will determine the relationship between the two and who will lead the conversation. I've given some information on who leads conversations and how relationships are established in other posts.

Koreans also tend to remain neutral during the first meeting and not to give any judgment on anything. They may not laugh at jokes and may not frown on what bothers them. Even while drinking, the newcomer/ stranger will be relatively ignored. Only in subsequent meetings, as the stranger shows commitment to the group, will conversations get more "interesting".

Note finally that Koreans tend to ostracize people who are not "full members of a group". A strong tie to the group is needed, meaning that they should be from the same organization to be considered full members. Therefore, Koreans may not invite strangers who are foreign to the group on a collective basis, but will certainly on an individual basis if a strong relationship is established between two people.

Talking business with Koreans

If you expect Koreans to buy your products, sell you their products at cheaper prices, or fear your presence by continually insisting on the fact that you graduated from an elite school and that you worked hard to become one of the leading employees at your company, you may be disappointed.

Korean businessmen expect foreigners to send them all the information regarding their company and past achievements beforehand, and such topics will not come up during conversations or business negotiations.

In fact, the third party which introduced the two businessmen may remind your Korean counterpart that you graduated from an elite school or of any significant personal or career achievement that you had, just so that the third party remind the Korean businessman that he has introduced him to a person that he can trust.

Third parties are very important to start a negotiation. Koreans refuse to negotiate with anyone who has not been introduced by a third party. It is a question of trust.

The purpose of meetings is then to clarify the relationship between the foreigner and the Korean. Koreans will want to know how much they can trust their foreign counterparts.

Trust includes how the foreigner behaves, as Koreans will trust modest people who respect them and will not trust anyone who acts arrogantly. They want to deal with people who can converse lightly and who are not afraid to expose aspects of their private life. "Ducking" a question regarding one's private life is often interpreted by Koreans as a sign that one has something bad to hide, as their level of trust will diminish.

Questions regarding private life include those on children, marital status, city of origin, country parents are from, religion, how you met your wife, where you live, what your college major was, and perhaps what your parent's occupation was, whether you completed your military service, what rank you achieved in the military service and your dating history, what your name means, your name's origin etc. However, Koreans usually do not want to know how well you performed in college, how prestigious your college or anything that may put them in an inferior position.

Note that Koreans often consider that your parents' citizenship is more important than your actual citizenship, and if your parents are from different countries, your father's country is more important, though they will not use this information against you. Your religion will not be a sign of superiority or inferiority as all religions are regarded equally in Korea, and religion is not synonymous with citizenship in Korea. Also note that being an atheist is an acceptable form of religion that Koreans respect. Therefore, if one is raised in a religion but does not practice, one may answer he is atheist, or otherwise, Koreans may ask what church you attend and who the pastor is.

Hobbies constitute an important part of the conversation as Korean businessmen will want to know what you like to do in your free time so that they can practice such activities with you. However, Koreans do not ask how one actually performs at a hobby or sport, and performing poorly is completely acceptable as long as one enjoys the activity.

Koreans want to know as much about their foreign counterpart as they possibly can so that both can be placed on an equal level of friendship rather than hostility during negotiations. Note that Koreans prefer short answers to long answers, as they want to get the essential information out of the conversation, which longer answers often include opinions, judgments or comments which may place Korean businessmen in an inferior position or offend them.

Finally, Korean businessmen will try everything to avoid getting offended during negotiations, including saying what the foreign businessman wants to hear. Foreign businessmen often leave the negotiation satisfied, but then, to their surprise, find out that their Korean counterpart wants to cancel the deal so that it can be renegotiated.

By "saying what the foreigner wants to hear" (which also applies to Korean businessmen), I mean that Koreans will make lots of promises, including those of putting clauses in the contract which are very favorable to the foreign negotiator. By having a second negotiation, foreign negotiators will often understand that the company does not support such promises and that a more realistic deal needs to be reached.

Doing business with Koreans - selling things to Koreans

In recent years a lot of foreign companies have made successful business deals with Koreans and their products are selling very well. There are some social rules when it comes selling foreign products to Koreans.

Koreans only buy products from people they can trust. Korean businessmen give as much importance to the products foreigners try to sell as to the person who is selling them.

While in Western countries selling products involves convincing the customer about the quality of the product and company who is selling the product, Koreans need to feel secure with the person they are buying the product from. They tend to be highly suspicious of deals and try to make sure that they are dealing with someone who will intervene in their favor in case something goes wrong with the deal.

This means that Koreans want to spend a significant amount of time having sincere conversations with their foreign counterparts. They don't want their counterparts to convince them that they graduated from prestigious schools and worked hard to achieve high positions at their company. They want their counterparts to show them that foreign businessmen want to be good friends and want to help them.

Therefore, a large part of the negotiation involves casual conversation and activities. Golf and tennis are common activities, but Korean businessmen want to drink alcohol with their foreign counterparts. They will often take foreign businessmen to danranjujeoms, which are business bars where hostesses join the conversation and serve drinks to customers.

In forcing foreign businessmen to engage in such behavior, Korean businessmen want to make sure that their counterparts behaved comfortably but unethically. They want to get to know their counterparts on the deepest personal level, and get their foreign counterparts to say things and do things that show their real personality. Korean businessmen tend not to judge their counterparts but want to make sure that they have evidence that they can turn against their foreign counterpart in case there is something wrong with the product they sold them, or in case there is a problem with the deal.

Korean businessmen tend to consider contracts as secondary, as they tend to view the spoken agreements they had with their foreign counterparts more important. They expect their foreign counterparts to be very flexible when they negotiate deals. Just as when they sell products, Korean businessmen tend to include beautiful women and handsome Western men during the negotiation who serve as "interpreters" but whose real role is to serve as people who "soften" the negotiation and prevent foreign negotiators from being too aggressive.