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

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.