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

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).