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[The Korea Herald]English fluency an unusual source of pride in Korea …

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2016.07.05 / 1,460


[FEATURE] English fluency an unusual source of pride in Korea

2016-07-03 16:37

A director-level official from a government body of commerce walks into a conference room. He is welcomed by a representative of a U.S.-based firm, who wastes no time in explaining his complaints and demands related to doing business in Korea.

The translator opens his mouth, only to be stopped mid-sentence by the director.

“Thanks, I’ll take it from here. I can speak English,” he says. He then goes on struggling to sustain a conversation with less-than-perfect, if not downright broken English.

“It was a bizarre sight. He told me not to translate, and just write down the conversation,” said the in-house translator, who works for a government agency. He wished not to be identified. 

“Of the officials in high-ranking positions, people who think they speak English well enough are reluctant about using a translator, even though it is clear that they can benefit from professional assistance. This is because they feel compelled to appear as though they are fluent in English to save face,” he said.


The incident, witnessed on several occasions by the translator, was a reminder of how fluency in English is considered a yardstick in one’s ability in studies, work and life.

While many companies say they look past academic credentials when hiring new employees, most of them still require certified English scores with their applications.

Even people already secure in their jobs are required to study English in order to move up the company ladder.

A survey by YBM, a private education provider that also runs the Test of English for International Communication in Korea, showed that 87.6 percent of employees felt they needed to study English regardless of the type of work they do.

The top reasons were “for their own development,” “to move to another job” or “to be promoted.”

“More companies are requiring applicable English skills when looking for someone to promote, so a fairly high number of office workers are preparing for TOEIC and other certified English tests in parallel to working,” an YBM official said.

Aside from promotions at work, English skills of prominent figures have often also become a topic of interest among Koreans.

A video comparing the reaction to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s speech from native English speakers and Koreans went viral online a few years ago.

The video, originally aired by the Educational Broadcasting System, had aimed to remind that the content of the speech -- not the native speaker-like pronunciation -- was vital to conversation.

The program delved into different reactions among Koreans and English speakers, with the former being ruthless in judging Ban’s rather “candid” pronunciation of English.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (Yonhap)

The public’s interest in Ban’s English skills and how fluent they thought he did or did not sound indeed acted as a testament to Koreans’ obsession over English and being absolutely perfect in it, right down to native-like intonation.

English lecturer Jake K. Lee had even once said, “Koreans are perhaps the only people who take issue with the U.N. secretary-general’s (English) pronunciation.”

While Ban’s case showed Koreans’ high standards in English, another case involving President Park Geun-hye showed high-ranking officials’ eagerness to show off their linguistic capacities.

Since taking office, President Park Geun-hye has gained a reputation for giving speeches in the language of the country she visits. In her latest U.S. visit in 2015, she delivered three of a total of seven speeches at the U.N. in English.

While her choice of language may have been out of courtesy to the host country or for efficiency, her aides wasted no time touting the president’s global competitiveness showcased through her -- albeit prewritten -- English speeches.

The hype immediately prompted criticism, chiefly from opposition camps. Former lawmaker Kim Han-gil of the minor opposition People’s Party criticized the tendency, saying a leader using his or her mother tongue during speeches was a matter of national pride.

The media and the general public, meanwhile, were entertained.

Upon Park’s English speech to the joint session of U.S. Congress in 2013, for instance, search terms such as “Park Geun-hye,” “U.S. Congress” and “English speech” brought up scores upon scores of stories on Park’s English speeches.

Among them were: “Park’s English speech applauded 41 times at the U.S. Congress ... Frantic reaction,” “Park’s English speech receives standing ovations,” “Park to stand at the U.S. Congress later today with an English speech,” “Park speaks English fluently at the Congress ... Applauded 40 times.”

What the headlines didn’t describe was the content of the speech, which was her vision for peace in Northeast Asia.

While these articles were featured in the “lighter” part of the news, it showed just how much the Korean media and the public are interested in fluent English speaking and whether such ability is approved by the audience of native speakers.

The tendency to equate one’s English ability to one’s intellectual competence appears to derive mostly from the fact that English is often treated as an academic field that one must master, rather than a linguistic capacity as a tool, according to observers.

English education in Korea can be traced back as far as the late 19th century, and has remained one of the key subjects since Seoul National University established English and English education majors in 1946.

The Education Ministry’s report in February showed that of the 190,000 won ($165) per month spent for private education on average by students, the greatest amount was devoted to studying English, at 80,000 won.

Kim Chang-eun, the head of a Korean school in Yantai, China, said his curriculum is largely based on regular Korean educational curriculum, but devotes extra periods to foreign languages like English and Chinese. He explained that this is to assure that the students will be competent in entering university, including universities in Korea.

The Korean curriculum’s extreme emphasis on the language is what many Koreans perceive as one of key demonstrations of the country’s obsession with English.

“In school, ‘fluent English speaker’ would often mean ‘good student,’ as only the top students get to be any good in English,” said 31-year-old Hong, himself a graduate of English literature at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.

“Students who excel in English would often stand out in class, even more so than students who did well in other subjects because it was seen as a rarer talent.”

Some experts say a deeply rooted inferiority complex, admiration for English-speaking societies and the fixation on continuing the country’s industrialization with globalization may be factors behind the English craze.

In the book “Korean and English,” author Gang Jun-man describes the deeply rooted English craze via 1930s advertisements in the Chosun Ilbo newspaper.

“Old or young, if you don’t speak English, there is only darkness in today’s world” and “Those who do not know English are the losers of the society,” the ad copy read.

Gang said English has been used as a means to gain power since colonial times, with many prominent figures using the language to move up the social ladder and top-tier universities adopting English tests for entrance exams even back then.

The 1962 novel “Kapitan Lee” depicts an opportunistic protagonist who survives the turbulent years of Japanese occupation, liberation and division via studying Russian, then English.

Korea’s earliest politicians, including former presidents Syngman Rhee and Yun Po-sun, were fluent English speakers.

The previous Lee Myung-bak administration upped the emphasis on English education, with some such as right-leaning novelist Bok Geo-il saying Korea should make English an official language. The proponents of the wider use of English have said it would enhance the “international competence” of Koreans.

But Kim Young-myung, a professor of social science at Hallym University and an advocate of Hangeul use, harshly opposed the move, saying it appeared as “thoughtless worshipping of the outside power.”

He pointed out in his column that there was no substantial evidence that a society’s collective English-speaking ability leads to competence. While advocates of wider English use stresses “globalization,” there is more to globalization than just speaking the language, he wrote

The obsession over English and the consequent social expectations have led to English being a coveted trait, especially among those in the higher positions.

The aforementioned translator said that high-ranking officials who tried to flaunt their insufficient English skills often ended up misleading the entire discussion with their foreign counterparts.

“It appears to be fine from an outside point of view. Because this person holds a prominent position (in the government), the foreigner would not be overly aggressive in the conversation. He or she would just move on from a misunderstood or not-really-answered questions,” he said.

“The official himself would think that the conversation is going well, which is frustrating from my standpoint. He is actually risking the interest of the organization he is representing in order to protect his ‘elite’ status.”

Kim Doh-yeon, president of Pohang University of Science and Technology, pointed out in his recent column that many majors in science and engineering are “wasting time” studying English when they don’t really need to.

“Ninety percent of the people will face the necessity to speak English only once or twice a year. ... Yet, the English studying becomes a burden to us all because the society, for some reason, believes that English speaking ability is a barometer to an individual’s intellectual capacity,” he wrote.

“English is merely a means of communication, not a tool to assess one’s abilities. We should discard the ‘myth’ that only people who speak English well are the elite.”

By Yoon Min-sik (minsikyoon@heraldcorp.com)


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