“I think it’s rude to speak to your coworkers in Korean when you have a foreign client sitting in front of you, who can’t understand Korean,” said Jeong, who is bilingual and spent more than 10 years in the U.S. as a teenager.
“But after hearing that complaint, I try to be very careful to speak only in Korean to my coworkers, even though they understand English. And I sometimes get annoyed because I feel like I’m wasting my energy on something that really has nothing to do with my work. I mean, yes, I can speak both English and Korean, but why can’t I speak the one that I’m more comfortable with, especially when everyone understands both languages?”
While Korea is already notorious for its “English fever” ― people spend large amounts of time and money on mastering the language ― it’s hard to run into locals who speak in English to each other in public. And that’s not necessarily because they can’t speak the language, but because it’s almost a social taboo to do so, Jeong said.
“If you are Korean and you speak English and you are fluent, people think you are a show-off,” she said. “And if you are not fluent and speak English to a Korean person with a Korean accent, then you are just weird. But no one expects a foreigner to speak Korean in Korea, and when they do, it’s much appreciated. But if you are Korean, you are expected to speak Korean fluently, even if you spent a lot of time overseas.”
English and colonial influences
The public perception of Koreans who are fluent in English ― with a North American accent, to be more precise ― is complex and strongly linked with Korea’s modern history, experts say. Back in the ’90s, when it was rare for Koreans to study in the U.S., such people appeared frequently in popular culture, especially male characters in TV romantic comedies. In the very popular 1994 TV drama series “All My Love for You,” the male protagonist Poong-ho, played by Cha In-pyo, who in fact studied in the U.S. himself, created a sensation. He was considered the ideal man for a woman to marry. Poong-ho was a member of a chaebol family, studied in the U.S., spoke English fluently with an American accent and played saxophone impeccably for the woman he loved.
In the 21st century, more Koreans sent their children to study overseas, and characters like Poong-ho ― wealthy, sophisticated and well-educated ― were replaced by English-speaking K-pop idols who did not exactly deliver the same image. Culture critic Lee Moon-won said the way the public perceives Koreans who speak English fluently is somewhat similar to the way they perceived Koreans who were fluent in Japanese in the Japanese colonial era: they were secretly admired, were objects of jealousy and were despised for “betraying their Korean identity,” all at the same time. And after the 1997 Asian financial crisis, those who studied in the U.S. started to be considered a threat by locals in the notoriously competitive Korean job market.
“In the 1910s, not all Koreans were required to learn Japanese in school. So those who were fluent in Japanese, most of whom had the opportunity to study in Japan, had a better chance of getting high-paid jobs,” Lee told The Korea Herald. “And by the 1930s, more people became fluent in Japanese as Koreans were forced to learn in school. I think things are on a similar road with English. More people speak English, but there are always people who speak it better than most.”
Lee points out that Koreans’ obsession with the North American accent ― many local celebrities are recognized for their English “fluency” if they deliver their lines with a North American accent in a TV series or film ― is linked with the post-war American influence of the ’50s and ’60s.
While the American accent is perceived as a sign of fluency in English, speaking English with a Korean accent, often looked down upon as an element of “Konglish,” is a cause of shame for many who never studied overseas.
“I’m not comfortable speaking English in front of my peers who lived in the U.S. I get self-conscious,” said an office worker who wanted to remain anonymous. “I know I shouldn’t feel this way but I feel like I’m being judged whenever I do. Even if I work very hard on my English, I will never be able to speak English the way they do. Their pronunciation (and accent) is a privilege that is only given to those who spent time in the U.S.”
“It’s not just about being fluent in English,” said the critic Lee. “It’s about being more ‘American.’ We are exposed to so many Hollywood films compared to movies from other countries. During the ’60s and ’70s, American missionaries said stepping out of their home was almost like going on stage for a performance. People cheered and clapped as they walked down the streets, offered to help if they needed anything. Things are different now, but this kind of admiration still exists in different forms.”
Dominance of ‘American’ English
English has been a subject of envy and a means of social advancement in Korea since it opened its doors to Western powers in the early 1900s.
It gained cachet when U.S. troops entered Korea after the Japanese colonial rule ended in 1945.
Kang Jun-man, media professor at Chonbuk National University, portrayed English as “the most powerful survival tool under the new occupation of the U.S. forces” in his recent publication “Koreans and English.”
In his book, released this month, Kang offers social, cultural and political explanations behind Koreans’ passion for English learning.
After U.S. troops took control of South Korea, being able to speak English and communicate with Americans became a “symbol of authority,” Kang wrote.
The first president of the Republic of Korea, Syngman Rhee, was one of the first Koreans to have studied English at the country’s first secondary school, founded by an American missionary.
English was a matter of survival in the ’60s and ’70s, when the country focused its energy on economic development through exports.
Companies encouraged employees to learn English and private language institutions flourished.
In a Chosun Ilbo column published on Oct. 22, 1961, the author wrote, “It seems like if you don’t know English, you can’t live confidently in this society.” Another article dated Feb. 5, 1970, reported on Korea’s English study boom. “Officials at The Ministry of Commerce take English classes at 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. The class starts with ‘Are you a student? Yes, I am.’”
Measure of social status
It was in the ’70s when the Korean government started to officially discuss English education for all children. In the ’80s, the debate emerged on whether children should learn English at an early age. English officially became a subject in elementary school after Korea hosted the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul.
Under the globalization movement in the ’90s, English proficiency became an important indicator of the level of globalization realized at a national and a personal level. Parents who could afford to send their children overseas had their children study in English-speaking countries. Others willingly spent large amounts of their household budget on private English education.
The amount spent on private English tutoring reached 600 billion won ($578 million) in 1996. The number of children aged between 6 and 10 leaving the country to study English soared from 35,000 in 1993 to 60,000 in 1995, according to data from the immigration office at Gimpo International Airport.
While a child’s English fluency was more determined by his or her family’s economic status, a new social divide emerged, causing a tragic incident in 1999.
The 1999 tragedy and thereafter
In July, 1999, two men in their 20s beat a 19-year-old college student to death. The attackers said they were annoyed by the student, who had been talking to his friend in English. The student, who died of a concussion, was reported to have been practicing English with his classmate on a subway platform in Seoul.
While English has been an important part of the lives of Koreans for many years, the use of the language in Koreans’ daily lives is limited. The use of English is usually limited to textbooks, business letters and meetings.
“Koreans don’t really get to speak the language in everyday life. The situations the language are broadly used in are official ones like business presentations and official conferences. And this created the false perception that the language should be spoken formally without grammatical errors,” explained Lee Byung-min, English education professor of Seoul National University, in an email interview.
Lee attributed the phenomenon to the test-driven education system.
“Koreans whose English has been evaluated through standardized testing develop a fear or hatred of the language. They think all the sentences coming out of their mouth have to be grammatically correct. But it’s impossible to be fluent in the language without making mistakes.”
By Lee Woo-young and Claire Lee