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Taking Korean global: start with dictionaries

One needs to look no further than the Korean-English and English-Korean dictionary to see where we must start if we want to truly internationalize the teaching of Korean language. Most English-Korean and Korean-English dictionaries (all dictionaries that I have ever seen) are written in a manner that discourages foreigners from learning Korean. I think that it would be easy to create truly foreigner-friendly dictionaries and the investment could revolutionize the status of Korean language around the world.

Most Korean-English and English-Korean dictionaries are difficult or impossible for foreigners to use for the simple reason that they were designed for native speakers of Korean. Such an approach creates a tremendous barrier to learning the Korean language. For example, if you pick up an English-Korean dictionary and look up the word “happy,” this is what you will find: The word “happy” in English is followed by definitions of its various usages in English, given entirely in Korean. These definitions are incomprehensible for a beginning student and even difficult for an intermediate student. These definitions are useless as the international student does not want to know what “happy” means, but rather how to say it idiomatically in Korean.

Moreover, the definitions are given in rather technical language which is at a great distance from spoken Korean. The best Korean equivalent, “gibbuda,” is often hard to find in that collection of definitions because it is too simple a term and seems rather un-scholarly. Those definitions are followed by sentences in English using the word “happy” in its different senses which are in turn followed by Korean translations. The Korean translations of the sample English sentences are literal translations and are often rather unnatural in their phrasing. The purpose of these Korean sentences is to explain the meaning of the English sentence, not to give an idiomatic Korean equivalent.

So let us think about what an English-Korean dictionary for international learners should look like. First, the word “happy” should be followed with a list of Korean words that are equivalent of happy. Each of those Korean words should be followed by an explanation in English of the nuances of that usage. Then, there should be a series of sample sentences in idiomatic Korean that are followed by English translations and explanations.

Moreover, both a Hangeul and Romanized version of the Korean term should be given in every case. Often the actual pronunciation, and the stress, in Korean words is difficult to predict even for internationals who know Hangeul script well. The ending consonant of one Hangeul unit often changes its pronunciation, but not its Hangeul rendering, depending on the initial consonant of the following Hangeul unit. Any English-Korean dictionary for internationals must have a Romanized version of all terms that indicates such transformations, as well as odd rising and falling tones, that can trip up even a foreigner like me who has been speaking Korean for over a decade.

In the case of the Korean-English dictionary, the reverse is true. The Korean-English dictionary you find in a bookstore gives a Korean word followed by examples of English words that are equivalent to the different meanings of that word. The English words are often followed by an explanation about their significance written entirely in Korean.

But the international user needs the complete opposite.

The international user needs to have explanations in English of the various meanings of the Korean word. Then the international reader also needs idiomatic sentences in Korean that employ that word followed by English translations and explanations about usage.

As long as there is no English definition of the Korean words given, the dictionary will be profoundly frustrating for the international user. As far as I know, although there are simple learners’ dictionaries for Korean for beginning students, there exist no practical Korean-English dictionaries aimed at international users.

In addition, we need a universal option in Korean language input systems for word processing that allows for a Romanized input (using the alphabet) of Korean language instead of only Hangeul. Such Romanized input systems exist for Japanese and Chinese and make it far easier for internationals to write in those languages. The lack of a Romanized input system is a major barrier to foreigners writing in Korean which is unfortunate given the growing importance of the Korean language around the world.

Korean is increasingly becoming an international language and we find people from different countries around the world communicating with each other in Korean even when neither is a native speaker of Korean. Going forward, what we really need to do now is focus on the needs of international users for dictionaries and input systems, not just the needs of Korean users.

By Emanuel Pastreich

Emanuel Pastreich is a professor at Kyung Hee University in Seoul. ― Ed.
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