More on why we need to demand more proficiency in Korean language of internationals
February 8, 2012
There are several underlying factors behind the reluctance of Koreans to demand high proficiency in Korean from foreigners.
First, the Korean language is viewed primarily as an extension of Korean ethnic identity, and not as an object for objective investigation and evaluation. Many Koreans think that ethnic Koreans should speak perfect Korean and foreigners are a bit odd if they speak any Korean at all. Most Koreans evaluate ability in Korean based on how much they like the individual speaking, or how hard he tries. There are very few efforts to systematically correct the pronunciation of foreigners in Korean language classes, and it is one in a million Koreans who will actually point out a misusage or mispronunciation by a foreigner.
This lack of clarity about standard Korean pronunciation and usage results from the assumption that Korea is a language for Koreans and not an international, global language. As long as such a perspective is prevalent, there is not much incentive to demand of non-Koreans extremely high levels of functionality in the Korean language. Koreans assume that foreigners will operate in English within Korean organizations. I have often heard Koreans say that “everyone speaks English” at an organization. It is never the case.
After five years of working in Korea, I can testify that you must have an extremely high level of proficiency to operate in most Korean organizations. Korea will increasingly need to integrate internationals into its organizations as Korea’s reach becomes increasingly global. Part of that process involves creating English- only work environments. But equally important is the training of non-Koreans to operate at a high level of functionality in Korean language, in Korean organizations. Such individuals are only created by raising expectations for them in terms of linguistic ability.
Koreans also assume that English is an international language and Korean is not one. Although there is no comparison between Korean and English in terms of usage, Korean is becoming a global language rapidly, not on the level of English, Chinese and Spanish, or even Russian, French and German, but perhaps it may be on a par with Italian in the not distant future. If it comes to science and technology, Korean is already on a par with Spanish, French or Italian, maybe even more important.
Although Koreans, and many internationals, assume there is nothing written in Korean that would be worth reading for people outside of Korea, that assumption is false. To start with, Korean policy these days has so much impact globally that any written text that can impact how Korean business and government behave has global significance. Moreover, Korea produces much material in Korean related to business and technology that has real value. The fact that many Westerners have not figured this fact out should not mislead us about the importance of Korean texts. Increasingly, there will be a real need for people with sophisticated understanding of Korean globally. Let us start to take the appropriate steps now.