More on why we need to demand more proficiency in Korean language of internationals

More on why we need to demand more proficiency in Korean language of internationals

Emanuel Pastreich

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.





11 responses to “More on why we need to demand more proficiency in Korean language of internationals

  1. Craig February 6, 2012 at 3:11 pm

    What’s frustrating is that Koreans literally don’t let me use or learn Korean. They want to speak English.

    It’s frustrating.

  2. Art February 15, 2012 at 7:41 am

    Excellent point. I would be also interested to read articles that establish the lingua franca of languages in science and technology; we are so used to it in culture and art and automatically assume it spills over into diplomacy and other areas.

    • Emanuel Pastreich February 15, 2012 at 12:49 pm

      In fact, Chinese, Japanese and Korean are all candidates to be major languages for science and technology, especially in the applied sciences. Those who deny it simply do not read such specialized journals. The Chinese made the same mistake in the 19th century. They assumed things not written in Chinese were not worth reading.

  3. RJJ March 7, 2012 at 10:19 am

    I mostly disagree. There may be a few people here and there who really need to learn Korean, and they know who they are, but the majority of the expats working in large Korean companies just don’t.

    How can I say that? Well, it is sad to say, but knowing Korean will not get you a job if you weren’t going to be hired anyway. Not knowing Korean won’t lose you a job if you were going to otherwise be hired. Koreans hire foreigners went they want ‘a foreigner’. As a foreigner, you will not be rewarded for knowing Korean.

    The situation is different in small companies where few people speak English and your ability to speak a specific target language is the only real skill your resume needs.

    As for scientific journals, English journals are still coveted by those wishing to publish the world over. Would you learn a foreign language just to read some articles in science journals? That’s what translation companies are for. Half the words are English written in Hangul anyway.

    • Craig March 7, 2012 at 5:27 pm

      Thus may be true, and I agree most companies work this way. But the problem here is how Korean companies use foreigners no matter what we do, we’re little more than baubles. Any real power or responsibility is always on the hands of korans. This is also usually in the context of a relatively inefficient multi-layered bureaucracy.

  4. Art March 8, 2012 at 1:51 am


    Is your example categorically true everywhere in Korean science, technology, and business? I have a counter-example to your piece that does not apply to, “few here and there [who] know who they are,” because it is so general and at a large company!

    Though English journals are still coveted, it does not mean good papers are not published elsewhere. In words, yes, they should, and, more importantly, do, learn foreign languages to read science journals! I am unsure what it is like in South Korea, but at top American universities, Ph.D. students in more fields than one must be able to read, write, and communicate in the *primary sources (concise or secondary sources translated into English, and by a translation company, is just not possible; perhaps maybe for an M.S. student only).

    I have two examples, but I claim this is categorically true — a professor who taught history of science had to demonstrate two foreign language proficiency, beyond reading, to sit for his PhD. Another acquaintance who studied psychology in science education had to pick up Russian in order to read the primary source journal articles of Lev Vygotsky, who published in Russian (and learn to be part of an international scholarly community beyond Boston). She still reads his work in Russian. There was no mechanism in place to Vygotsky’s work in English, not for a Ph.D., and not for a research position thereafter. At MIT the math students must be proficient in a foreign language to read the primary sources (no translation company allowed), even though English journals are most coveted, as you wrote, and you are perhaps right. An Indian friend took his PhD in applied physics at Ecole Polytechnique, entering illiterate in French; and you know how the French are about their language. He matriculated and is a researcher now. He can publish in English, but, he must be perfectly bilingual. They reconciled him to that viewpoint early.

    These are not niche examples. Everyone in the field is under the purview of this requirement. We [Anglo-Americans] just often are forgetful or resentful about it. Unlike the Koreans, the French do hold him accountable.

    If [many] Koreans better understood the value of having an international employee, and if the international employee put the effort to speak, read, and write in Korean, then the fraction of us hired `just to check-mark’ foreigner would be in sharp decline.

    • Craig March 8, 2012 at 2:17 am

      Rjj is correct as well.

      I find one of he principal difficulties is that fir whatever reason , English speaker tend to be poor language students. In that, I mean in attitude. English has so long dominated the world, that like a Latin trader or soldier or factor in the third century, it’s assumed that others will accommodate you. Even then, Greek might have been spoken but perhaps just among the educated; koine among traders, though hardly educated. Whether we recoil from this rather imperialistic notion now, it’s no no less true. English culture so completely dominates the world, especially the science and business world, that arrogant English speakers can function without exposure to other languages in most fields. oprating in Korean in Korea obviously makes you many times more useful, but it can be argued that this is a quite specialised niche.

      • Art March 8, 2012 at 2:37 am

        Hi Craig,

        Oh, I completely forgot to insert my counter-example in the first paragraph! Never mind now…

        Craig, I don’t quite get the essence, though I get what you mean, but only at the surface. Should we continue illiteracy and lose international opportunities simply because English speakers are “poor language learners” and the world revolves about English anyway? In Anglo-American academia, a second, sometimes third language is demanded on its PhD holders and professorate in many fields, especially at the best schools, as written above.

        Besides, in Korea isn’t the dominant language Korean? So, it is not really niche but a lingua franca, no? I mean, my Indian friend made it clear that to be a successful research engineer in France, he must be perfectly bilingual in English and French. I assume the same demand is placed on the Englishman in Seoul, South Korea.

        RJJ seems to conflate cultural barriers and language acquisition. And, doubtless, he is certainly correct that Koreans often do not know how to integrate non-Koreans into their scientific, technological, and commercial spheres-of-influence. But, it is a two-way street. A hundred years ago Chinese in America did not hold major positions. They do now. They do so because because their predecessors were bilingual and worked hard at bringing down barriers with competence, determination, and patience.

      • Craig March 8, 2012 at 2:55 am

        Actually I was just pointing out the hole in Anglo motivation. Truth be told, it requires considerable energy to master the language. The expenditure must be justified by the outcome and there can’t be alternate and eadier ways to achieve the same goal.

        As I see it, the two principal difficulties are an ambivalence to embrace the world on the part of institutional Korea and alternatives English speakers have.

        The whole issuable wrapped up in how Korea sees itself and how Koreans define their relationships to those not in their world. This plays into a natural laziness or lack of motivation which is allowed to flower because of Anglo cultural imperial dominance.

        Never in history has a culture so throttled the world as English does. Chinese will have a very hard time becoming more than a regional language, regardless, and other European languages are being left in near irrelevancy outside their narrow spheres. I bristle at thus as I’m a massive deutschophile and I have s great admiration for Korea; but the truth is this:

        The more smaller languages emerge into importance, like Korean, the more fractured the scene becomes. Ironically, this will have the overpowering effect of cementing English as the lingua Franca and sapping power from potential rivals like Chinese, French or german.

        The more useful Korean becomes in niches, the more Koreans will need English.

        This is the savage logic of cultural contact and utility. It’s why I’m not writing this in , say, some alternate variety of Briton.

  5. Art March 8, 2012 at 3:22 am

    Hi Craig,

    Yeah, I got what you meant by monoglot attitudes among English speakers. But, that only equates to dozens of millions of dollars in lost international opportunity revenue worldwide among native-English speakers to the locals. Craig, a company in the respective country will forever demand the local language on all but the lowest minions. Anyone whose aspirations are sizable assumes the target language.

    No matter what the international trend of English is, local languages will always dominate in their respective nations. French companies are just as Frenchesque now as fifty years ago. Fifty years from now not a single French employee will be stripped of her native French abilities; English will always be a second language because the local language will always dominate. The best that can happen to China, Korea, or Japan is that English will move from the `foreign-language’ third row up to the `second language’ second-row, as it did in India in the 1900s. But, competency in English will not cause the local language to lose its primacy.

    British universities still demand Latin and Greek, some recently supplanting them for modern languages, but not eliminating. No matter the trend, academicians will always need to read and communicate in the past, primary sources, especially Deutschophiles. Foreign language requirements in the UK will never be eliminated, no matter how economically coherent English becomes worldwide.

    • Craig March 8, 2012 at 4:27 am

      All true. OF course, I was thinking of working in a more practical sene; my world is a business communication one, less than an academic one. Academe tends to be pretty much removed from the normal social processes that dominate the working world.

      I fidn it hard to believe that anyone could ,for example, acquire expertise in middle eastern archaeology without some passing knowledge of the operating languages in the field and with the languages historically relevant to the field – such as, say, German, depending on the area of study, or even French – but for normal life, for business purposes, and for fields less dominated by previous efforts (the STEM science fields come to mind, where anything older than a few yearas fades into insignificane), I’m not sure how relevant speaking, say, Romanian or Korean is. If you want to work in Korea, it should be personallty vitally important, but many people seem to get by without it even though their lives are somewhat circumscribed.

      I personally find my imperfect Korean to be a huge burden: it’s a constant effort to improve it, and as I do so, my life becomes immeasurably better here.

      I fidn it shocking to meet people who don’t see this need, as well, but they do exist and are likely in the majority.

      Incidentally, this is also true of many Koreans overseas. Chinese, too.

      Let’s call it a sad human limitation. Nature is economical.

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