Emanuel’s article in Korea times: “Taking Korean language global: Start with dictionaries”



November 25, 2012

Taking Korean language 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.

One response to “Emanuel’s article in Korea times: “Taking Korean language global: Start with dictionaries”

  1. Craig November 28, 2012 at 7:43 am

    This is a long response to your post, but I thought it deserved a respectful reply, even if I disagree with the subtext. Korean culture and people are close to my heart, and I hear arguments like these often. Alas, I think they’re wrong on basic premises. I think it’s not a good idea to get carried away with general boosterism when it inflates Korean expectations. Korea can celebrate what it’s good at, but few want to do this, instead making inapt comparisons. Koreans don’t need to compare their language to English or Chinese to feel pride. There’s nothing wrong with being Finland and speaking Finnish, in essence, or Denmark and Danish. By the same rule, for Canadians, there’s no point in comparing Canada to the US and feeling shame or pride; the US is so utterly different, there’s no reason to conclude that we’re innately inferior (unable to bury our language gripes, build Manhattan – though we try – or conquer the world; or blame the US for failing so spectacularly all the time when managing its own domestic political squabbles, developing healthy cultural and race relations, or creating a medical system that isn’t both bloated and inefficient and also savagely unfair). Both countries are so different in composition, structure and social environment that it’s not even fair to compare crime rates.

    So when Koreans get all upset that English is spoken more than Korean, it’s like Canadians in Winnipeg complaining that Los Angeles has the world’s biggest movie industry by profit and Winnipeg doesn’t. The comparison and the shame (or pride) is irrelevant. The converse of unmerited shame is unmerited pride: I’ve heard a Korean say that Korea has the best kimchi, and the Chinese and Japanese can’t do it as well. My response: I damned well hope so, anything else would be humiliating. There’s nothing to be proud of there.

    So projecting an unrealistic future for Korean as a new global language is, i think, part of this misplaced and self-defeating boosterism. Once unrealistic expectatoins aren’t met, inevitably there’s disappointment, which is as unwarranted as the enthusiasm originally was.

    Korea is what it is – a second-tier, marginal but brilliant country on the fringe of Asia. Why it needs to be anything else I’m not sure – this obsession with advancing to NUMBER ONE! NUMBER ONE! is a cultural quirk that tends to be a self-defeating pattern outside the world of making cars.

    On the Korean dictionary:

    This is an interesting idea for those who have a motivation to learn Korean. I think, insofar as these people need better access, these people including myself, it would be a great improvement. My Korean language learning would be radically advanced with such a book. But I’m motivated to learn it.

    The Assumption:

    Alas, I fear the other assumption in this post is wrong. Korean can’t become an international language on any significant level. In Asia, it’s eclipsed to the point of near-total obscurity by Mandarin. It’s not as obscure as, say, Mongolian, but is still buried on an international scene, and this is true even compared to Japanese. Interest in Japanese remains powerful and there’s a lot of motivation there, as well as a century of intense cultural contact between the West and Japan. Indeed, though Japan is way off the beaten track for the rest of Asia, it remains the focal point for many non-Asian views of Asia, often eclipsing even China or being considered at least its cultural equal. Japanese literature in all its forms is widely celebrated in the west, at least in English and very much so in French; it gives Chinese culture and language a very serious run for its money. Though this interest tends to follow the money, so the trend is moving towards Chinese. But old cultural memes die very hard.

    What Korean needs to be Big:

    The Korean langauge isn’t really growing in importance around the world as a language of commerce, science, or culture. Ultimately, it needs to be one of these.

    Even the Korean cultural “waves” themselves are really unremarkable, when viewed on an international level. Most countries with the clout that Korea has are able to pull off this kind of thing as a matter of course: Famous musicians, even genres of music, TV shows, movies, literature in translation. Think of Morocco and West African nations and their impact on music (especially in Western Europe, in places like France). There are tiny regions of Morocco with ridiculous cultural clout in the music world, and African countries that go unknown except that their music informs the underbelly of whole tribes of French youth. The same is true for Latin American nations whose sub-cultures would otherwise disappear into anonymity outside their mountain valleys or coffee houses. The Dominican Republic, the home of Merengue, is an almost insignificant nation, and yet millions of people (even in Hongdae, here in Seoul) dance to Dominican music every night, though they may not know that it’s absolutely rooted in a culture so otherwise obscure to them they couldn’t possibly identify it.

    We only think it’s remarkable with Korea and its ever-cresting Hallyu , always-on-the-verge-of-making-Korea-Number-One, because Korea has been such a receding, isolated place for much of its recent history, a country that very aggressively declined to engage the rest of the world. It was so disconnected it was almost deliberately invisible, with only the occasional escapee (Hamel, for instance) to even indicate that the country existed at all.

    And what little disinterested interest either the Chinese or Japanese showed in the place was marginal at best, with Korea more of a cute little buffer culture / state.

    Korea never engaged even its neighbours in any concrete way, except when it had to respond to aggressive advances; and with the exception of Admiral Yi, even its responses were timid and trepidacious, at best.

    What’s Really Happening:

    I would suggest that the opposite is happening. The rest of the world, and its languages, are becoming crucial for the success of individual Koreans and for Korea itself. Korea will succeed or fail based on how well it integrates with the rest of the world – not how well the world integrates with it. This reality is already felt everywhere in Korena society. If you look at how successful bilingual Koreans are, with their automatic leg-up on anyone unfortunate enough to speak only Korean, all else being equal, then you realize how provincial Korea-as-it-was really is. Korea’s only viable future lies in engaging the world. it must do this mostly on the world’s terms. Individual Koreans know this, and make their decisions accordingly. Where Korea is genuinsly successful, it molds itself to match what the world wants, while injecting some of itself into the mix. Of course the two are there, but this dance has always been on the outside world’s terms, dictated by the Chinese Empire, the Japanese, or by the vaarious modern powers that affect it (Socialist Russia and China, America and the democratic world the other side).


    I know I may have a skewed perspective, but as a result of my linguistics training, my instincts suggest to me that far from becoming more important, Korean language is being set up to render useful words, concepts and cultural artifacts to other languages, in much the same way ancient Briton did, or Welsh or Gaelic (in later timeperiods and situations) or any of the other marginal languages of Europe. But in fact, it’s being sidelined in a huge way. It’s becoming a flavour in a feast cooked up by others.

    This may sound extreme, and I don’t think that it will share the same current fate as these languages (though I hold out unending hope for Gaelic); but what will likely happen to Korean is what has happened to Swedish or Norwegian, possibly Danish. If it’s very lucky, it can aspire to what Dutch did.

    These languages are not particularly international, but they have lent words, concepts and cultural cues to modern European and Western culture. Korean could do the same, more aggressively for Chinese or Malaysian, say, but likely for everyone. We can thank the expat Korean communities for possibly introducing Korean ideas and concept into English (Nudge and wink to LA, Toronto and Sydney).

    But unless Korea gets a very, very large army, becomes a key international hegemonic power with the ability to *enforce* high-value social pretige (a Korean Empire would do nicely for this), or acquires massive cultural cache value, with a slew of World Wonders at its disposal and perhaps a Shakespeare or two, …

    Korean has a future as an interesting but ultimately small regional language of import to a tiny part of the world.

    This is not something that can be changed overnight, and the roots of this were set long ago.

    This fate was sealed when Goguryeo was invaded, colonized and stripped and when, as a result of lack of vision and self-defeating ideology, subsequent generations of more or less incompetent Korean leadership failed to expand borders, allow cultural creativity to flourish (viz; the Netherlands), establish colonies or colonial interests of some kind, even commercial, or create trade contacts with the rest of the world. Indeed, much of the last 400 years of Korean history seems like a language/culture/polity in relentless retreat from the rest of the world, not expansion.

    For example, Korea could have opened its borders when China was closed, making it the entrepot for East Asia when both Japan and China were hostile to the West and the rest of Asia. It could have reversed centuries of foreign domination and expanded into its natural region north and west of the peninsula, an area which shares cultural and genetic roots with modern Koreans and was once Korea’s much larger cultural homeland. It could have expanded further into Manchuria under the leadership of more skilled statesmen and generals than it had, with perhaps a more martial tradition, but was happy instead to descend into military obscolescence and decay.

    It could have set up a far-flung trading empire, bartering goods from China and Indonesia in Zanzibar and Calicut; it could have traded with fishermen off the coast of Chile or settled a few people in Arnhem Land; it might have signed treaties with Sultans in Brunei or sought out the source of stick-lac and fine lacquerware in Vietnam.

    Instead of persecuting Buddhists under the iron bootheel of a regressive, self-destructive Confucianism unknown even in China, it could have opened itself to the flow of ideas and cultural creativity spanning an area from Incia and Sri Lanka to Afghanistan and far-flung village monasteries in China, and even Japan, for that matter.

    The truth is that Korea’s history is, unlike that of Japan or China, or even the failed states of China that are now provinces of someone else’s empire, a history of almost unblemished failure to take advantage of opportunities.

    Under its Confucian forbears, it was like second of three sons from the story of the inheritance and its moral lesson; The first quanders the gold coin he gets, the second puts it under a rock and maintains it in the face of obstacles, and the third expands it into a big bag of gold coins.

    Koreans are among the most creative and talented on Earth, but Korean culture as epitomized by the Joseon was traditionally stifling and oppressive. It valued unchanging consistency above all else. Its feudal nature meant that its highest goal was preventing the masses from exercising the least free thought or enterprise. It also meant that maintaining power was more desirable than development of any kind. The Joseon Dynasty and Confucianism was an unmitigated disaster for Korea beyond anything inflicted by any outside power. No-one hurt Korea and its culture more than those who perpetrated the self-abnegating torture Korea experienced under the rule of these corrupt, small-minded bureaucrats.

    In a real sense, without meanign to do so, the Japanese removed Korea from Asian history by occupying it; they they were expelled, at least the southern half of the country avoided the fate that was likely for the whole place had revolution and its wake been allowed to take root in Korea in the 1920s-30s. This unfortunate but oddly significant fact meant that South Korea was quite literalyl freed from its own and others’ cultural baggage after the war, which also concidentally left a nearly blank (if not blackened) slate on which to build.

    I contend that Korea (the south) is successful in large measure to the eraser-like effect that Japan had on it: it removed it from the stream of Asian history ar precisely the right time to avoid it becoming the smallest province of the modern Chinese empire, and devastated the corrupt, more or less parasitic ruling class.

    In essence, Korea was freed to evolve for the first time in centuries. This has spawned not a renaisance, but a true naissance, an almost unprecedented birth of what will, in the coming century, come to be seen as something like a new nation. Something genuinely exciting.

    But viewed from a truly global perspective, Korea hasn’t had the cultural wherewithal to extend its cultural and economic and political boundaries for centuries. Without these, there’s no way a language can make its way in the world.

    The only reason we’re writing in English is because the English were profoundly aggressive, extremely enterprising, very successful, econonically adventurous, politically astute and unapologetic.

    English people built and stole empires, invented much of the modern world, from science to art and even our very intellectual framework. As colonizers, they were leagues and away better than the French or the Spanish, as a military culture unsurpassed in world history, in politics the culture defined both accomodation and deviousness and brought both to new levels of development.

    Love it or hate it, not the Russian cultural world, nor the French, and certainly not the Chinese, could take it on. It went beyond mere ships and guns: Looked at dispassionately, English culture and language since the 10th century has been one of tenacious survival, self-righteous certitude, aggressive expansionism, unity in crisis, successful greed and calumny, while at the same time always capable of absorbing humility and pragmatically moderation.

    Korea is augmenting this process, which is a cultural imperialism all koreans seem to feel in their bones. They know it. So does everyone else. A lot of people instinctively resist – the French are famous for it, though it’s pathetic to watch how absurd this resistance is, the Germans have quietly acquiesced, the Scandinavians are happily abetting it, the Chinese are opportunistically biding time in their own slightly doubtful cultural self-assurance, the Japanese live in their own discrete world and are happy to do so, and the Arab world has bee in shock, awe, revulsion and revolt since the 18th century against all things non-Arab, especially Western, and most especially English. This is all playing out, but it nonetheless real on a macro-cultural level. Why would Korea, a minor and until very recently almost totally isolated culture, attempt to even begin to move into this space? To even become what Japanese has become? It’s bold, but without the attendant trappings, such as a bit of imperialism and some profound social and cultural capital, it’s also likely abortive. it’s only going to lead to unfulfillable expectations and dashed hopes, and a lot of resentment when these hopes are crushed. This sums up much of the “The rest of the world is keeping us down” attitude that occaisonally pops up here.

    I recognize this because I sense some of the old Canadian elite academy in the idea that Korean can become a world language. Canada suffers from almost the exact same delusions and dilemmas. As a country and culture, we’re obsessed with what we are and aren’t, and yet, in the quiet moments when we allow ourselves to stop thinking so damned much and just be, we are, in our own way, a testament to the human ability to adapt and grow in a larger ecosystem while still being independent. But the same false hopes are there, along with the same resentment and when they inevitably fail to be realized and the same hollow bravado. I recognize it immediately. It tastes exactly the same.

    Feeding this beast is a bad idea. Korea and Korean should be what they are, the best of what they are; trying to be something else is both silly and ultimately self-mocking. It may not seem that way, now.

    I present to you the Canadian TV industry. Only when it got over itself was it able to start creating and delivering things people wanted to watch, and watch they most definitely do. The same was true of literature. Instead of being a genre, which is was right through the 70’s and 80’s, “Canadian literature” is now just a label. It’s a sign of maturity that still hasn’t infected much of the cultural academic world in Canada, which tends to lag badly instead of leading the edge.

    I suggest that the Korean language and its boosters need to respect Korean for what it is and what it’s useful for, as a living being, and accept it, rather than trying to make up for what it’s not.

    The same is true for the rest of Korea. When it’s comfortable in its own skin, Korean culture is truly a wonder to behold. It adds something magnificent to the great modern human tapestry. But the time to become a global player in the language world passed when the Joseon fell into a corrupt stew of its own making.

    My personal belief: the grestest thing to happen to Korea in the past 600 years was the passing of the Joseon Dynasty.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: