About 'Open Mike in Busan'
Now this probably a very important subject in Korea – especially for Busan e-FM listeners – today’s subject is Korean and the English language.
The Korean English language school
I met my wife in England, where she did some postgraduate studies at the local college and university in my home town. Both were quite popular with overseas students, and perhaps that’s what led to the story of the Korean English language school.
In my job as Student Union President, I spent a lot of time liaising with the university’s management. One day they called me up and asked “Do you know anything about the plan to open an English language school for Koreans here?” Well I didn’t, but the story was this: apparently some Korean businessmen intended buy a building near the university and turn it into a school that would just teach English to people who would come over from Korea. Then the businessmen actually came to the city, met local council leaders, and finished up having their pictures taken, shaking the mayor’s hand, which then appeared in the local newspaper.
And that was the last I heard of it, until six months later, when suddenly the first Korean students arrived. There first question was naturally, where is the school? Exactly. Where, indeed, was it? I knew the building the Korean businessmen said they were intending to buy, and I’d looked at it every time I walked by – and there’d been no visible signs of any activity at all. I had contacts in the local council as well as with the university, and they hadn’t heard anything about it since the businessmen had gone home either. Didn’t the plans work out suddenly, or was it a con from the beginning? I don’t know, but it didn’t look good.
The students had spent all their money in some cases. Some returned to Korea, and some transferred to the local city college. But I specifically remember the story of one girl, who had no money and felt too ashamed to go back home. What I took from this was how important English must be in Korea, and what a big business it seemed. But it didn’t always seem a fair business.
Fusion-combination under fusion-combination environment
And then I came to Korea and saw it for myself. I was shocked by the number of hagwons. Yes, you know there are going to be a lot, but I wasn’t expecting there to be ten within a hundred meters of my apartment. I guess there are thousands in Busan alone. It’s mindblowing. But I can’t help feeling that despite all this it doesn’t really work.
At first – I admit – it was funny to see all the badly written English signs, and all the badly used English, such as the “Korea Literature Translation Institude” and the restaurant advertising “Spaghetti with swimming crap”. But soon it made me a little sad because of all the money you can see being poured into it, and it can have consequences.
For example, one wedding album we looked at started off “You will always have a special place in my hear”. Then, under a picture of the bride you’d have the words “with palpitation just like the fist time”, and it finished with what appeared to be a disastrous cut-and-paste failure from Ben E. King’s classic song ‘Stand By Me’, where the main line “Just as long as you stand by me” became “hust as ling as you stand by me”. Well, that’s not a wedding album I can send back to England really, because it creates a bad impression of Korea, and it kind of makes the whole wedding seem like a bit of a joke.
It’s not just companies that end up with odd English. The Ministry of Health and Welfare sent out a multi-language leaflet on the importance of having children vaccinated “in order to ensure our children grow up to be healthy human resources of the future.” Then again, this is Korea, maybe we are all just ‘human resources’ to the chaebol in the end. But my favourite is the Korean Internet & Security Agency. Recently I visited their English page trying to find out why a website I’d tried to visit was blocked. It explains “We need to prepare a counter-measure system against infringements related to fusion-combination under fusion-combination environment.” The page goes on to talk about the need to create “digital warmth” for minimising the ‘dysfunction’ of the Internet. What is ‘digital warmth’? [The whole page is worth reading because it essentially encapsulates so many of the failures that English translations have here - and translations into Korean from English can raise very serious issues too].
The english waves come in [sic]
I became more sympathetic as I struggled with the Korean language, but it’s still surprising though when you see these really big brands using bad English – why don’t they pay for proper translations?
Then I started to hear a few stories from foreigners doing the translations. They were rewording advertising material from a first draft in English done by a Korean, but after they’d corrected it, the company would often go back to the first one, because they said it sounded better.
[I can’t believe they let me mention this on air]. Take the Busan e-FM slogan for example. “The english waves come in” - it’s on the signs and advertising. This is a small issue, but it makes a big difference: there’s an apostrophe missing between the ‘E’ and ‘S’ of ‘waves’. So instead of “The English Wave Has Come In”, instead it really states that the waves come in around the coast of England. 그래서, 영국의 파도가 옴니다, 그리고 나감니다. There’s no capital for the word ‘English’ either.
Working in a Korean business environment is hard [story pending]
So seeing all this makes me think that working in a Korean business environment could be very hard for a foreigner. My impression is that whatever foreigners might say, Korean businesses just plough on regardless. They don’t care.
Whose language is it anyway?
But then I had a revelation, at least about the English language. Maybe these Korean companies don’t even want good English... because they’re not pitching their messages at English speakers, they’re pitching it at people who ‘speak’ English in Korea. And who’s to say they can’t? Perhaps Korean English is a new language like American English [an earlier bastardisation of the original language – although modern British English is in itself arguably a bastardisation of ‘olde [sic] English’]. If people are happy with this new version of English - ‘Korean English’ - then maybe it’s OK.
And really, the way some ‘native’ English teachers write on websites here – what language is that? I call it “native English teacher English”. Maybe that’s a new version of the language – with bad grammar, awful spelling, and a general inability to communicate. My God, I wouldn’t want some of them anywhere near my child teaching English.
To quote the playwright George Bernard Shaw, “Britain and America are two nations divided by a common language.” What he meant by that of course is that you can have two groups, essentially using the same language, but still not communicating well. So maybe this is the problem with English written in Korea – or Korean English, and we can’t necessarily expect it to ever change. And looking at it from a Korean language point of view, perhaps when I reach Korean fluency I’ll still have problems communicating, so the Koreans and I will still be divided by a common language too.
And that might be the world we live in today anyway – everyone’s talking but many people are not understanding what’s being said.
Inside Out Busan
Air date: 2011-04-06 @ ~19:30