Why Konglish?: The Phenomena Surrounding a way of Speaking in Korea
English is an international language. With this phenomena, some interesting and sometimes controversial issues have developed regarding the status of English in countries that have their own “special English” (Kachru and Nelson, 1996; Kachru 1992: 185 cited in Brown 2000: 192). In China, you have Chinglish. Singapore has Singlish. Japan has Japlish. Korea has Konglish.
What is Konglish? The international media since the 1988 Seoul Olympics, has been asking this very question. Sometimes Koreans themselves have a hard time defining what it is, and think of it as just a way of expressing one’s thoughts if they can’t use the right English expression. Nonetheless, it has become a part of the world Englishes phenomena that Brown described in his books Principles of Language Learning and Teaching and Teaching by Principles.
The reasons it exists in Korea today vary: One reason is that English is such a major worldwide lingua franca (Brown, 2000: 191). With events such as the Olympics and the World Cup; some restrictions on Koreans traveling overseas relaxed; and foreign companies allowed to distribute films directly to Korean movie theaters, it is no wonder that Koreans have opened up to explore new usage’s in language that helps them express who they are (Kosofsky 1997: Preface).
On a recent Korean game show, the contestants were all Korean native speakers who had to race against the clock and get a foreigner to guess the Korean concept of something but using English words. Rob Hally, a celebrated expat and bilingual lawyer was able to eliminate the words easily. However, with phrases such as big deals (the Korean concept of streamlining big conglomerates) there was a problem. The words he found himself grappling with was a new language that was more mysterious. In the process he then asked, is it Konglish? (Nicholson, 1999).
Definition of Konglish?
Konglish, in the layman translation is Korean English. A formal definition given by Kosofsky is a direct translation into English. “By Korean English, I mean the English which is spoken and written by native speakers of Korean (1997: v). It sounds very straight-forward and clear.
However, when Koreans are asked about Konglish, they have a slightly different idea that would be similar to the formal definition. Most Koreans think that Konglish is a way to express themselves easily through what they perceive as English. In other words, it their English that they speak because they cannot adapt English as the mother tongue (Nicholson, 1999; “Joygvier”, 2002).
There are concepts that become Koreanized and thus get lost in the translation. This can relate also to the concept of Korean nationalism and elitism of the actual usage and employment in the second language. (This will be discussed later). So, adopted phrases from English forge a kind of cross-cultural association (Mayfield, 2000; Brandon, 2002).
With this in mind, what they speak can sound ungrammatical. Thus, when most expatriates hear it, they may think that Koreans have an uneducated way of speaking their language. For some, Konglish can become problems that would impede communication by requiring mental translation by the native speaker. At first, they might grasp at the idea of what the Korean-speaker is saying, but then they are not sure, and ask for some clarification (Kosofsky 1997: vii)
Who Uses Konglish and why?
One thing that we must consider apart from whether communication is grammatical or not is the idea that “we choose language to convey meaning within a social context to express ourselves and not on idealistic situations” (Mayfield, 2000). This is one reason the Koreans chose to create Konglish in the first place. The confusion created by English lies not only in the words themselves, but in a society, such as the one found in Korea, which created the concepts and ideals related to language and communication. Since Korea has an ever changing society that moves like a flash of lightening, this idea would make sense (Nicolson, 1999).
According to Koreans, everyone they know speaks Konglish because of familiarity. Part of this familiarity lies in sharing their mother tongue of Korean. So, when trying to master a second language, the process is a bit hindered because of the interference deriving from their first language. As a result, Koreans use English terms because they feel a bit awkward when they hear the same words spoken in Korean (Kosofsky 1997: v; viva 2002). This could be a social factor and characteristic of this particular homogenic society.
When students learn English at the beginning level, they may have the ambition to practice English. However, they may not have enough knowledge of it to speak an utterance correctly. But, this is not only true of beginning level students, it is also true of students from every age and background in Korea (Brandon 2002; viva 2002; dooly 2002). This is how Konglish begins to shape, form and then expressed, but not necessarily for the foreign ear, only the Korean one (Shin, 2000).
One of the criticism about speaking Konglish is the fact that some people will just speak it in order to show-off, but once again sounding unintelligible to the listener and a translation of meaning could be lost in what the person wants to convey. Part of this reason is that Koreans insist on including English in their vocabulary under the illusion that using a particular expression will make them look smarter, which is one of the stigmas today of speaking English well in Korea (Lee, 2000).
Where you can find Konglish in Korea?
Where this stigma got its start was from some of the misued English words that was first introduced during Japan’s 35-year colonial rule in Korea, which lasted until 1945. Some of this misuage was adopted from Japlish that was and is still used in Japan today (Lee, 2000). Konglish was born and spoken in some proverbs, idioms, everday conversations, and the media. At least this is one of the stories of how Konglish got it’s start, because there are other stories that Konglish came from the American army being here so long as it has in Korea, etc.
Let’s look at a few examples.
Sometimes, you will find words taken from English that can be changed only slightly for a native speaker to misunderstand. The word mania is just such a word. In Korean, the word is pronounced as man-ia. In English it’s may-nia (Rector, 1999). Thus, a Korean will often say I have a movie mania. As native speakers, we could think of it as having a craze for movies. To a Korean, what they are trying to say is that they are a movie buff.
A look at the Korean media tells us that Koreans are bombarded by English terms all the time, particularly from television and the masses. Some of these terms are either newly borrowed, taken from Japan, or just created for fun, while to them it all still makes sense. So, to attract a foreign audience, English will be misused in advertising or even song lyrics of Korean popular songs (Rector 2000; Kosofsky 1997 vi; Choe and Torchia 2002: 141-2; Shin 2000).
If we look at television, we can see this English misusage, especially on game shows. If they are used or heard on TV, and the “popular” Korean stars are using the language, then it must be O.K.to speak that phrase everday. One famous example is the word gagman. In English, it means a person who uses props or gags to add more hilarity to a comedy program, and sometimes he’s known as a kind of standup comedian. To the Koreans, the term gagman was coined because younger comedians wanted to be different from those guys from the 1950s and 1960s. At that time, comedy in Korea was seen as being too critical of the government or a little bit on the low-brow side (Lee 2000).
During the Word Cup, the term Fighting!, derived from Japanese English vocabulary, became a symbol of competition and the aggressive nature of Korean society as a whole. Government too has used terms such as IMF or the Sunshine Policy as catchphrases in the media in order to promote the idea that even though Korea used to be a “hermit country”, it’s trying to globalize as much as it can to catch up with everyone else. All these examples show the reproduction and reinforcement of how patterns of expression can be presented and thus standardize the communication influence amongst those in Korea and the international community (Lee 2000; Pyon 2002; Kosofsky, 1997: vi).
Konglish: Is it useful or unuseful?
Can this standardization be useful or not? There are two sides to the story. On one side, it is very useful for cultural identity. On the other side, outsiders, expats, and others who may either know or not know about Korea, might not understand Konglish, and see no use in it at all.
First, let’s look at cultural identity: To reiterate, Konglish was formed by Koreans to be understood only by fellow Koreans who could pick up the nuances of any foreign words that became mixed up within the culture. In fact, why not even be more creative and use shorted Korean words for English one that may be too long to say or hard to pronounce? (Rector 1999; Shin 2000).
One such example is the English word bathhouse. For Koreans, the /th/ sound is hard to pronounce. Instead, they shorten the Korean word for bathhouse which is mogyoktang, to mohg. This may sound strange at first, but if we consider the fact that in America, the same phenomena occurs. If an American orders coffee in Italy by saying caffe, they may get an equivalent to what Americans refer to as expresso. So, in order to get what they want or are used to, they would have to say cafe Americano instead (Rector 1999; Shin 2000).
This information is useful for some people because it helps them understand a little about the reasons why Konglish is used at all. However, the same argument can be said for the unusefulness Konglish can have in society. It is interesting to note that not only do some expatriates and the international community think Konglish has an unuseful character, but a few Koreans as well.
Consider the following examples:
While translating a brochure for a big company, a copy of it for this particular company had mentioned that they had used many kinds of remicon on a building project. When the section chief in charge of printing and distributing the brochure was asked by Korean Herald editorial reporter Gary Rector about the word, he was surprised. He claimed that it was English. This truly left the reporter completely in the dark. In the end, it turned out that the word meant, ready-mixed concrete (1999).
In relation to this, some international broadcasters during the Korea vs. Italy soccer match on June 1 joked about slogans found on signs and T-shirts implying that English was not only something that seemed awkward, but also incomprehensible. The only problem was that these particular commentators were a little bit obnoxious and at times rude. Once again, in the same light, there are Americans from certain parts of the United States who incorporate grammar and regional slang into everyday language that is also seen as being backward, unintelligent, and low-class (Pyon 2002).
These situations can good reasons why Konglish can seem a little strange and in no way a tool for communication to some people. It looks stupid, sounds stupid, and may appear stupid at various times. However, when we look closely, it’s just a simple case of misunderstanding from the listener to the speaker.
Can we do anything with Konglish?
One issue at hand about dealing with this is whether or not proper English should be promoted or Konglish left alone. For most Koreans it is better to use the correct English for the everday, especially in school or for their jobs. There are, however, those who want to keep Konglish as part of the Korean national identity.
For those who think Konglish should be corrected into English, it would probably be best to consider the setting. A thirty-year-old from America stated that Korea needs to cooperate with other industrialized nations, and look at the big economic picture (Nicholson 1999). English is an international language. In order to do well in business, or to get the business you want, such as the brochure mentioned above, you need to have proper English to communicate effectively. This is holds true for Korean artists who want to get their message across to fans. If they want to be respected on a global scale, the word usage and grammar needs to be clear and correct in their song lyrics (Lee 2000).
And where should this proper grammar and usage be learned, but in the EFL classroom. Dickey and Han came up with a concept called Classroom English where teachers use English in the classroom for a purpose other than just teaching specific language. It is the English used, contextually, in a planned and appropriate level of language with extra linguistic clues in which students do not associate the language with a lesson or with a Korean language eqivalent in the language, but only as communication to be understood (1999: 43-45).
This correlates with the idea of teaching proper English in the classroom. It shouldn’t be forced on them nor corrected in a strict manner. Instead, if the student says something that sounds like Konglish, it can be pointed out to them by saying such things as: “Are you speaking Konglish or English?” or “What I heard is Konglish. In English, we would say it like this:......” Another system that would take some time to develop, would be to create a worksheet where students are taught what Konglish they usually speak or is heard in the everday, because as a fact, most of them do not know what it is they are speaking sometimes(see Appendix A). This is not only fun for the student but also interesting, and can foster some culture understanding between students and teachers.
One thing to keep in mind, as Brown tells us:
We must beware of imposing a foreign value system on our learners for the sake of bringing a common language to all. we can indeed break down barriers of communication with English, but we are reminded that the two-edged sword carries with it the dangers of the imperialist destruction of a global ecology of languages and cultures. (2000: 195).
This relates to the other side of the Konglish issue which is keeping it for the sake of cultural identity. Derek Zhu states that a language is a living thing. Konglish is a part of what it means to be Korean. Thus, Koreans should be proud of speaking it, especially in the appropriate situations (2002). Pyon adds that using no English to convey a social message in Korea is far more conducive to Korea’s public relation objectives than Konglish. Non-Koreans should see it something like a fashion statement and appreciate it’s quirkiness as part of Korea’s popular culture (2002)
Self-identity comes from one’s language. It is when we communicate by sending out messages and having them bounce back to us do we see the big picture. As we have seen, Konglish is such a thing because it seeks to create and shape the Korean identity with cooperation and help from the English language.
It some respects, as we have seen, there can be misunderstandings as to what the Korean speaker of English is trying to convey. Perhaps it might even hinder the English learning process. However, if as some people say, part of the culture is surpressed, then the Korean identity can be lost. What foreigners must do is to think of Konglish as a kind of dialect that has been accepted as Japlish has in Japan. At the same time, they should also be educated of certain expressions. For example: Did this word, phrase, or utterance come from history? Was it borrowed from America or another country?, What is the speaker really trying to say?
This way, as Brown tells us, “the practical issue boils down to the need for your open acceptance of the prevailing variety of English used in the country where you are teaching. It is not necessary to think of English as a language whose cultural identity can lie only in countries like the US, the UK, or New Zealand (2001: 118). Instead, focus on how English should be communicated. If the issue of Konglish does come up, especially in the classroom, let it happen. It will not only foster linguistic awareness in the student or Korean trying to use English but cultural awareness for the teacher and those unfamiliar with Korean culture, history, and the reasons why they are trying to use Konglish in the first place.
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