Essay

Konglish: The Good, the Bad and the Strangee

“Stop warning! Hope! Please think.”

-Korean t-shirt

As a native English speaker and teacher of English in Korea, I’ve had firsthand experience with a number of t-shirts that contain English phrases, worn by students at school. Even in the streets of Jeju City where I live, you can see numerous shirts bearing English phrases every day. As an English speaker surrounded by the Korean language, I’ve found that the shirts often catch my attention, drawn by a familiarity in a world that is ubiquitous with a language that is not my own.

I’m told that the reason these shirts with English phrases are so popular is because of the trendiness of the English language, and the rising popularity of Western culture. English is seen as a little bit glamorous when associated with the slick movies and images that come out of the English speaking world, spoken by beautiful actresses, actors and musicians with an eloquence of artistic proportions. By contrast, the English phrases found in Korea are often grammatically awkward, vague, or downright mystifying. From t-shirts to coffee shops to store jingles, the growing pervasiveness of English has hit a few bumps before it can finally take flight.

Konglish is a hybrid word that quite simply compounds the words “Korean English.” This can signify a range of language spanning both the English and Korean languages. In its simplest form, Konglish is the Korean approach to written or spoken English, with its idiosyncratic signatures such as grammatical, spelling or structural errors. It also encompasses the pronunciation of English words, such as “English-ee” for “English”, or “Suh-tuh-range-ee” for a word with a string of consonants such as “strange”. This is symptomatic of the root of Konglish, which is the pronunciation of English words through the application of Korean language rules, sometimes going so far as to spell English words using Korean characters. As cultures progress and the global community grows closer, words such as “computer” and “handphone” that have never historically existed in language (because they never existed as everyday items,) create a need for an evolving vocabulary. When used as a means to fill the language gap, Konglish can also be defined as the procurement of these words from English, but used within a Korean context and using the Korean alphabet. When discussing and understanding Konglish, it’s important to be mindful of these complexities, of its roots in the Korean language and its ultimate affect not only on the English language, but on the Korean approach to learning the English language.

The benefits of Konglish

“BITTER

I believe that, even though we don’t thing of the term love, we already feel that way about one another. You will always have a special place in my heart.”

-Korean chocolate packaging

For over half a century, our cultures have been coming together in a variety of ways, and this integration has seen multiple variations of what has come to be known as “Konglish.” In a practical sense, Konglish has been incredibly useful in introducing aspects of the English language to Koreans. Even Korean non-speakers of English will be familiar with a range of English words that appear to them in the Korean language. Words such as “internet” (“in-ta-net), “coffee” (“cop-pee”) and “air conditioning” (“air-con”) are everyday words in Korea, and as an English speaker, I hear these adopted words peppered throughout daily conversations. In this sense, all Koreans are familiar with aspects of the English language, or at least certain words that have been adopted by Koreans since the 1950’s. There have even been some Korean words that have made the switch over to English – popular exports such as “kimchi”, “soju” and “galbi,” and as an example in the vast world of online gaming, “chobo” and “gosu”.

Konglish has proven the versatility within the Korean language, a language many centuries old that once related exclusively to matters of the Korean lifestyle. Yet like the times and lifestyles, the Korean language has shifted and evolved into its present-day form, and will continue to evolve as Korean society does. For this reason, Konglish has been effective in helping the language adapt and grow, drawing upon foreign words as part of the expansion of the language. With this continuing integration of Korean and English, Konglish has become part of the living lexicon of modern-day Koreans. The benefits are not only that it has helped the language grow, but that it serves as a stepping-off point for Koreans with interests in learning English. In my experience as a teacher of English in Korea, I have seen students’ eyes light up with recognition of an English word that has been familiarized by Konglish, and the realization that they already understand the context of this ‘new’ word. With a language as different and sometimes intimidating as English, these moments of recognition are helpful and encouraging to students who might feel confused or overwhelmed by the drudgery of learning a new language.

Because of Konglish’s prevalence in Korea, and because of the growing familiarity with a peripheral sense of the English language, Konglish has proven itself as an asset in the integration of culture and language, and an asset to those who seek to gain a familiarity with English. The last generation of native Korean teachers of English had learned English through the use of Korean. A conversion of English words phonetically reproduced in spoken and written Korean (using the consonant / vowel / consonant / vowel format,) created a more recognizable interface for Koreans. This has obvious benefits. Through the familiarity of the format, native Korean speakers could expedite the process of learning another language by approaching it through the familiarity of the Korean language structure. It would be the equivalent of learning the Korean language by translating Korean vocabulary phonetically into English letters for native English speakers who wish to learn Korean. While this method may have proven convenient for the last half century, there are some residual side-effects that must be considered.

The shortfalls of Konglish

“In the moment, now? The time for tyring for bright future! You are my sweet song and you are a honey melody the girl who has many pink dreams. I have dreams and hopes.”

-Good my friend Robot

English is an immensely different language from Korean, making English a difficult language to learn for Koreans. Alternatively, it makes Korean a difficult language to learn for English speakers. The difficulty extends well beyond differences in vocabulary and pronunciation – presenting itself in the details of the grammatical and structural differences. Articles, verb tenses and sentence structure have proven consistently difficult for Koreans who are learning English, and so using the Korean alphabet while applying Korean pronunciation rules to English words might have seemed an attractive option to help expedite the process to the teachers and learners of previous generations. While this has eased the learning process for some, it has also created a “hangover” effect that has left a legacy of poor pronunciation, confusion, and in the worst of cases, embarrassment or miscommunication.

The very first thing a native English speaker will notice about Koreans who speak English is pronunciation. It is expected that people who are learning English are not going to have perfect pronunciation – and I paid little mind to this when I started as a teacher. As long as the students worked on their English development, I had placed pronunciation as a distant priority in the acquisition of the language. As a Canadian, I had learned French throughout my school years, much as Korean students learn English. My own experience helped me understand the difficulty of correct pronunciation, and the subsequent peer teasing that comes with trying. When coming to Korea, I thought I would not place such a priority on pronunciation as long as students were doing their best to learn.

After being here for a few months and beginning to understand the nuances of Korean students of English, I began to understand that pronunciation was in fact, going to have to become more of a factor in my lessons. I had begun to notice that by using the Korean mode of speaking while trying to speak English, that students were sometimes saying things that were not at all identifiable English. A simple word like “dog” was pronounced “doge-eu.” Dog vs. doge-eu. To a teacher living in Korea, “doge-eu” is understood to be “dog.” To anyone outside of Korea, “doge-eu” might not be understood at all. The problem of pronunciation was beginning to reveal itself as something that I couldn’t totally ignore if I wanted my students to learn effective English.

Using the Korean alphabet and language rules to write and speak English words becomes problematic in this regard. We must remember that the languages are different, and trying to pull them closer together through Konglish does create hazards, confusions, and miscommunications for anyone serious about learning English. You cannot simply write “dog” using Korean, but instead must write “doge-eu” to comply with the language structure. This is problematic because English is not Korean, and does not follow the same structural rules. A dog is “dog” to the English ear, and “doge-eu” is something that sounds more Korean than it does English. As we get into larger words such as “Christmas” which it becomes “keu-ri-seu-ma-seu,” it becomes entirely unrecognizable to an English speaker.

In this sense, using Korean to learn English might seem to make learning English easier, but can in fact hamper the learner’s ability to learn proper English words and pronunciation. As long as a person applies Korean language rules to English words, they will naturally think that the Korean pronunciation is the way to pronounce the English words. This might work on occasion, but for the most part it will ultimately create confusion for the speaker and the listener, and ultimately slow the correct pronunciation and learning process down. In a worst-case scenario, it can frustrate and discourage a learner from succeeding in their goals when they see diminished returns.

On many occasions, in situations of mispronunciation, I have been told that Korean pronunciation mistakes are simply a matter of “Konglish”. Similarly, I have been told that clunky or awkward sentences are simply “the Korean way” to speak English. While this does provide some genuinely endearing and conversational moments, there are times that Konglish seems to have been used as a reason for poor English skills. While this could understandably be a “go-to” reason for an occasional moment of embarrassment, it does provide pieces of evidence that the use of Konglish can hinder the acquisition of good written and spoken English. While Konglish sometimes represents the process that Koreans take toward learning English, it should never be so easily dismissed as “the Korean way” if the learner is serious in their pursuit of the English language. There is no “Korean way” for speaking or writing English – there is only English or poor English. While having its uses, an overt or willing adherence to the use of Konglish will ultimately limit a person’s capacity to learn well-spoken and well-written English. Writing off errors simply as “Konglish” can create a stagnation in the learning process. The limits of Konglish must be clearly identified and understood so that those limits can be left behind and a richer, deeper acquisition of English can take place.

As a final note, consider these two perspectives. While “Konglish” in the east is synonymous with the Korean way to speak English – “Konglish” in the west is often referred to as the humorous mistakes that Koreans make when writing or speaking English.

Moving forward

“A good quality of coffee and the health benefits of wine will definitely make your body and your mind upgraded and even your pride in your life.”

-Korean coffee shop mantra

Koreans who are serious about learning English can appreciate the rich history surrounding Konglish. Ideally they can see its historical and cultural worth, and celebrate its contributions both to English-speaking and Korean cultures.

As our world and languages evolve, it is inevitable that our cultures will grow as well. As more Koreans visit the West and as more Westerners visit Korea, everything from tourism to trade will outline the degree to which our cultures intertwine. The world truly is a global village, and English has had a significant impact on our collective growth. As we move forward, it’s important to remember who we are as people – where we’ve come from and the importance of retaining our identities. It is also important to remember that while our languages overlap, they also remain complex and distinct in their own rights. The middle ground of Konglish will likely always be a reality as the Korean language evolves, but in any genuine pursuit of well-spoken or well-written English, one must also be aware of the linguistic confinement that Konglish can perpetuate. Konglish as a means for evolution will likely always have its place. It is functional and practical, and this aspect of Korean-English has and will ultimately have positive contributions. However, anyone stepping into a serious study of Western or business English should be cautious of the trappings that come with using Korean-adopted English words. In most cases, the Korean pronunciation is not the same as the English pronunciation, and in many cases, the Korean pronunciation will not even be recognizable to the English ear. Konglish’s limitations must be recognized so that while its worth can be appreciated, its confinements do not hold back from a qualitative acquisition of English.

To people interested in speaking English well, it is important to be mindful of these differences in the languages. They are different language structures with different sets of rules and so just as I cannot apply the rules of the English language to Korean and expect satisfactory results, it is the same for Koreans learning English. A “sport” is not the same as a “seu-po-cheu”, and so to achieve truly appreciable results, it must be clear that Konglish is not truly a form of English, but a mimicry of English words through the Korean language.

Many Koreans I have known and worked with have studied, practiced, and traveled their English to the degree that their pronunciation is almost flawless. Their ability to adopt the language is amazing and confounding, as I continue to struggle with learning the Korean language. While departing from the speaking traditions and habits of the Korean language may provide its challenges, developing better spoken and written English is entirely possible. By keeping in mind that there is a clear distinction between the two languages, and by appreciating the pros and cons of Konglish, a student who is committed to developing better English will ease their journey into the English world.

© 2012 Chris Dwyer