Whose Language?

I’ve translated an article in the 한국일보 written by Robert Fouser, a foreign professor of SNU, about the impact the increase of foreigners will have on the Korean language (HT to the Marmot for the link).

It probably took me about 2 hours to do over 3 sessions and even then the congruency isn’t pefect I think it holds together pretty well. I used the excellent LingQ (which I will be writing more about soon) to highlight and look up the words I didn’t know.

About the article itself, I think it’s great that Koreans are starting to get used to hearing more foreigners speak Korean. I still long for the day when I’ll be able to ask for my bill in Pizza hut without the almost guaranteed jumpiness from the waitress and stares from those around me.

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Korean Jointly Owned by Foreigners

Within language education there are many people who think the difference between native and non-native speakers is an important one. These people think that native speakers use the traditional language and it’s better to learn from them. This way of thinking particularly stands out in English education, where people prefer native teachers and where many parents send their children abroad to English-speaking countries.

Globally however, the difference between native and non-native speakers is becoming foggy. In today’s globalised world, the movement of people is an important factor in this. One feature of the global age is that of many races mixing and living together in big cities. In places like North America, Europe and Australia which have gained more immigrants, multi-racial societies have formed. Within this global movment the amount of immigration to Asia in particular is increasing. In Seoul too the population of foreigners has increased 3.5 times since 10 years ago.

When a mix of different races using different languages meet and live together in big cities, these cities become multi-lingual areas. Within these multi-lingual areas the language used here can take many forms. If you look at everyday Seoul, Koreans use lots of languages when talking with foreigners, and non-natives use a mix of Korean, English and [if it’s not English] their native tongue. There are many times when exchange students talk to other exchange students in Korean too. There are also many different forms of language use among those working in Korea with their mother language, depending on their level of Korean.

As the forms of language usage increase in variety, the difference in the meaning between a ‘native’ and a ‘non-native’ speaker dissapears. The main reason for this is that native speakers get used to hearing non-native speakers speak. While they may be shocked at first when they hear the pronunciation and expressions non-natives use, the more they come into contact with it the more they get used to it. Long ago before there were many foreigners in Seoul whenever a foreigner said ‘annyeong haseyo’ the listener would automatically say in surprise ‘you speak great Korean!’ and straight away ask lots of questions. However now the idea of foreigners speaking Korean has become common.

Another reason for the changing face of Korean is that in one’s work their business ability in thier field is more important than their language ability. For example Google, who are  attracting some of the best manpower in the world, have over half of their workforce born in foreign countries where they do not speak English as their first language. The increasing demand for professionalism in today’s society paired with the increasing number of non-native speakers means that the important thing is what you say rather than how you say it.  As a result, rather than people speaking different native tongues, we see people speaking jus one language in less refined ways instead.

From people getting used to the way non-natives speak, new language habits become formed. However even when natives get used to the pronunciation and strange expressions, if they can’t understand what’s being said then communication is difficult. In order to overcome this problem, a new language between natives and non-natives becomes formed. By focusing on meaning and conveying one’s intention, even exact things can be expressed by using simple language. This easily understood shared language, which is used in Seoul and other big international cities, contributes by alleviating cultural and racial conflicts.

Compared to to other OECD member countries, the foreign population of Seoul is still small so the shared language between foreigners and natives hasn’t spread widely yet. However in another 10 years time if the foreign population of Seoul increases by more than 3 times again, the ‘our'(우리) in ‘our langauge'(우리말) will come to include a diverse range of non-native speakers too.