Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Konglish is the future of Korea

TEE and the classroom

I want to talk (more) about the curriculum policy formerly known as English Only, and which is now trumpeted and tromboned as Teaching English in English (TEE).

I want to begin with an anecdote. In 2004 I taught at a middle school in Incheon. One fine day, there happened a demonstration lesson, conducted by an ambitious and competent English teacher. Parents, teachers and officials from the Incheon Office of Education observed the lesson. It was English Only and was by all accounts a resounding success - the accounts of its refugees excepted, of course. Two learners spent the entire lesson hiding out in my office. They had been excluded from the Big Event because they did not possess the language required to participate in the demonstration learning activities.

They had the skills necessary to describe the situation to me, however. They used the dictionary at naver.com and found the word they wanted: 재해: "disaster." Very apt: a teaching approach that deliberately excludes the learners who most need it is disastrous.

This, I want to suggest, is TEE.

Lee Kyung-sook is fond of saying that TEE and "English immersion" (by which she means, I think, content-based language teaching) are based on "decades of research." And she's right. Unfortunately, that research was done decades ago. Most SLA theorists and researchers have long since moved on, and those who care about what actually happens in classrooms now stress the importance of social interaction, the negotiation of meaning, and attention to language form in addition to content. And if a first or shared language, i.e. Korean, can help learners discover features of language form, then it should be used.

There is very exciting work being done with bilingual education in the U.S. I would suggest that Ms Lee explore it, if bilingualism is what the government wants to achieve.

The thing is, I am not aware of a single language learning expert who believes that L1 should be excluded from lessons. The government has adopted a position that is far more extreme than that of the most ardent supporters of content-based language instruction elsewhere. The government’s proposed policy is bad pedagogy. But it is not only bad pedagogy; I think that it is bad for Korea.

I summarized Canagarajah's critique of English Only earlier. "Linguistic genocide" was mentioned: English Only "challenges the validity" of newer varieties of English. I want to talk about what this might mean.

Konglish is the future of Korea

I do not mean to suggest that Konglish is the future of 대한민국, Daehan Minguk. But I believe that it is the future of Korea. "Korea" is itself a Konglish word, likely derived from 고려, Goryeo.

I'm using Konglish to refer to Korean English. Some folks like to say that Konglish is just "bad" or "broken" English. While I'm not sure, I assume that folks used to say the same about Singlish or Singapore English. Indeed, the government of Singapore still says this — I guess that they don't care that Oxford puts Singlish words in its dictionaries.

What is language for? Many things of course, but I would suggest that a very important function of language is its use as a vehicle for culture. Knowledges, experiences, histories, worldviews, rituals, songs, foods, philosophies, all are constantly (re)created with and through language.

So then what is an international language for? It is used as a vehicle for cultures. It carries the knowledges, experiences, histories, worldviews, rituals, songs, foods, philosophies of nations.

Anime, sushi, karaoke are English words, used throughout the world, and these words carry Japanese culture with them. How did this happen? Yes, the Japanese economy is powerful. But simply, concretely: people, real people at real times and in real places, mixed languages. One can imagine an American diplomat in a restaurant in Osaka, asking "What is this?" His fellow diners could have answered "It's just what it looks like, slices of uncooked fish served on fingers of boiled rice." Or they might have done something more daring. They might have said "This is sushi." This would have been a challenge, a dare: recognize this as an addition to your language, your knowledge, your worldview.

Everyone in Korea could one day be fluent in English - but whose English? Or rather, which Englishes? Will they all be "borrowed?" If so, great opportunities will be missed. The vehicles will belong to others - there will be no Korean-made vehicles. Other nations will lose the contributions and challenges of Koreans, and "Korea" will stay in 대한민국, unknown.

I can think of a number of words that would make excellent additions to English. Han (恨), cham, jeong. Maybe minjok, since "folk" was abused by Nazi propagandists.

"Glocal" is a very clever portmanteau. The expression "I'm so poor at x" is interesting, the way it ties poverty to a perceived lack of ability. I don't say "It's nice to meet you" if I have already met someone, but I appreciate how the expression recognizes that you never meet the same person twice (as you cannot throw a rock into the same river twice).

But if TEE is enforced, these can never be English words or expressions. Neither can these: pansori, chaebol, ondol, kimchi, hanbok

Because if Korean words are excluded from classrooms, there can be no mixing of languages. When I delivered that quiz, about 40% of students said that "handphone" didn't belong, though they all knew what a cordless phone was. They said it was Konglish and as such didn't belong with the "English" words. This is TEE: there can be no mixing. TEE means that Korean culture will not be represented in the world of Englishes. Korean English will never join Cameroon English, India English, Fiji English, or any of the many Englishes used by millions of people but ignored by the current national curriculum.

I can think of a few ideological supports for TEE. A more obvious one is simply that the elite study in the U.S., and usually come to believe that (Standard) U.S. English is "superior" to the English that is developing in Korea. Others simply associate English with CNN, Hollywood, and the New York Times, so ignore the contributions of other English users.

But there may be something else at work as well. Many people believe that Koreans are one homogeneous - think "pure" - ethnic group, one "race." For these people, mixing means dilution. A subtraction, not an addition. Perhaps, to some, Konglish is not a vehicle for culture but rather a "mongrel" that must be put in a sack and drowned while it is still young.

If this happens, if TEE is enforced, countless students will be excluded from their classrooms, and the world will be poorer for it.


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading your article. It was so Jason. Post more good acticles.

MantisBot said...

I understand the need to mix languages, but I think there is one problem with what you said: Konglish is not just the mixing of Korean words into English (and vice versa), most times it is a complete disregard of basic English grammar rules, thereby rendering sentences utterly impossible to understand.

I can't tell you how many times as a voice actor I've had unreadable Konglish scripts.

However, having said all that perhaps the misunderstanding comes more from different definitions of "Konglish." I think of it more as a mangling of concepts via direct translation from Korean to English. You may be thinking of it more as taking some concepts and words in Korean and using them in an every-day sense in English, such as things like "croissant" and "scheudenfraude."

sam59527 said...