Tag Archives: English accents

What’s proper English? In South Korea, it starts with sounding American

The reporting for this podcast is by Jason Strother. He lives in Seoul.

Sometimes speaking English isn’t enough. Sometimes it has to be the right kind of English.

When Eve Coffey first applied for English teaching positions in South Korea last year, the job hunt didn’t get off to a good start. The 23-year old was talking online from her home in Ireland with a Korean recruiter who she says seemed puzzled by her nationality.

An English-language class in South Korea. (Photo: Jason Strother)

An English-language class in South Korea. (Photo: Jason Strother)

“He asked where am I and I said, ‘I’m in Ireland.’ He said, ‘Oh, Irish people speak English?’ I said, ‘Yes, Irish people speak English,’” Coffey recalls in this week’s World in Words podcast.

The conversation took a turn for the worse when she turned away from the computer to say something to her mother in a mix of Irish and her natural brogue. Coffey says the man lost it.

Irish ESL teacher Eve Coffey was taken aback when a South Korean recruiter told her she wasn't an English speaker. “You’re not an English speaker!” she recalls the recruiter shouting. “You’re never going to get a job in Korea. You don’t speak English!”

Coffey says the man told her that he would add her name to a teacher “blacklist,” but that proved to be a hallow threat. She quickly found a job via another recruiter and now teaches ESL to middle and high school students in the city of Jinju.

Irish ESL teacher Eve Coffey (Photo: Jason Strother)

Irish ESL teacher Eve Coffey (Photo: Jason Strother)

Native speakers such as Coffey are in high demand in South Korea, where learning English borders on a national obsession. Some 20,000 foreign ESL instructors work in the country’s public school system as well as in private tutoring academies called hagwons.

Local law allows only citizens from seven English speaking countries to teach: Canada, the US, the UK, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Ireland. But some teachers who aren’t from North America say schools won’t hire instructors with their accents and some say their bosses even ask them to fake an American accent in the classroom.

Many South Koreans prefer the American accent over others because of their country’s historical and cultural ties with the United States, says Jasper Kim, who lectures at Seoul’s Ewha Women’s University.

He says this preference fulfills an academic objective, too.

“I think for many South Koreans, having the American accent means it’s the right path,” Kim says. “So the American accent is to get their children to where they want them to be, in essence the Ivy League.”

Anything else, Kim adds, “wouldn’t make sense” to these ambitious Korean parents.

Some tutoring schools specifically advertise that they teach North American English, such as the Sweet English Language Institute in Seoul’s affluent Gangnam district.

For Kim Geon-young, his English instruction comes from North America teachers. He says he plans to do an MBA in the US. That’s why he wants to become more familiar with what he calls the “American accent.”

“I know there’s a difference between American and British English,” Kim says. But after being told that there are many regional accents in the US, the student admitts that he wasn’t aware of those differences.

The institute’s curriculum is based on what some phonetic textbooks refer to as Standard American English, says director Kevin Kang, who has a background in speech pathology. But he believes that the type of accent a student learns doesn’t really matter, despite what some Koreans think — consistent pronunciation is more important.

“It doesn’t need to be an American accent, or a British accent or even an Australian accent,” Kang says. “Once the learner sticks to one certain language, that will improve their sound a lot.”

Kang says one English sound that Koreans can’t seem to get right is the difference between an R and L. This causes some confusion when saying words like “read” and “lead,” or, famously, “rice” and “lice.”

To help students improve their North American accents, Kang’s school is developing a smartphone app called Sound Fit. Displaying an animated mouth on the screen, the program shows how the user should shape their lips and tongue to form vowels and consonants. It also compares the student’s pronunciation of English sounds to that of a native speaker.

Some other teachers in Korea do not agree with the Sweet English Language Institute’s approach to language learning.

“Students need to hear a range of accents”, says Eve Coffey, the Irish ESL teacher in Jinju. “It would be very rare that they’re actually going to hear a particular “ideal” accent”

Coffey adds that after a year of teaching in Korea, her students have gotten used to her voice.

So much so, she says, that one has even started to sound a little Irish when he speaks English.


PODCAST CONTENTS

00:00 A quiz for Nina Porzuki: a song and its singer’s accent.

03:24 South Korea’s pecking order of English accents.

04:21 “Irish people speak English?”

08:50 Jason passes the “L” test.

10:30 Are American accents still #1 in South Korea?

13:00 Are the most valued English teachers white Americans?

16:45 “Everyone take out your homework now.”

17:50 There are many Korean dialects too.

19:02 And then there’s North Korean version of the language.

MUSIC HEARD IN THIS EPISODE

“Dramamine” by Podington Bear

“Fairytale of New York” by the Pogues

“Bad Scene” by Podington Bear

“Cathaedrabysmal” by Unsettling Scores

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The pop punk singing accent is weirdly cosmopolitan

Nina did the pod this week. She had me on to chat, and I displayed my ignorance. It’s a great listen.

Contents:

00:00 Blink-182’s lead singer Tom DeLonge on aliens

1:50 Patrick Cox listens to “All the Small Things” by Blink-182

3:04 Dan Nosowitz declares his love for pop punk

4:04 Dan defines pop punk

5:46 Dan likes to sing like Tom DeLonge in the car on road trips

7:15 What the heck do you mean by pop punk accent?

8:23 Oh, the early aughts! Paris Hilton! The OC! The Vans Warped Tour!

8:57 Dan chooses the song “First Date” for linguist Penelope Eckert to analyze

10:13 Penelope “Pennie” Eckert’s response

11:00 What about Johnny Rotten’s accent in the Sex Pistols?

13:15 The California Shift defined

15:30 What’s the deal with Avril Lavigne’s pop punk-y accent?

17:15 What about the accent for newer pop punk bands?

17:45 The sneering California accent

18:55 Wherever punk goes it mutates

20:13 Green Day’s lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong sings with a non-rhotic style. Rhoticity! What is it?

21:22 Chris Appelgren owner of Lookout! Records, has a theory of his own about the pop punk accent

23:23 preview of next week’s podcast

25:00 Announcements

Please write a review of The World in Words on iTunes or Stitcher, or wherever you get listen to the podcast. Thanks!

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Corporate Spelling Experiments and Fear of a Chinese-Speaking Planet


For our once-a-month-ish gab fest, Carol and I just couldn’t pass this one up.

Sometime, corporations knock it out of the park with their inventions, or re-inventions, of words. Who can argue with Coca-Cola? And it’s not like they’re alone. Shakespeare did it (0r at least he popularized recently invented words).  Kanye West does it. Soldiers do it. Prison inmates do it. Schoolkids do it.

But what about that sub-group of word reinvention, the spelling change? This happens most commonly when a word migrates from one language to another (Spanish for soccer/footbal: fútbol; Chinese for sandwich: 三明治  or sānmíngzhì).  It can be an act of rebellion against the colonial master (American English spellings).  It can be a way of transcribing an accent that may later be co-opted by the speakers of that accent (Lil thang, wassup, etc).

The corporate version of a respelled word is usually überclunky, probably because there is no reason for it to exist other than to satisfy the corporation’s desire to sell a product. The language, and the speakers who sustain the language, have not demanded it. Instead, it has been dreamed up in some boardroom or office. The result: terms like riDQulous and City Sentral .

Fear of a Chinese-Speaking Planet

L’arrivo di Wang (The Arrival of Wang) is an Italian thriller recently shown at the Venice Film Festival.  In this scene, a police officer questions a blindfolded Chinese interpreter, who is suspected of colluding with a Chinese-speaking alien. The presumption that the alien has chosen to communicate in Chinese because it — or its masters — have concluded that Chinese is the planet’s most prominent language. The film’s characters can’t decide whether the alien is benign. Has it come to forge some kind of partnership or to colonize the Italians with its language, culture and values?

The arrival of The Arrival of Wang comes at a time when Americans and Europeans are debating whether Westerners will really learn Chinese and even if they do,  whether it’s worth it.

Also discussed in this week’s pod:

The expanding reach of English means more varied accents.  Here is the source of the accent test that I sprang on Carol. Here are the 100 words that linguist David Crystal has chosen to tell the story of English. And here is an update on previous pod discussion about Arizona’s harsh line on English language teachers who have foreign accents.  (Under Federal pressure, Arizona has agreed to stop yanking such teachers out of the classroom and to retraining classes).

For Singapore’s Chinese, a challenge:  The country’s former non-nonense leader Lee Kuan Yew says the city-state became an economic power-house because the government made eveyone speak English. While Lee says this should continue, he is also urging Singapore’s Chinese (who make up about 70% of the population) to speak  Mandarin at home.

In Japan, English-speaking chatbots guarantee embarrassment-free conversations. Yup, if you don’t care for the constant humiliation of learning a language by trial and (mostly) error, a conversation with a chatbot is for you. And because a chatbot is not human, it will correct your errors without making you feel foolish– but also perhaps without your remembering them quite so well.

Listen via iTunes or here.


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