Tag Archives: South Korea

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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A grammar for cities, a dying Inuit dialect, and Frank Zappa’s lyrics

In South Korea, the grammar of urban organization is lacking a few key signifiers. I can attest to this. In 2002, I spent three weeks reporting there. Every day I got lost. Or rather, I would fail to reach my destination, because I couldn’t decode the addresses.

I didn’t know it at the time, but the numbers on most South Korean buildings have nothing to do with their location, and so have no correlation to the numbers of buildings around them. Instead, they constitute a record of  when the buildings were constructed. It’s  a chronological thing. So helpful…

It’s not just me who found this utterly impenetrable. South Koreans do too. So the government is overhauling its address system.

For more on the language of architecture, the seminal work is A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa and Murray Silverstein. Much in urban planning has changed since it was published more than three decades ago, but many in the field still swear by it.

Inuit Redux

A year ago I featured an interview with Cambridge University linguistic anthropologist Stephen Leonard. He was about to depart for Northwest Greenland, where he would live for year with an Inuktun-speaking community. He got there just in time to document and archive this rapidly vanishing language.  Now he’s back in the UK with some sobering thoughts on why the languages and culture of the Polar Inuit are faring so badly.

English Language Learning

Under US Justice Department pressure, the state of Massachusetts is revamping its training for teachers who have English Language Learners among their students.

So it’s a good time for a visit to a Massachusetts elementary school that’s become a model for teaching English to non-native speakers. More here.

Zappa’s Typist

In 1967, a young typist working for a London temp agency got the call to head over to the hotel room of a rock star. She was to type up some lyrics.

Pauline Butcher was the typist– prim and, as she says, naive.  Frank Zappa was the rock star– eccentric, bombastic, satirical, profane.

Butcher typed the lyrics accurately, when she understood them. Sometimes, when she couldn’t follow what Zappa was saying, she just made stuff up. Not surprising when you consider some of the fabulously nonsensical verses from the 1967 album Absolutely Free:

Call any vegetable, call it by name.

Call one today when you get off the train.

Call any vegetable and the chances are good

The vegetable will respond to you.

And:

And I know, I think, the love I have for you

Will never end (well maybe).

And so my love, I offer you

A love that is strong, a prune that is true.

Pauline Butcher completed the typing job. It went well.  She followed Zappa back to Southern California and worked for him for several years. She’s just written a memoir of that time.

Listen to the podcast via iTunes or here.


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The vocoder, the linguistic robot and the Dead Rabbit

This is how it didn’t happen: Winston Churchill is at home tapping his toes to his favorite Afrika Bambaataa number. The robot-like distortion of the vocals means that Britain’s most famous cigar afficionado cannot make out the lyric. “Hmm,” he thinks. “If only FDR and I could speak through a device like that during our top-secret transatlantic phone conversations.”

Writer Dave Tompkins will tell you how it really went down in this week’s pod (For one thing, Afrika Bambaataa was seven years old when Churchill died). Tompkins’ book tells the the story of the vocoder, from World War Two-era voice scrambler to Hip Hop toy.  Along the way, it was used to give voice to daleks, the mortal enemies of British TV sci-fi hero Doctor Who.  You may laugh, but for my generation of Brits, who grew up on Doctor Who,  daleks were way scarier than Darth Vader.  And just like Darth Vader, it was all about the voice.

Also in the pod: English teachers in South Korea don’t come cheap. Schools often have to fly them in from abroad, and then house them. The Hagjeong Primary School in Daegu is trying a cheaper alternative: a robot.  The rotund yellow and white device — think of it as a benign dalek — is  hooked up via teleconference to the Philippines, where an English teacher conducts the class through a video monitor. (I don’t know whether the robot’s “face,” a picture of a female, is a photo of the outsourced Philippino teacher, or just a generic image).  The students like the robot and its teaching style,  though it may be many years before its effectiveness can be measured. Check out this video.

Press freedoms ebb and flow around the world. We ran a report recently on the improved situation in Tunisia. In China, authorities  relaxed limits on the foreign reporters before the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Now, with the uprisings in the Middle East and a would-be uprising in China, many foreign reporters are hounded, even roughed up, by the Chinese government. We check in with our correspondent Mary Kay Magistad.

Finally, the “marketing genius” who transformed the fortunes of the German herb-and-spice flavored digestif, Jägermeister.  This was a drink originally marketed to German hunters (Jägermeister means  senior forester or gamekeeper). But how many German hunters are there? Company executive Günter Mast decided a rebranding was in order. The rest is barely-remembered history, an alcoholic haze of campus parties, fuelled by mixed drinks with names like the Jägerbomb, the  Mexican Afterburner and the Dead Rabbit.

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Photos: Wikicommons, Jason Strother

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Windows 7 in African languages, unfortunate name translations, and the new Klingon

For the latest podcast, I have five language news stories from the past month:

5. African languages to get their versions of Windows.

Microsoft says by 2011 it will release versions of its new Windows 7 operating system in ten African languages:  Sesotho sa Leboa, Setswana, isiXhosa, isiZulu, Afrikaans, Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba, kiSwahili and Amharic. It’s a big boost for those languages, as well as for the people who prefer to speak and write in them, rather than English or French.

4. The government of Moldova moves to change the name of the country’s official language.

Most people who live in small eastern European nation of Moldova speak a dialect of Romanian.  But in Moldova, the language is known officially as Moldovan. This is an act of  placation: it placates non-Romanian- speakers in Moldova and, more importantly, in Moscow. Calling the language Romanian is seen by some in the Kremlin as tantamount to a vote for unification with Romania. Russia, of course, doesn’t want that: it views Moldova, a former Soviet republic, as part of its “Near Abroad”.  But Moldova recently elected a pro-Western government. One of its first acts was to change the name of the language on its official website from Moldovan to Romanian. What’s more, the President-elect has declared himself a speaker of Romanian. (He also declared himself “a Romanian.”) That’s in sharp constrast to his  pro-Moscow predecessors, who insisted on translators when they had meetings with Romanian officials.

3. South Korean birthing centers go multilingual.

South Korea doesn’t have much of a history of immigration; very few foreigners have learned Korean, at least with a view to settling there. Now though, there’s a shortage of women, especially in the countryside. So South Korean men have starting marrying women from other Asian countries. And they’re having children.  Most of women speak very little Korean, so doctors and nurses are learning a few words in Chinese, Thai and Tagalog.  That’s just the start of what appears to be quite  an ordeal. Even with Korean speakers in their families, the women and their children have a hard time integrating, linguistically and otherwise,  into Korean society.

2. Unfortunate foreign meanings of baby names and how YOU can protect yourself (should you wish to).

A London-based translation company with an eye for publicity is offering what appears to be a unique service: for about $1,700, it will run a translation check on the name you have chosen for your baby. It will, of course, alert you if that name means say, pickpocket  in Japanese (“Suri”) or shut up in Yoruba (“Kai”). Maybe the celebs, with their surfeit cash and zany name choices will be tempted. For the rest of us, there’s Google Translate. Or we could just call our firstborn, I don’t know, Jessica. Or John.

1. Na’vi, invented for the silver screen, hopes to emulate Klingon.

Klingon’s been in the news a lot recently. There was the (recycled) story of the man who tried to raise his son bilingually — in Klingon, and just to be on safe side, English. Then there’s the story of a new Klingon dictionary in the works. Now, there’s another nod to Klingon. James Cameron’s blockbuster Avatar is scheduled to annex and occupy the cinematic world on December 18.  Much of the movie takes place on a planet whose inhabitants are 10 feet tall, have tails and blue skin, etc etc. And they speak their own language. Tolkein created Elvish . Star Trek came up with Klingon. And now Avatar has midwifed Na’vi. Cameron  commissioned University of South California linguist Paul Frommer to dream up a new language. And he did.

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