Thoughts of the Times; Konglish: Proper or Improper?

Korea Times (Seoul, Korea), April 19, 2000 | Go to article overview

Thoughts of the Times; Konglish: Proper or Improper?


Konglish, the combination of the Korean and English languages, is thought by many to be a very negative evolution. Some elitist Korean writers even claim that the use of such fractured English is a serious social problem. Not content to stop at the negative social ramifications of Koreans using Konglish, these same Korean writers even go so far as to say that Koreans shouldn't use this Frankensteinish linguistic creation called Konglish. While English is the Global language, these same writers claim that Koreans don't need to speak or learn the English language in order to be competitive in the global economy since globalization is simply a means to upgrading the Korean economy, and nothing more. One classic example of this type of thinking is found in Mr. Ahn Jung-hyo's new book, ``The Dictionary of Phony English.'' While Mr. Ahn's book is a good book to read before going to sleep, his naive understanding of the nature and function of language, and how language actually evolves in different social contexts, cannot go unchallenged. Furthermore, it should be pointed out that Mr. Ahn's theoretical understanding of what is and what isn't properly spoken language is more idealistic than realistic.

Mr. Ahn's pontifical statement of what is proper or improper language stems from the idealistic notion that language is meant to be spoken perfectly. I'm sure that if I were to conduct a survey on whether or not native language speakers speak their language perfectly, I would soon find out that they in fact make frequent grammatical and other linguistic errors. Therefore, Ahn's idea that Konglish is wrong is simply a fallacy. Why is it wrong? It appears this categorical statement has it roots more in Korean nationalism and elitism than in the natural evolution and actual employment of languages. Ahn needs to ask himself several questions: What is language? Why do we use language? Is language socially or theoretically oriented. Is language meant to be spoken perfectly? From Mr. Ahn's naive comments on the negative use of Konglish, I would have to conclude that he views language from a naive, idealistic point of view. What is language? Language is a social system of communication. Why do we use language? We use language to communicate with other human beings within a realistic social context. Language is a resource from which we choose to make meaning with our fellow human beings. Language is also an indicator of our social status. No, language is not meant to be spoken perfectly? There is no such thing as a perfectly spoken language, since a perfectly spoken language means that you've never and will never make a linguistic error.

Now, if language is indeed a social system of communication, Mr. Ahn's naive comments on Konglish are untenable. This certainly begs many questions. Why do Korean's use Konglish? Mr. Ahn asserts that they use Konglish simply because they want to look smarter. Perhaps that's true for some Koreans, but I would hardly think it's true for all Koreans. Since Konglish is perfectly understandable within the Korean context amongst Koreans, it is, therefore, a perfectly acceptable means of linguistic communication. Whether or not Konglish conforms to the arbitrary and unrealistic rules of so called English formal grammar, which is far more concerned about locating the ideal sentence, which by the way doesn't exist this side of Heaven, since it is detached from the real world of language use. In other words, since Konglish is a way of communicating and making meaning within the social context of Korea, it is a perfectly acceptable and natural means of linguistic communication. Contrary to Mr. Ahan, Konglish is not an improper use of the English language, but a natural use of the English language within the Korean social context. Therefore, Mr. Ahn's high brow, even elitist, view of incorrect Konglish is untenable in accordance with a proper view of language and why people use language to communicate with each other in a social context. …

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