South Korea, English and “Konglish” : getting lost in translation

In one of our recent blogs we noted that English is the third most widely spoken language in the world. It is also what one might call, “the world’s second language” which is seen as more than a mere means to communication, but as a vehicle of opportunity and a necessary skill for anyone with visions of playing ball in the international arena.

Language, South Korea, Teachers, Konglish, English

It should come as no surprise then, that South Korea has invested immense amounts of time, energy and money in English education. Indeed, South Korea is both the biggest spender on English language acquisition, as well as the place where students spend the most time, per capita, on studying English with tutors and at private language academies. Yet these eager students are ranked 21st out of 54 nations in English proficiency.

One could cite any number of reasons for this state of affairs. However, one aspect which is often overlooked is “Konglish”. Yes, that is a real thing (and yes, Wikipedia got it right!). “Konglish”, according to Prof. Seong-Kon Kim of Seoul National University, came about as a result of an “over-reliance on Korean-English dictionaries” and divorcing English words from their cultural contexts. The results are often incomprehensible to native speakers of English, but are seen by many English-hungry Koreans as standard, because it so pervades public life.

One way, in which Koreans have sought to remedy this, has been to employ native speakers to teach English in schools and academies. Unfortunately, in the face of widespread “broken English”, guest English teachers are fighting a losing battle.

Prof. Kim’s insight is:

Translating one’s language into a foreign language require cultural understanding and appreciation for context and nuance. Instead of relying on translation software or the dictionary, we should ask a native speaker to proofread our English. Otherwise Konglish will continue to prevail in our society.

Although admirable that Prof. Kim suggests the above to remedy a dire situation. at Language Inc it is one of our modus operandi to use only translators who are mother-tongue speakers and reside in the country where the language is spoken. Employing second language speakers and merely have a mother-tongue speaker proofread the document can introduce many more issues. The reason is simply that language is not static and continuously changing and since we translate for a specific audience the translator needs to understand the unique nuances and idiosyncrasies of the language and target population – something a second language speaker might not necessarily be able to do.

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