Perception of Languages

July 22, 2011

Make no mistake: learning another language is serious business. I don’t really buy into those arguments claiming once you immerse yourself completely in another culture, you’ll just start picking up words and phrases until you become completely fluent. Whatever “fluent” is, anyway:

“Fine”, you say, “let fluency be someone who is fluent to a native speaker in ALL situations.”

Son, Take A Seat…

That is a fine, and unimpeachible definition of fluency. It only has one, tiny tiny flaw. By that definition, particularly in languages with complex cultural aspects like Japanese, NO ONE is fluent, not even native speakers.

We all presume that as native speakers, we are all fluent. After all, most of us only know one language. How can we not be fluent in the only language we speak? An 8 year old native speaker might not have a huge vocabulary, and might not always express everything completely correctly, but no one would suggest that she is not fluent in her own language.

The point I’m making is that strict definitions of fluency are all well and good, but most people don’t realize that a majority of native speakers of a language will find situations where they struggle to be fluent in their own language – for example in conversations about topics they are unfamiliar with, and in areas with unfamiliar protocols.

I’ve talked about my lack of desire to learn Korean in previous video blogs. What it all boils down to is being accepted. Before living in Japan, I (some would say naïvely) believed that learning the local language is a major step towards cultural integration. To some extent, I still believe this to be true. But NOT in Japan or Korea. Why not?

The perception of language, that is, how native speakers view outsiders speaking their tongue, is incredibly important. Sure, I can see how one could learn Korean at a Canadian university from a non-native speaker, and become relatively fluent without ever having spoken to a Korean. But more often than not for language learners there’s at least some contact with someone who grew up with it. You can imagine how nervous one might be when first attempting to use these new skills to communicate.

Think about how non-native English speakers are considered in America. With little empathy and cultural awareness, I would say most Americans treat non-native speakers like complete crap. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I grew up in Texas, and the number of times I overheard things like “Damn Mexicans, if they’re going to live here, why don’t they learn the language?” Putting aside the fact the US has no official language, I’d say the perception of non-native speakers of American English is that of lesser intelligence:

We might bother to consider the people behind the language travesty, this illusion we put up in our minds. Where do these travelers come from? They’re obviously here for a reason, and maybe they’re trying to learn the local language. They could be fresh out of university and brimming with ideas, people perfectly capable of eloquence. But what do we associate with them? Lack of intelligence: you can’t speak properly, so I must be smarter than you. An assumption so far from the truth it’s laughable.

This perception, while insulting and completely unfounded, doesn’t even begin to match how I’ve seen non-native speakers treated in Korea.

If I DO try to speak to you in Korean, please respond to me as an adult communicating in your language. Being told “You’re cute when you speak Korean” is frustrating and patronizing.

I’m speaking Korean to communicate with you, not to entertain you: your language is a language, not a party trick, so please stop responding to my attempts to speak your language as if I’d just performed a really great party trick. Listen to what I say, and answer. Don’t congratulate me as if I were a six-year-old who just tied his shoes for the first time.

Unfortunately, based on my experiences in Korea, being treated as a six-year-old is really giving the listener too much credit. I want to clarify: my Korean is laughable. But obviously I know how to say things like “Hello!” and “How much is it?” after a year in the country. Yet, even when this information is available to people I’m talking to, I’m treated as Roboseyo suggests: less than human, almost like a monkey that’s been trained to spit out a few Korean words.

This could not be more obvious when I use Korean in the classroom. I know kids will be kids, and I’m an anomaly to them as a foreigner. But still, you’d think after being at the same hagwon for years (some of them have been there for all of elementary school) and seeing foreign instructors use simple Korean in and out of the classroom, that the amazement would wear off. As it stands, whenever I discipline a student in Korean for not paying attention by telling him to sit down, be quiet, or simply stop, instead of actually listening to my angry tone and what I’m saying, he or she just giggles and claps, amazed that I was able to speak.

I haven’t had too many experiences speaking to my adult students in Korean, but I can comment on what I’ve seen on Korean TV when foreigners pop up. Take the couple from Eat Your Kimchi on a popular show called Running Man. I had been following their videos for some time and was really excited to see their TV appearance. But… and I mean this with no disrespect to Simon or Martina, or any of the other foreign guests on the show, I really wish they hadn’t done it. Take a look first.

Could you spot the not-so-subtle ways the hosts treated any Korean skills on the part of the foreign guests as a parlor trick? They couldn’t even hold off until someone spoke: the first commentary is “무슨 말…?”, making fun of the fact that a few of them didn’t seem to acknowledge what they had said with a head nod. And when one of the cooks gave his instructions to spread the sauce in Korean, the laugh track kicked in, as if to say: “Yeah, right. Like the foreigners understood that!” I don’t want to give a blow-by-blow account. Watch, judge for yourself.

I know this perception isn’t true of everyone, but it is certainly true for the majority of native Korean speakers. I’m not really frustrated about it anymore, just depressed. Well, just plain sad. Sad at knowing there are so many foreign English speakers out there, wet behind the ears, believing their Korean language skills may someday be used for insightful conversations, when in fact they will be seen as little more than dogs taught to bark on command. Sad at my own realization of this perception; if I had taken Japanese classes at university (i.e. before I lived in Japan), I firmly believe I’d be more fluent right now. Not because I’d have had more experience speaking the language, but because I’d have less experience seeing how native Japanese speakers treat non-native ones.

And so, sadly, that’s where I stand on my Korean. I can learn more and open a few more doors, but ultimately they’ll lead to the same place: amusement for native speakers. That’s not why I want to learn a language, and why I don’t intend to pursue Korean or Japanese after I leave.

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2 Responses to Perception of Languages

  1. Simon on July 23, 2011 at 11:53 am

    I remember speaking with some Korean people about this. The people we spoke with said that they’re surprised when they hear other people speaking their language. It’s still amazing to them, rather than cute.

    We even got to discussing different accents in Korean. Like, in English, I can tell if someone’s Jamaican, or Indian, or Korean, by the way they speak English. I asked if there’s an equivalent in Korean. How do Indian people sound when they speak Korean? Canadians? Supposedly they don’t know. They haven’t heard enough people speaking their language to be able to differentiate the ways in which it’s spoken.

  2. Turner on July 24, 2011 at 2:10 pm

    Maybe it is just a matter of time and hearing outsiders speak decent Korean, then. For now, I’m not really angry about their reactions, but they’re not exactly encouraging me to continue studying.

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