Saturday, May 31, 2014

A Lesson in Korean Konglish

Any country that’s trying to learn English, especially on a nationwide scale, will inevitably develop some sort of fusion between the national language and the English language.  When cultures and languages collide, there’s more of an overlap as opposed to a barrier.  Even in our own colloquial speech, foreign words are commonplace.  English has borrowed French words like chauffeur, fiancé, and entrepreneur.  Lager, Kindergarten, and wanderlust are taken from German.  In Korea there has been a surge of English words and expressions that have been put to use in Hangul.  The outcome has been the creation of what some may consider a sublanguage, a Korean/English hybrid known as Konglish. 

The phenomenon of Konglish is widespread throughout Korea.  Konglish is mostly unintentional, yet it has become staunchly embedded into Korean society.  The sphere of Konglish seems limitless in scope since it encompasses just about any English mistake a Korean might make such as pronunciation gaffes, translation mistakes, altered meanings, spelling mishaps, grammatical errors, or the inappropriate use of words or expressions.  Konglish ultimately keeps people from learning proper English and is something Koreans should probably learn to forget.

One day a young girl asked me during break time, “Teacha, do you like pija?”  

“I have no idea what pija is.  What is pija?”

“You don’t know pija?”  She and her friend giggled and looked at me like I had been living in a bubble all my life.  

“No, I don’t know pija,” I confessed.  “Is that your boyfriend?”

The girls laughed some more.  “Yes, I love pija,” and they continued laughing.

“Where is he?”  I stopped an unassuming boy wandering around the hall.  “Is this him?  Is this pija?”

“No,” said the girl.  “Outside…Mr. Pija!”  Both girls were practically rolling around on the floor after she said this.  I had no idea what was so funny.  I slowly backed away from the conversation and consulted one of my colleagues.

“Do you know a little boy named Pija?”

My colleague looked confused.  “Here?”

I shrugged my shoulder.  “I was just asked if I like Pija.”

“Oh…pizza!  They wanted to know if you like pizza.”

In retrospect the conversation made much more sense, but the idiosyncrasies of Konglish got in the way of what should have been a basic conversation.  In Hangul, pizza is spelled 피자, which is correctly pronounced as pi-ja.  This Hangul word is written on every single pizza establishment in Korea.  There’s even a popular pizza restaurant in Korea called Mr. Pizza.  When I finally put two and two together, the girl actually made a funny joke.  But I’m sure they thought the situation was mostly comical because their teacher was a complete idiot.

When you take a word from a different language and make it your own, people are likely to bastardize the pronunciation.  Pronunciation mistakes are common among Koreans since the Hangulization of English words leave vast enunciation discrepancies.  The alphabets are different enough so all sounds are not completely represented.  What you’re left with are words that are taken from English, but grossly mispronounced.  

Then there’s Konglish where meaning is interpreted or simply altered altogether.  In extreme cases, the word becomes fabricated into a meaning that’s nowhere close to the original.  For example, I’d always hear the kids say, “Teacha, my arm is sick.”  Jokingly, I may walk over and put my hand on the kids arm as if I were taking its temperature and say, “It’s a little warm but it feels fine to me.”  My audience failed to see the humor in this.  The misuse of this word comes from the fact that Korean uses the same word to represent both sick and hurt.  It’s difficult to grasp, especially for children, that one word in their language may be two different words in another language depending on context.  An example of a fabricated expression is eye shopping.  Any idea what common English expression this equals?  If students told me they went shopping, I usually asked if they bought anything.  Just about always they would reply that they were eye shopping (instead of window shopping). 

Other forms of Konglish are mere interpretations of English words.  Often these words could be put into context but would make you second guess if you actually heard them correctly.  Some of my favorite Konglish interpretations are:

      English                                           Konglish
Swiss Army Knife  ---------------   MacGuyver Knife
Underwear  -----------------------   Panties
Fart  ---------------------------------  Hip Gas
Motorcycle  -----------------------  Auto Bike
Cell Phone  ----------------------   Hand Phone

Even though some Konglish may be entertaining, it really isn’t a laughing matter since it impedes the English fluency that Koreans so desperately seek.  However, I always got a chuckle when one of the students would defiantly proclaim that someone dispersed hip gas into the air.     

Ultimately, Konglish just perpetuates a level of bad English among Koreans.  It’s an uphill battle since Konglish is everywhere.  You find it on t-shirts, billboards, in restaurants, and you even hear it on television.  So how do Koreans limit their exposure to Konglish?  There are a variety of things that can take place, all easier said than done.  Koreans should relinquish their reliance on electronic translators.  Businesses need to incorporate a level of grammar and spell check before promoting to the public since seeing Konglish in a public forum helps legitimize its authenticity.  Also, care should be taken by teachers in the classroom to address these issues and not exacerbate them.  The first few months I caught myself using Konglish words such as hip gas only because I thought it was funny.  When students heard me say these words, it validates Konglish since they view me as the be-all and end-all of English.  I could just imagine one of these kids traveling to America in the future to study abroad and inquiring to the other students, “Do you smell that hip gas?” 


Classic Konglish







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