In 2014, I made the decision to study abroad in Seoul to enrich my life and academic experiences. I was fresh from two memorable semesters studying abroad in South Korea, and I had found that my English speaking improved a lot after the student exchange program. I was very lucky to have had a chance to experience a new culture and meet people from all over the world. However, there are some observations about Korean language that I would like to share.
I had a chance to teach English in the Seoul Mapo welfare center, where all my students were at least 60 years old. Even though I had taught young kids before, teaching the elderly was different since my students were mostly educated compared to the kids and they had a lot of life experience. Back then, I didn’t think of why my students came to class when they were in their 60s. Why do they need English at that age? What motivates them to learn a new language?
From my experience living in Seoul, seeing English words written in Korean in public space, TV shows, websites and other kinds of forums is very common. “Knowledge and use of English in South Korea is a defining linguistic expression of modernity” (Lee, 2006). People find English is linguistically integrated with modernity. Though I can’t say learning English is more of a younger generation thing. The truth is globalization makes language transmission much faster than in the last century.
Korea is such a homogeneous society; an individual wouldn’t like to stand out in a crowd for being different. I guess that’s why a certain language expression or a certain style of clothes can become popular in the society quickly, for you don’t want to feel disassociated from the society. Indeed, if a person decides to learn Korean well, knowing English facilitates the Korean learning process compared to those who have zero English knowledge, because there are a great of number English loanwords in modern Korean language. Sometimes when I learned an English loanword in Korean, I thought that there should have been a corresponding Korean expression for it. For example, 쇼핑하다 (to go shopping), 쇼핑 comes from English, added a Korean verb suffix 하다, and it becomes a common phrase indicates to go shopping. I’m still not sure if there’s a pure Korean phrase for ‘to go shopping’. Such a loanword has indeed invaded the society and language, and people have been accustomed to this expression. However, in Mandarin, I think we borrow words mostly because the loanword doesn’t exist in our culture or language.
So, back to the topic, why do the elders need English? As a young person who knows English well, I didn’t realize I could pick up English loanwords in Korean easily. This is true because most of the loanwords are phonetically translated, which only presents the pronunciation. I could get the meaning just from pronunciation, then I would get the link between English and Korean. Therefore, if you have an English foundation to be the base to learn these words, it shouldn’t be too hard. But what about those old people if they had never learned English? Can they completely understand online news that has many English loanwords? Would that cause inconvenience to them? Does English learning make the elders adapt to the changing society more easily? There is already a generation gap between the young and the old. I am curious about how the language invasion in Korean language influences the senior citizens.
Lee, J. S. (2006). Linguistic constructions of modernity: English mixing in Korean television commercials (Vol. 35). Cambridge University Press