While I lived outside of Korea, never once did I identify myself as a “good English speaker.” English was simply a language I used to communicate with other people. It was such a fundamental part of me that I never viewed it as something to be proud of, or a skill that others might covet. All that changed once I came to Korea for college.
Having lived overseas for 13 years, I did not have a strong Korean vocabulary when I first arrived at KAIST. Because fumbling for the right Korean words took so much time, I had a tendency to use many English words when conversing in Korean. As a result, it did not take long for me to get acquainted with the typical Korean’s “English envy.” I was met with gasps, laughs, bewilderment, or contempt whenever I added a simple English word in the middle of a Korean sentence. When I spoke, I found that people did not bother to listen to anything I had to say. They would simply be fixated on my English and my pronunciation of various words, automatically filtering out the actual information I was trying to communicate. Some of the more narrow-minded people assumed that I was being condescending or arrogant, and perceived me as being a conceited know-it-all. Many people warned me that it is common etiquette to speak Konglish, the use of English words in a Korean context or accent, when in the presence of other Koreans, and pointed fingers at me for not making an effort when I was actually trying my best to tone down my accent.
I suppose it is no secret that a large portion of the Korean population struggles with an English-speaking complex due to a fear of speaking English, or the feeling that their English abilities fall short of some standard. What I found interesting was that the opposite phenomenon also occurs – Korean society’s obsession with learning English has led to the manifestation of a complex associated with speaking English too well. In addition to being labeled with various derogatory terms, Koreans who are native English speakers often face an identity crisis. Perhaps my personal experience was a bit more extreme than most, but for years, I was labeled as “the girl who speaks good English.” No matter what activities I did, no matter how hard I worked in a group, I was simply “the girl in that organization who speaks English” or “a group member who speaks English fluently.” As a result, a huge proportion of my college years was spent translating Korean into English, editing terrible grammar, and helping people with their speech. Constantly relaying other people’s opinions in different languages and rarely being recognized for my own, I was often plagued by the idea that I really was no better than a translating machine.
After almost four years of living in Korea, I have now gotten used to Korea’s ridiculous English envy. I have given up trying to force a Konglish accent in fears of wounding the pride of narrow-minded people, and learned to ignore the snide remarks of mean-spirited strangers who channel their insecurities and jealousy into verbally abusing others. Thankfully, I was blessed to meet many people who treated me with respect and listened patiently to what I had to say despite my reliance on English, which made it much easier to cope and helped me to strengthen my sense of identity and self-worth. But though I have learned not to get too upset when faced with such problems, the general attitude towards English continues to irk me.
It is true that English is an important language, but it is just another language nonetheless. An eloquent Korean speaker is just as admirable as someone who communicates effectively in English. A person’s value should not be determined by the level of his or her English proficiency. Recognition of these facts by society at large is essential if Koreans are to overcome their inferiority complex regarding English and to cease discrimination against Koreans who speak English fluently. English is overhyped in Korea, and we need to temper the extreme desire for English education that often seems to verge on insanity. If only we could figure out how.