The Korea Herald


[Kim Seong-kon] We should admit English is everywhere these days

By Kim Seong-kon

Published : Feb. 13, 2018 - 17:57

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English is no longer simply a language of English-speaking countries. It has become a global language for international communication. Besides, English is the language people use for their emails, Facebook, and Twitter every day. All information and knowledge is available in English these days

Actually, this phenomenon had already begun in the 1970s, when I studied in the States. At the time, prominent French scholars frequently came to the States as visiting professors: Jacques Derrida at UC Irvine, and Tzvetan Todorov and Julia Kristeva at Columbia, to name a few. Derrida was already famous in the States with his deconstruction theory -- while he was relatively unknown in France -- through his books published in English in New York. Who knows? Without English translation of his works, even Derrida might have remained a scholar thriving only in France.

The same thing goes for Han Kang’s “The Vegetarian.” When it came out in 2007, it did not attract any significant attention from Korean readers. In fact, few Korean literary critics discovered its importance. In 2010 the novel was translated into French, but there was no critical acclaim. When it was translated into English by Deborah Smith in 2015, however, it instantly became sensational. The English translation of “The Vegetarian” won the prestigious Man-Booker International Prize and immediately prompted the book’s translation into 22 languages.

Strangely, however, some Korean scholars of other European languages seem to resent the popularity of English. The recent criticism of the English translation of “The Vegetarian” by Korean scholars of European languages is a good example. Their English proficiency is dubious, and yet they do not hesitate to criticize the quality of English translation by a professional translator and native speaker of English. Of course, the English translation contains a number of mistakes, but they can be corrected in the second printing. Why then do they have to keep criticizing the English translation so harshly and doggedly when English is not even their expertise? The answer is their riveting grudges on the prosperity of English.

However, if you are ignorant of the radical change taking place in the world, or if you resist the change, you will be left behind inevitably and eventually. English is everywhere these days and you can communicate in English even in China and Japan these days. A few months ago, I met publishers and editors from Southeast Asian countries. To my surprise, all of them spoke in English and their English was surprisingly good. Conversing with them in English, I thought about our publishers and editors. Could they, too, do business overseas in fluent English? I seriously doubted it. Chances are many of them will remain silent or mumble in broken English at best.

If so, it indicates that our English education is in seriously bad shape. If we have studied English for 10 years and cannot speak fluent English, then our English education has undoubtedly failed. We should overhaul and innovate our English education system so our students can speak English comfortably. If our young people are not capable of conversing freely with foreigners, the future of our country is grim. Indeed, what kind of a bright future do you expect when your children are verbally challenged and remain silent while others converse freely?

The other day, I was invited by the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Washington, to the opening reception of an exhibit entitled, “A Woman’s Point of View” prepared by Saudi’s Dar al Hekma University students. First, I was impressed by the fluent and impeccable English of the president of the University. Then I was also impressed by the Saudi Arabian college students’ English proficiency that enabled them to articulate their in-depth thoughts freely and profoundly. One of them explained her exhibit to me in fluent English, “Our goal as Saudi women is to demonstrate that we can be fashionable and modern in any culture. The slogan, ‘The fashionable Eye of Saudi’ is to gain the audience’s attention and distinguish our look from other Saudi fashions. Our theme is giving women a unique way to reinvent African traditions in a modern style.”

These days, American university campuses are swarming with Chinese students. Whenever I meet them on campus, I am impressed by their English proficiency. Surprised by their English, I ask them, “How long have you been in the States?” “A year and a half, sir” is the answer I often hear. Now, that amazes me. In such a short span of time, how could they learn to speak English so fast? They say that Chinese students are dauntless in learning English, whereas Korean students tend to be hesitant and even resistant.

When overseas, like it or not, you are a cultural ambassador. If you cannot articulate yourself in English, you unintentionally disgrace your country. Thus, we cannot underestimate the importance of English. It is no longer a luxury or a privilege to speak English. It is a must and a survival tool in this globalizing world. We should admit it. English is everywhere now.

Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and distinguished visiting professor at George Washington University. He can be reached at –Ed.