Sunday, May 16, 2010

Like the movie Speed, but with a taxi and words instead

Hailing a taxi in Seoul on a hot afternoon sucks. The combination of the heat, the taxi and having to spit out a destination makes me sweat, and the self-consciousness of sweating makes me sweat even more. Seoul is also loud and crowded, making you feel more rushed than you might otherwise feel. I hailed a taxi the other day and found myself in the hottest of hot seats. It's common for taxi drivers to ask me a variety of questions about the sort of things I might know but they don't (eg how much money do "they" make in Canada?).

"You're an English teacher?" this one asked. "I have some things I want to ask you. How are symposium and seminar different?" I said that they were basically the same words, but he wasn't having it. I said that about five times, but each time he told me that according to the dictionary in his phone and possibly some other source, they could not be used in the same way. I told him that, to us at least, they could be, but he wasn't amused.

So, then we moved on to the next test. He asked how symposium, seminar, conference, forum and workshop were different. I said that they were basically the same words with some differences, explaining the etymology of workshop, but not forum or symposium since they were too confusing. This time he seemed more amenable to my explanation, but he laughed in a dismissive way that indicated, rightly so, that our language made no sense at all.

The reason for the grilling, he explained later, is that he drives people to hotels all the time. He sees signs and banners advertising a workshop, conference or seminar and when he either asks someone what they are or looks them up in his dictionary, they all point to the same word. If they were the same word, then why wouldn't we just use one word? He certainly had me stumped.

Still driving, he pulled out a black notebook in the back of which he had about 5 pages with two columns of English words next to their Korean equivalents. These English words weren't words of the random sort that other people pick out, but relatively obscure English words that he had seen while simply driving around the city. My favourite were the ephemeral, possibly drug-induced lyric poetry that commonly adorns coffee cups, but is also extended to cylindrical objects of other sorts, such as trash cans, rice cookers and pencil cases.

The point that he should have made but didn't, and I made, is that there is simply too much English in Korea. Signage and advertising of all sort make free use of English, whether rightly or wrongly, to gain some sort of cache. It's virtually standard practice for a magazine's cover and headlines to be in English, with everything else in Korean. Restaurants will have menus in Korean, but caption pictures of dishes with English. If you're bilingual, you might not really notice, but for someone who never learned English or simply doesn't want to haul a dictionary around to learn that "commencement" just refers to his 졸업식, it's absurd.

It's mystifying to me the way that English is used as a sign of sophistication. Car commercials, for example, will be entirely in Korean, but use English to drive the point home at the end, saying something like "sophisticated, design and luxury, Hyundai Sonata". There is a difference between using English because it's the way for the rest of the world to get in touch with Korea and using English to show to other Koreans that you're more worldly than they are. A Korean-style linguistic boycott of Western food, along the lines of America's famed "freedom fries debacle", would be something I support.


Seadog said...

You, sir, are no Keanu.

Adeel said...

Fun fact: we have a student named Keanu. He's from America. He speaks perfect English but hardly any Korean.