DO YOU SPEAK K-CULTURE?
There I was, sitting in large, white room in the Korean embassy in Zagreb, Croatia, when the seemingly innocuous question came: “Can we now try speaking in Korean?” The question was posed by a representative of the KGSP board, a scholarship I was long hoping for, and which now seemed closer than ever; until I was asked to speak in Korean, that is. The issue was not that I could not speak some Korean – in fact, having spent a year on a Fulbright scholarship in New Jersey left me with plenty of time to master basic Korean in Fort Lee and Palisades Park, two predominantly Korean towns with some of the best bulgogi ever. Additionally, the many Korean friends I made helped me learn to write and read Hangul, use basic expressions, and even joke in Korean. Finally, as a linguist, I had the training necessary to find patterns and rules of a language, so beginner-level Korean grammar was already at my disposal. However, there was a slight oversight on my part in terms of my Korean education, which I only understood once I was sat in that white room. You see, of all the people I had ever spoken Korean to, this was the first time I sat across from someone who was older than me, so my colloquial banmal would not work here. In my head I had silently used the plethora of expletives my Korean friends had taught me, and stuttered out a few basic phrases that I knew in formal Korean. I gave up after a few sentences, and apologized to the interviewers, pointing out that I would rather switch back to English than offend them in my unsightly Korean. Luckily, I had the best-humored interviewers in the world, as they burst out laughing and complimented both my banmal and jondaemal. I knew they were just being kind, and that interview served as the turning point in my Korean education. I was determined to learn Korean as it was meant to be learned – in context.
Returning home to Sarajevo, Bosnia, I encountered the first difficulty in my plan – there was absolutely no context available in which I could learn Korean. The Hallyu Wave which had swept across the world, had not even reached the shores of Bosnia and Herzegovina yet. While we had a meagre influx of Korean tourists every summer, the fact that we did not even have an official embassy in the country spoke volumes about the presence of Korea in Bosnia. In the Balkans, the presence of the Korean culture was particularly strong in Serbia, with a number of Koreans also living and working in Croatia, but in Bosnia people still referred to all the tourists coming over summer with one common name – Asians.
In the defense of my people, up until a decade or so ago, Bosnia was not the most prominent location for a summer sojourn, so we had had very little experience with visitors from the East. As that changed, the Bosnians unaccustomed to meeting people from that part of the world had difficulties in recognizing and differentiating between people from East Asian countries. This issue, in fact, is what I recommend needs to be addressed in the many textbooks which are nowadays produced in the field of Korean Language Teaching (KLT): in most European countries, as well as countries which are mostly oriented towards the West, the first step in language education should be cultural education. Admittedly, people who choose to learn Korean presumably already know at least the basic information about the country, but the point is not to just teach individuals who want to learn the language, but also to attract new learners who might not have ever considered it. As such, I scoured the available KLT textbooks, webpages, free online courses, and language applications, and aside from one entry on the StudyinKorea webpage, I saw no promotional text, or a single chapter on why an individual should feel compelled to learn Korean. The fact that this motivation is taken for granted is, I believe, a major reason why in my country people are blissfully unaware of the importance of Korean language in the 21st century. With all this in mind, my central recommendation for the revision of available teaching materials would be raising awareness of the existence of said materials, as well as the purpose for creating it.
We cannot assume that the popularity of the Korean pop-culture will directly result in the popularity of the Korean language. In fact, quite the opposite might be true. From speaking to many learners of Korean both in the U.S. and across Europe and the Balkans, there seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding regarding the nature of the Korean society and culture, which textbooks do little to remedy. A large number of learners that I spoke to were inspired to pick up Korean through the music or TV-shows they watched, which in itself is not bad, were it not for the fact that oftentimes that initial motivation remained the leading source of information about Korea for the learner. This resulted in many awkward conversations between my Korean friends and the well-meaning learners they encountered, who would inadvertently offend or shock them by using phrases or language elements which were not appropriate in a Korean setting.
As a linguist, I am well aware of the fact that language teaching material is frequently divorced from the context, but in the case of Korea, this phenomenon should be reduced as much as possible. Unfortunately, I have seen few good attempts at that. Language teaching textbooks available to me mostly employed the direct or the audiolingual method, with repeated drills and enhanced focus on pronunciation. The better editions were functional or situational in nature, with engaging activities and useful vocabulary, but they nevertheless lacked sections answering the ‘why’ of language teaching. In fact, asking ‘why’ was strictly forbidden in one of the textbooks, with the authors stating that “if a student wants to ask questions, he should ask more useful and answerable questions”. And yet, in my experience teaching English for the past four years, it was answering ‘why’ questions that helped my students contextualize the English they were learning. We must understand that language is inextricable from culture, particularly if, as in the case of Korean, the language reflects major cultural norms and values. As such, contextualizing the knowledge presented, and providing pragmatic bits of information, is as important as any piece of grammar the learner will acquire.
Further proving this point are the two Yonsei-administered Korean language courses available at Coursera. It was here that I learned most of my formal Korean, through courses which balanced between direct language instruction, and cultural and social education. While I mastered the Hangul alphabet in my first weeks of learning Korean, the reasoning behind it only became apparent when the instructor showed in detail the logic behind King Sejong’s invention, explicating the letter shape structure by the phonological articulation of individual sounds. Through these courses, Korean came alive to me, bearing with it the rich history and culture which underpins it. Learning Korean in this way made me even more adamant about studying in Korea and learning the language.
If there is anything we might learn from these courses, is that language instruction material should have a strong content base, with language lessons contextualized in real-life setting. I have learned most names for fruit and vegetables not from my courses, but from going shopping to H-Mart and cooking with Korean food. I have learned how to chat and text in Korean by downloading KakaoTalk and asking my friends to text me in Korean. I have learned about the history and culture of Korea by sitting and talking with my friends about their life until the early hours of the morning. If sounds and syllables and grammar is the body of language, then culture is its soul. And most of the material I encountered in my attempts to teach myself Korean in Bosnia was just an empty vessel.
I am aware that it is difficult, if not impossible, to replicate this real-life learning in a language classroom or via textbooks, but there are still ways to bring the experience as close to the learner as possible. It was decades ago that John Dewey proposed the experiential theory of learning, where one learns through doing. Korean language teaching materials must attempt to embody this theoretical approach, and step away from purely prescriptive language learning. There is absolutely no reason why a page in the textbook should not ask the learner to try and make a simple Korean dish, or to text a friend in Korean, or to watch a historical movie or show. I see in Korean language instruction material the same issues I had with English teaching material – a lack of connection to the reality of the language. However, unlike English which at this point has had too many parties involved to ever be able to produce a single functional teaching approach, KLT still has the opportunity to evolve and lead us into the next generation of innovation. After all, isn’t that what the Republic of Korea continuously does?
As of now, I am still in search for viable teaching and learning material here in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I am hoping that with this essay I attract the attention of the Center for International Affairs, and show them that there are plenty of parties interested in learning Korean around the world, even in such small Balkan countries as mine. The community in my country is only beginning to see the steady rise of South Korea to the top, but there is still a long way to go. I will personally work on promoting the Korean language as a linguist in my country, as I believe that that is one of the best ways of introducing a new culture into a community – by finding a local ambassador. As William J. Fulbright once said, “education can turn nations into people”. I just hope that no one asks me to speak jondaemal to them any time soon.
(Country of Activity : Bosnia and Herzegovinia)