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English Pronunciation and... Korean Plastic Surgery?


In case you haven't heard, learning English in South Korea has become all the rage. And not just learning English so that one can understand and communicate well enough to get by in business. No, mastering it to the point that one's pronunciation is as indistinguishable as possible from a speaker who grew up in the United States.

But why is this so important? After all, most prominent foreign businessmen, academics, and dignitaries who speak competent English do so with a noticeable if not heavy accent and yet successfully communicate even the most complex of ideas.

Here's an answer offered by American Robert Fouser, a well-known professor in the Department of Korean Language Education at Seoul National University. Dr. Fouser believes the key is to first understand exactly what English pronunciation actually means to Koreans.

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According to Professor Fouser, "In the past, English pronunciation represented a connection to the rich and powerful U.S., but that has changed as Korea has developed into an important global economic player. [Today] English pronunciation is rather about appearances. Good pronunciation gives the appearance of being educated, whereas bad pronunciation implies being behind the times."

APSG Comment: The dominant word here is "appearance." In other words, something stupid is still stupid regardless of which language is used, but it may sound prettier when said in French. Fair enough, and besides, who are we to argue with a professor both immersed in the subject and living in the country? But really, this is where the good professor should have stopped before jumping out of his element.

Dr. Fouser continues, "Curiously, the obsession with English pronunciation has much in common with the popularity of plastic surgery. The percentage of Korean women who receive plastic surgery is far higher than other countries."

APSG Comment: Wrong. Contrary to popular opinion, "far higher" is really "slightly higher" unless one is comparing Korea to the under-developed world.

"The popularity of plastic surgery," he goes on to say, "reflects the desire to fit in, to match the visible norm for smart, up-to-date women."

APSG Comment: Really? Since when did plastic surgery become a way to fit in and match the norm? Most people in Korea or anywhere else would likely argue that plastic surgery is more typically undertaken to stand out above and beyond any visible baseline. What's more interesting, though, is how a university linguist came to suppose that a woman's appearance after plastic surgery is somehow indicative of her intelligence or world outlook.

"Looking smart and attractive," he goes off, "affects job and marriage prospects in Korea more than it does in many other countries, thus having a direct affect on life chances in a highly competitive society."

APSG Comment: Yet another popular assumption that's dead wrong. Sure, being smart helps, and being beautiful doesn't hurt, either. But despite heavy marketing to the contrary, undergoing plastic surgery to improve on a few features has never been shown to result in any significant financial advantage.

Then he adds, "Many Koreans use gut feelings about first appearances as a guide to how to develop the relationship."

APSG Comment: No kidding! How utterly unique.

After a little more insight into the sociology of language, the professor concludes by noting that, "Clearly, the whole obsession with English pronunciation is a great waste of effort and money."

APSG Comment: Wait. Is the analogy to Korean plastic surgery still in force?

"The best way to improve English beyond what is required in school," he claims, "is to look inside instead of outside. This means developing relevant and interesting things to share with others."

APSG Comment: Looks like the analogy still holds, although it's hard to know if that was the intent.

Either way, here's a bigger question: Why do so many authors writing about almost any mundane phenomenon in South Korea today insist on inserting strategic references and comparisons to plastic surgery no matter how ill-informed or inappropriate?

Because it's starting to get annoying.


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