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A sign at a subway station that helps passengers to find their way to their destination. The sign is in Korean and English.

This article is my take on a recent video from Arirang News. To see the video, click here.

The picture above is one that is common in capital region of Korea. It is a sign to let passengers know what direction each train at this subway station will lead to. To some, signs like this are great since it is in both Korean and English. But to others, signs like this are somewhat of a problem. Over time, Korean language has changed, and so has the faces of Korea. More and more, foreigners, even non Asians, are looking to make Korea their home. And as this happens and as Korea tries to fit into a modern world, some worry that the identity of Korea’s language and culture will be lost along with it. This article won’t examine the view that everything in Korea should be all Korean all the time, but it will look at the concern of some about Korean language fading in the years to come.

Is This A Real Concern?

The simple answer is yes, there is a right to be concerned about the over use of words that are not Korean but are replacing Korean words in society. The best example I can think of regarding why some may be concerned about Korean language fading would be the word chicken. There is a Korean word for chicken 닭, or 닭고기 which means chicken meat. However, if you look for a restaurant that serves Korean Friend Chicken, you may see the word chicken in Korean as 치킨, the word chicken said in a Korean accent. And that doesn’t even include 치맥, a hybrid word that combines 치킨 and 맥주, to mean chicken and beer despite this not being an actual word to some. The video also mentions that in stead of using 후원자, the word you would find in a dictionary app if you look up booster shot, some will say 부스터, the word booster said in a Korean accent. This can easily lead to a strange situation for some in Korea.

Concern For Older Ones

When non Korean words are used in place of the Korean term, this can be confusing to the older generation. If one is an older person who has never had any education in English, or happens to live in an area where there few, if any, non Koreans around, they are more likely to speak a purer form of Korea that would use actual Korean terms. So while younger generations may understand if the English word booster is said in a Korean accent, what chance do the older ones have of knowing this? At a time of emergency, such as a pandemic, getting older ones information that they can understand can be the difference between living and dying for many. Consideration must be given to such ones so that they get the information that they need. So this leads to an interesting question about how language should be presented in Korea.

Should Korea Go Back To Using A More Traditional From of Korean Language?

The simple answer to this is no. That would be virtually impossible. As the video mentions, Korean is derived from Chinese. When I first stared to learn Korea, there would be words that would have a Chinese character next to it so that people reading it would know what the word fully meant. To revert back to that form of Korean would be highly confusing to many in the younger generations. It would also be concerning to foreigners who want to learn Korean, but who may feel that they would need to learn some Chinese language and culture to understand Korean. And think for a moment about words such as internet, computer, television and other words that are now a part of everyday life that are new words to all languages. Could Korea ban the use of such words because there isn’t an Korean word that exist for these items? That is not very realistic either.

What Is The Solution?

There will never be a solution that pleases everyone. There are still those who feel that only ethnic Koreans should be allowed to live in Korea and that kicking out any non Koreans would solve all of Korea’s problems. That delusional thinking won’t benefit anyone. Others want to fully embrace other cultures and words, but that can water down the Korean language considerably. The thought process in Korean is not the same as it is in English. There are things that are truly unique to Korea and that can only be expressed in the Korean language. The truth is Korea does need to take on non Korean words and that there should be options to help non Koreans who are doing business or who are educating Koreans to adapt to society faster. But not as the risk of the language and culture.

The best solution I can think of is to use real Korean words whenever possible. Those who truly love the culture and who really want to make Korea their home long term will be willing to learn the Korean words for different items. However, there is nothing wrong with having the direct English translation under a word, or using the English word if the word is derived from English. This is assuming that native English speakers are involved in this process instead of having Koreans using an incorrect form of English that could hamper business growth and development. The simple fact is that the older generation must be able to understand what is being said and done in their country. And Korea has the right to ask people to learn some form of Korean before moving there. (This is in no way an endorsement of the TOPIK examines that some want to insist on.) Finding a happy middle ground will allow Korea to continue to develop, and still maintain it’s identity into the future.

But one of the questions raised is does Korea truly feel that having a knowledge of foreign things or that things from other countries are potentially better because they are not Korean? I’ll give my answer to that in the next article.