“Teacher, why don’t you speak Korean?”

(Part 1: Language, Culture & Imperialism in Korea: Starting the Conversation)

Last year several Korean students I know were extremely angry with an English teacher from the US  for his response to the above question. I do not know the context, whether it was meant sarcastically as a joke, or simply stated as a matter of fact, but his answer was short and to the point:

“Because I don’t have to. I’m white.”

And no matter his intention, as you might suspect, this did not go over well. I along with all who heard about this agreed it was inappropriate and rude.

But is it true?

I don’t mean, “Did he really say that?” I mean, “Does he really not have to speak Korean in Korea because he’s white?”

While there are certainly exceptions to the rule, in general the vast majority of “native English speakers” who teach in Korea speak little to no Korean. This is not an accusation, but simply reality. It is also true in general of the majority of western businesspeople, as well as government and military personnel from the US and most European countries.  Why is this the case?

And before going further, it is also important to state another obvious reality in South Korea today: most “native English speakers” being paid to assist and educate Korean students in their efforts to master the English language are in fact “white”. Why is this also the case?

And concerning both observations: does it matter?

I think it certainly does matter. And so do almost all of my students when it comes up in conversations. And it comes up often.

Where does one start a conversation about this aspect of daily intercultural interactions between Korean students and native English teachers—most of whom are white and don’t speak Korean?

For this reflection, I thought perhaps it would be best to simply start with the question, directed to foreign teachers, and then follow the paths that emerged in the answers, in later pieces. That is what I have tried to do below.

“Teacher, why don’t you speak Korean?”

Most native-English teachers in Korea have undoubtedly heard this question from their students at one time or another—directed either at themselves or a co-teacher.

When asked why they live and work in Korea but don’t make serious efforts to learn and communicate in Korean, the most common answers given by foreign teachers usually include one or more of the following reasons:

photo by Nan Young LEE

-I would like to learn Korean, and I’ve even tried a few times, but it was too hard;

-everybody speaks to me in English;

-I don’t have time to learn;

-I don’t plan to stay here long-term so it will be of no use to me later;

-Frankly, I enjoy the white noise and I don’t want to hear everything everyone around me is saying, especially since I know a lot of it is offensive;

-My Korean friends already speak English and get annoyed when I try to speak Korean;

-If I spent all my free time studying Korean I’d have no social life; and

-I’m not supposed to use Korean in the classroom—so what’s the use?”

My personal, initial response:

Speaking as a light-skinned, US citizen and male English teacher, I would acknowledge that yes, in some ways the English teaching system in Korea discourages us “native speakers” from becoming proficient or fluent in Korean while working here.

But I would also argue that this daily structure, for the most part, is intrinsically colonialist and discriminatory against Koreans, not us, and that it is part of what epitomizes our privilege here, while also alienating us from the cultures and people we (hopefully) want to learn from.

Furthermore, not learning or speaking Korean debases us as teachers because the students think (sensibly) that we are buffoons and not real teachers. And we still unintentionally further the notion of English and The West as “best”, while degrading ourselves and Koreans and Korean culture—usually not intentionally—but simply by “being” and benefitting from the system as it is without working against it by doing such a very basic, albeit sometimes difficult, thing as learning the native language as best we can.

At the least, learning Korean shows respect for Koreans and their cultures, and it underscores (hopefully) what all of us here already believe:

*English is just one among countless languages of great beauty and intrinsic worth;

*but it has through a horrendous history become a language of global communication and power;

*and not being able to speak it while in the middle of a huge globalization epicenter is dangerous and threatens you with the (further) loss of your own autonomy and culture (a horrible catch 22 that many of us “native English speakers”—especially from the UK or the States—cannot comprehend because of our own privileged monolingualism and default power we didn’t earn);

*and so we can offer it as a service, as solidarity, on our students’ and neighbors’ terms, not ours.

We can and absolutely should learn Korean. I would even say that the extent to which native English speakers willingly receive payment as English instructors in Korea while not making efforts to learn and understand Korean—especially white teachers—can be used as a fairly accurate measuring tool to gage each teacher’s own levels of privilege and (implicit or explicit) endorsement of colonialist thought.

It’s not easy, but I think we have to collectively work to learn Korean while here if these issues—and more importantly, if our Korean neighbors—matter to us.

And this plays into another important and related aspect of intercultural relations in South Korea: the power that comes with the title “expat”.

Sure, in some ways it could be argued (and is argued ad naseum in several English language foreigner-based online forums in Korea)  that the system “works against us” learning Korean here. But more importantly, I would argue that the system is very much still colonialist in framework and goals (overall) and because of “our” power inherited from this mess, we simply don’t have to learn Korean to live like royalty in Korea.

This, to me, is deeply troubling.

As one of my closest Korean friends has pointed out to me several times, it often seems to her, based on her experiences with foreigners, that it’s only white people— or “expats”?—who live here without learning Korean.

If the majority of non-western “immigrants” learn at least the basics of Korean, and the majority of “western” English teachers, professionals and military and governmental personnel do not, why is this so?

When we go home, not having learned Korean, what “Korea” are we actually talking about and what pictures and ideas about the nature of Korea are we presenting or perpetuating to our friends?

What images and views and relations with English and cultures and power and privilege and racism are we leaving or reinforcing with our students and everyone we live with in Korea? Liberating, mutually respectful, empowering and affirming ones? Or belittling, colonizing and racist ones?

And if these thoughts seem irrelevant to us while living and working in Korea without “needing” to speak Korean, what does that say about us?

photo by Nan Young LEE

Do you speak Korean? If not, why not? And if not, are you currently learning Korean? If not, why not? And if not, do you believe that not speaking Korean in Korea poses significant problems to both your ability to understand others and communicate deeply in Korea? If not, why not? And if not, do you believe your presence as a foreigner in Korea who only communicates and interacts with Koreans and other foreigners in English creates or perpetuates any negative power dynamics or dehumanizing and belittling views of Korean language and culture? If not, why not? Do you consider yourself an “expat” or an “immigrant”? Why or why not?

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Here’s to this open-ended reflection prompting healthy response—and, in the case of all of us “native English speakers”—more action (studying and learning Korean) than reaction (defending privilege and ignorance).

Seth Martin

“Native English Speaker”

March 2018

(*note: I speak low-level conversational Korean. I can read very simple texts and understand the gist of a good bit of what I hear around me. And my partner is Korean. Most of our small talk around the house is a constant mix of Korean and English. But I am nowhere near fluent. Not even close. I have studied alone or with groups—with varying degrees of intensity—for the past couple years, but I’m currently focusing much more on studies in hopes of being “fluent” a year from now.)

필자 :