Signing up to fight the language fogAn excited Kim Tae-shik aims and fires. The target is still standing after he moves along to hunt his next prey; he is not on the prowl for the quick kill. But he is murderous in stalking offenders. Mr. Kim’s weapon of choice is a digital camera. His game is bad language -- bad or misleading English, to be specific.
He tells the story of one big sighting in the linguistic jungle. Passing through Seoul Station last June, Mr. Kim, an official with the Korea National Tourism Organization, saw a sign in English: “The Tongil Express.” He started to salivate. Among Korea’s three kinds of trains, the Tongil is the slowest, behind the not-as slow Mugunghwa and the express Saemaeul.
A milk train of sorts, the Tongil plods through the countryside, stopping at just about every town and village. That was not the only offending language Mr. Kim found that day at the city’s main train station. He also discovered “disable seat” and “bed seat.”
Mr. Kim and his Sign Improvement aides spent three days on their June safari scouring the city’s parks, palaces and bus stations for misspelled, factually incorrect or just downright perplexing English-language signboards. They also trekked to Gyeongju, Busan and Jeju island on the same mission.
Their efforts were part of the tourist organization’s five-year plan to correct Korea’s foreign language signage. Based on a 2002 survey of 5,000 visitors from overseas, Korea’s signboards ranked third in terms of causing an inconvenience, behind “language barrier” and “transportation.”
“This is very important,” Mr. Kim says, slamming his hand on the desk in his 17th-floor office for emphasis. “This work is actually one of the most important things needed to improve the tourist environment in Korea.”
Mr. Kim’s assessment of the need for his labors matches the zeal for language correctness one would find in Singapore, where the growing use of Singlish, an English hybrid, is seen as a threat to that island nation’s commercial advantage.
Donald Kab-yun Wun, an instructor in the tourism and foreign language division of Jangam College, near Suwon, agrees. He says signs in easy-to-read English can produce larger, positive ripples in the economy.
An enjoyable, hassle-free experience with Korean culture, he says, will help forge a more business-friendly attitude toward the country’s products, people and services.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Mr. Wun says of the Korean undertaking, adding that the tourism agency ought to prioritize its work. “They cannot correct every single item. They have to decide what is first and second and so on.”
Not everyone has climbed aboard. Brian Forsyth, who teaches business English, says improvements made over the last five years in Korea are adequate. He calls the current mission “comical.”
“I have never been misled by anything other than my own incompetence,” he says. “When I see ‘rot,’ I no longer assume decomposition. I assume the road is going to go around in some sort of circle.” (‘Rot’ is commonly used on signs as an abbreviation for street rotary).
Nothing, it seems, can squelch Mr. Kim’s determination to make Korea more language-friendly. Conversant in English and French and with a 2 1/2-year stint in the organization’s Paris office under his belt, he presses ahead with an army of three women, who speak English, Japanese, and Chinese, and a 100 million won ($86,800) annual budget.
The goals of Mr. Kim’s language police should not be misunderstood. Unlike the French Academy, which has set its sights on franglais, and the fight against Deinglisch by the Institute for the German Language, the mission of Korea’s tourist organization is to clean up the English that is intended to help Korea succeed on the international stage.
Backed by the organization’s top brass, which ranked the program among its top 10 priorities this year, Mr. Kim is marshalling the eyes -- and cameras -- of thousands of people, Korean and foreigner, from around the nation.
In addition to a Web-site notice posted last month, the organization places ads promoting the project in Korea’s English dailies. Readers are instructed to report signs with English errors and send in a picture of the error.
Spelling brings the most responses. Korean words that are incorrectly Romanized based on the government’s guidelines are also of particular concern. Phrases that convey the wrong meaning, a negative meaning, or simply do not make sense are considered a big catch.
For these “best of the worst,” the government will reward those who point out such egregious mistakes, says Lee Sick-jae, a director at the tourist organization.
“For this project to be a success, it’s very, very important for foreigners in Korea who find errors on signboards” to tell us, Mr. Lee says. The prize, other than the satisfaction of possibly keeping people on the right track, is a gift certificate ranging from 10,000 won to 100,000 won.
Still in its infancy, the Center for Improving Tour Signs was born in May this year and gained early support from the organization’s president, Yoo Keon. The blitz against misleading signs follows what tourism officials describe as a successful five-year effort to spiff up bathrooms across the country, educate taxi drivers about foreign tourists’ needs and provide more restaurant menus in English, Japanese and Chinese.
The latest battle is being waged on several fronts. The government’s Romanization edict has put in place a new system of writing Korean words and names in English. As a result, Cheju became Jeju, Kyongju became Gyeongju, Kyongsang province became Gyeongsang. Thousands of signs in every corner of Korea have been changed to conform to these rules, but three years after the task was launched, more work remains.
“It costs so much, money, you know?” Mr. Kim says of the situation.
Another task is ensuring that each river, statue, town or waterfall is referred to by one descriptive word or phrase. It is not as easy as it sounds.
Is it subway, or metro? Way in or entrance? Way out or exit? Bukhansan Mountain -- literally “Bukhan Mountain Mountain,” using san for mountain -- or Bukhan Mountain? Different authorities have different approaches, but Mr. Kim’s organization’s challenge is to point everyone in the same direction.
Mr. Kim’s brow wrinkles slightly as he points to a computer printout listing words up for debate. Among them is “Haman Gun office,” which uses the Korean gun, which means county.
“For foreigners -- a gun office?” he says, his voice rising. “What is this, firearms?
A committee of 18, including three native English speakers, began tackling these matters at a conference Monday. They agreed on a number of items, but another meeting is already set.
Mistakes in historical fact or geography are also commonplace, Mr. Kim says, often stemming from poor transliteration or difficulty translating obscure Korean terms. Sometimes, signs at historical sites contain such antiquated Korean words that even native-born Koreans have difficulty comprehending them. This has added to the conundrum of creating clearer foreign language signs.
Since May, Mr. Kim’s department has received 119 sign reports, half from foreigners. Catalogued in plastic three-ring binders, some are simple two-liners fired off by e-mail, and most fit on a page. But there are exceptions.
Hildi Kang, a researcher at the University of California at Berkeley, mailed the office a 13-page document focused on one sign at Sinheungsa temple in north Seoul. She found 12 factual errors and 30 Romanization errors buried within the 15 English sentences on a board there.
Since the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics, which opened the floodgates to foreign visitors, Korean authorities have paid keener attention to travelers from overseas. The momentum peaked before the 2002 World Cup, whose matches were spread across cities nationwide.
“The KNTO information kiosks weren’t there before the World Cup,” says Jad Michaelson, a college English instructor who has lived in Korea since the mid-1990s. “It does make it easier that there are a lot of those kiosks everywhere.”
For now, the tourist sign bureau will focus exclusively on English. Chinese and Japanese sign error correction will not get started for at least a few more months, though errors submitted are logged in the database.
Mr. Lee, the director, justifies the delay, saying, “English is the communication language of the world so for now we have to put the priority on English.”
Do Hyun-ji, the staffer with a background in Chinese is ready to lead the charge. Across Korea, Chinese signs often contain a confusing mix of characters used in Taiwan and those used in mainland China, she says. “So many styles,” Ms. Do says, “and so many foreigners, Japanese and Chinese, are confused.
Signs in Japanese, for better or worse, are practically nonexistent outside Seoul, says Lim Hae-yeon, the Japanese-language team member.
Mr. Lee remains upbeat that change, as desired by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, will come.
“In one year, or two,” he says, “things will be different.”
A sampling of mistakes reported to the KNTO
Original version Corrected version
At Seoul Station Bed seat Sleeping seat
Disable seat Seat for disabled
At Donghwasa temple Cultural relies cultural relics
At Pagyesa temple Oreign of King Aejang Origin of King (Daegu) Aejang
At Woraksan clear water stream with clear
National Park streaming water flowing
Highway sign in South Muwisa Tem Muwisa temple
by Joel Levin