[OUTLOOK]The perils of speaking English

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[OUTLOOK]The perils of speaking English

Working as an interpreter at international conferences, I often hear Korean speakers beginning a speech saying, “The shorter the banquet address and skirt are, the better.” The expression was commonly used in the past, but is hardly used now in public in the West because it goes against political correctness.
Although I am a professional interpreter, it is very hard to translate “political correctness” into Korean. I have seen it translated as “political conformity,” “public expression” and “expression without discrimination.” Political correctness is a kind of political, cultural movement to not isolate, discriminate or insult certain sexual, ethnic or cultural groups by language or expression. Language dominates our thinking. For example, when we say “fireman,” we unconsciously think it refers to a male. So these days, the gender-neutral term “firefighter” is used. We are going through a similar evolution of expressions as well, as shown by the Gwangju uprising being renamed the “Gwangju Democratic Movement.”
Such expressions are bound to develop more in a society sensitive to the interests of minority groups and the prevention of discrimination. However, Koreans learn English as a foreign language and are relatively indifferent to its cultural aspects, so we might be limited in using refined speech on the international stage. It is interesting that even someone with a long experience overseas and fluent English is often confused over expressions regarding women. Until a few years ago, Koreans had a hard time addressing a female chairperson at an international conference. They were so used to saying “Mr. Chairman” that “Madame Chair” did not readily come out of their mouths. At one meeting presided over by a Korean chairperson, a female Indian representative asked for the floor. The chairman called her “Miss India,” and she protested to me that she was a representative of India, not Miss India. I doubt that if the representative had been a male, the chairman would have called him “Mister India.”
At another recent international conference, a Korean speaker introduced a fellow professor ― a female. He mentioned her age and said that she was still single so the audience should set her up with their friends. While the Korean audience laughed at the joke, foreigners were surprised. It was hard for Westerners to accept the mention of age and marital status and a public announcement seeking a spouse as a joke.
Speaking in English at an international conference is a hard task on its own, but it is more exhausting to think about what is culturally acceptable. Americans and Europeans, too, have a similar problem. Instead of talking of American Indians and blacks, they should say Native Americans and African-Americans, respectively. In order to protect the privacy of homosexuals, they say “partner” instead of girlfriend or boyfriend. Some criticize political correctness as enforcing the language of leftist ideology.
At any rate, we have to play on the international stage, so what is “safe” English? The answer comes naturally if we try to care for and respect others and follow the dictates of common sense. Instead of making fun of others, using modest humor and humbling yourself is “safe” and classy in public. In addition, if we are more conscious of the elevated political status of women in the international arena, we can reduce the risk of going against international manners. Consideration for others is a universal virtue transcending languages and cultures.

* The writer is an interpreter and TV personality. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff writer.


by Bae Yoo-jung
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