[Viewpoint] Long past time to learn the language

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[Viewpoint] Long past time to learn the language

An old joke runs that someone who speaks more than one language is called a polyglot, while someone who speaks one language is called an American or a Brit. Since this joke is so old, one would have thought that in the decades since it gained notoriety, the people in government, commerce and the media that it refers to would have made at least a little progress.

In fact the reverse seems to be true.

There are exceptions, of course. Thanks to missionary work, academic exchange programs, the Peace Corps and others, more native English speakers are functionally foreign language capable than in the past. Yet when it comes to truly serious matters, it seems progress has been marginal. In recent years, there may even have been a retreat in foreign language learning by native English speakers.

One need not look any further than daily newspapers, television broadcasts or the Web. Yes, we see news as it happens, but almost always with real-time commentary by “experts” who share their views, inevitably filtered through the lens of the English language.

These opinion leaders rarely have the capacity to read a newspaper in the local language of the areas on which they profess authority. At best, they rely on local contacts who are bilingual in English for a disturbingly large percentage of their understanding. When Western opinion leaders use these contacts, they are basing their perspectives on the views and interpretations of a relatively narrow, elite segment of a foreign nation. These people tend to be highly educated, almost entirely urban and often not fully in touch with the mainstream of their native society. And, as human beings, it is only natural that these elites have their own agenda to pursue. And what better way to advance one’s agenda than to feed self-serving interpretations to Western journalists, government staff workers, business professionals and even academics?

Here are some current examples of this problem.

In recent weeks we witnessed political turmoil in Tehran. (Note that I referred to the capital of Iran - not to the country itself.) While CNN does have the multilingual Christiane Amanpour, even her broadcasts have yet to give the viewer the sense she has covered much beyond the capital. In fact, one wonders how significant the shutdown of SMS text messages and Twitter by the Iranian government really is for the overall population. The political uprising seems to be limited to the highly educated middle and upper classes in urban areas, possibly confined in large measure to the capital. Yet to listen to Western commentators, one gets the impression the entire nation is in upheaval.

No matter where one’s sympathies may lie, for a revolution to be successful, the initial segment must connect with others. In other words, a major revolt must either grow or die. So far we have witnessed a very visible Iranian segment that has many English-speaking representatives. What we have yet to see is a real revolution that connects with a wider part of the country, even if Iran has greatly urbanized during the past 30 years.

Closer to home we find North Korea pundits. Aside from those who are Korean themselves, very few of them can actually sit down and read a Korean newspaper. There are exceptions, but to date they have formed at best an interesting periphery, usually confined to blogs. These bilingual foreigners as a group are very bright and industrious, but are not considered mainstream. Rather, the language skills of the shrinking number of professional foreign journalists here are limited to ordering meals and navigating taxis. There are several bilingual Korean journalists, but only a small handful work under a byline for foreign media and are thereby held to international standards.

As a result, it can be exasperating watching how the media and the Western diplomatic corps tend to interpret North Korea from a Western perspective and via analyses provided by their South Korean colleagues, rather than by looking at the surprisingly plentiful primary source information from North Korea that is readily available in South Korean government institutes.

For example, most Americans assume that the Korean War was a traumatizing time in North Korean history. But if one looks at how the war is portrayed in North Korea and viewed by the majority of North Koreans born after the war, the conflict was the highlight of the regime. According to their Big Lie, Kim Il Sung successfully repulsed an unprovoked invasion and then humiliated the world’s greatest paper tiger, the United States.

Rarely do such perspectives find their way back to Western capitals where politicians, editorial writers and others make public statements as if Kim Jong-Il was operating within the Washington Beltway rather than in Pyongyang.

But those professionals operating from the capitals are not to be blamed. They are only relying on area authorities who should be doing primary research rather than relying on sometimes highly questionable secondhand information.

This is not to be a broadside at foreign journalists. Today, due to budget cuts, there are fewer of them around than ever - and often for shorter assignments, with decreased opportunities to develop language skills. But having said that, one wonders whether news quality may be suffering given the plethora of information available thanks to the Internet.

Finally, the situation is as bad, if not worse, for foreign business professionals. A number of businesspeople who have pursued careers devoted to foreign markets do speak the local language, but of course they are the exceptions. Much more common are expatriates on assignments of three to five years, often with negligible prior experience with the area or language. Like their journalist and government counterparts, they must rely heavily on their local staff.

In most cases, there is no major problem. But having monitored the trials and tribulations of foreign business professionals in East Asia for the past 40 years, I have seen that the most common issue is a failure to deal with problems while they were small, before they become serious disruptions.

When crises erupt, often expensive, bilingual attorneys are thrust into dilemmas of nearly impossible proportions. Should the attorneys fail, foreign businesspeople and their representatives sometimes resort to the media, decrying the difficulties of doing business in Korea.

If these same victims of Korean business practices regularly made even clumsy efforts to bridge the language barrier and build stronger relations with their union representatives, local government officials and other Korean stakeholders, crises like these could be minimized.

So, no matter who you may be, if you deal with the rest of the world through a single-language lens, swallow your pride. Just be happy that it doesn’t get you into trouble more often.

*The writer is the president of Soft Landing Consulting, a technology sales and marketing firm (www.softlandingkorea.com).

by Tom Coyner
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