It’s ‘World Best,’ just not for English

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It’s ‘World Best,’ just not for English

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Since the 1988 Seoul Olympics, Korea has waged various campaigns to internationalize its signs and menus to be more modern, less insular and provide a more comfortable experience for foreign tourists and residents in Korea.

To see how that ambition is faring, the Korea JoongAng Daily conducted a detailed investigation of signage at major tourist venues, which showed that progress has been great - but still has a ways to go.

Comical Konglish and inconsistent romanization make traversing Korea a challenge. Some tourists go home singing the praises of Ch’angd?kkung, while others do the same for Changdeok Palace (they are the same place).

Some drool over tteokbokki and others enjoy deokboggi (they are the same dish). Getting around can be tough for those who don’t know that Seoraksan and Mount Seorak are the same place.

Our investigation took us to Incheon International Airport, the ancient Changdeok Palace, the National Museum of Korea and Korean restaurants around Insa-dong, a traditional district in central Seoul.

The two-day series will take a look at misleading expressions, grammatical errors and inconsistent romanization at these venues, and also explore the efforts being undertaken to improve Korea’s public use of the English language.



Both trivial and embarrassing, Incheon International Airport has for years emblazoned Konglish on everything from promotional materials to public telephones.

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A sign on a moving walkway at Incheon International Airport warns visitors not to get their umbrellas or canes jammed in the walkway. The airport, which promotes itself as the face of Korea, uses many Konglish expressions. By Jeong Chi-ho

But for an airport ranked as the best in the world year after year - one that bills itself as the face of Korea and is filled with the latest high-tech gadgetry - the sometimes laughable English throughout its corridors comes as a surprise.

“A World Best Air Hub” is written across every luggage-cart handle in the airport. A promotional phrase below the touch-screen terminals flash “All crews of Incheon International Airport will do our best to take off for world’s best Mega hub airport.”

The ongoing language issue makes some people question the airport’s ability to live up to its pledge to be the face of Korea.

After all, it is Korea’s gateway for more than 70 percent of foreign tourists: 9.8 million foreigners visited Korea through the airport last year. To others, the poorly conceived English is trivial and does nothing to take away from the impressions that the speedy customs process, friendly employees and high-quality amenities leave on foreign tourists.

Nevertheless, Incheon International Airport’s global appeal looked doubtful to this reporter when it came to English usage. Scores of English mistakes were noticed during a visit on Oct. 7.

To help the Korean reporter, Marie Campbell, an English instructor at Soongsil University in Seoul, accompanied the Korea JoongAng Daily.

The 31-year-old New Zealander said that the phrase “take off for world’s best Mega hub airport” was trying to be cute by using the term “take off” figuratively, but that it didn’t quite make sense.

“If we were to rewrite that sentence, we could write ‘All of the crews here at Incheon International Airport will do our best to make it the world’s best international gateway,’ or ‘the world’s best mega hub airport,’” she said.

Among the first English mistakes noticed was one on the moving walkway on the B1 level of the passenger terminal. Under an illustration was the phrase “forbidden dumping cigarettes,” an expression that is likely meant to say “Cigarette disposal prohibited.” Another, “Forbidden heavy and bulky carriage,” is probably meant to say “Bulky luggage prohibited.” At a phone bank, a banner on the telephones inform that they accept “credit cards agreed with Korea Telecom.” Campbell suggested that “credit cards accepted by Korea Telecom” would be a better expression.

The airport attributed the mistakes to the lack of oversight. Correcting the mistakes, the airport said, would also be costly.

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The slogan “A World Best Air Hub” has been used since at least 2006, and a public relations official at the airport said they have received complaints about its grammatical inconsistency. The official, who requested anonymity, admitted that the slogan may be wrong, but said it would be too much work to correct it.

“Once a slogan is determined, it goes as is for three or four years, until a new one is conceived,” the official said. “A change requires us to scrap all of our corporate identity ads, panels and posters and replace them with new ones. That’s annoying.”

The airport official said there is no particular department responsible for overseeing English signage. Teams responsible for the management, maintenance and refurbishment of certain areas of the airport are also in charge of signage in their assigned areas.

A lack of English information at the airport was also noticed. On the moving walkway, a Korean sign warned women that high-heeled shoes with a 1-centimeter or narrower heel could get stuck on the conveyor. But the English sign only said “Caution.”

While one solution would be to employ native English speakers as advisers, the airport official said that when they come up with English expressions, they instead seek advice from Korean employees.

“English has become so common these days, and we have many good English-speaking employees who can help with English expressions for the airport,” he said.

The official, however, said the airport will try to reflect the points raised by the Korea JoongAng Daily. A subcontractor commissioned by Incheon International Airport is working on revising the airport’s corporate identity, including its English usage, and the revision will be completed by early next year.

Despite the abundance of Konglish, most travelers seem unfazed, and the airport continues to receive high overall praise.

The Airport Service Quality Survey has named Incheon the best airport for five consecutive years out of 1,700 international airports — bolstering Incheon’s claim as a leading global airport.

Robert Erbetta, a traveler from the United States, said that English is not a problem for the airport. “I noticed the international airport is pretty Englishfriendly,” Erbetta said. “Probably one of the best in Asia, I would think. It is pretty self-explanatory.”

Campbell said she was impressed with the overall level of English at the airport, despite the occasional Konglish.

“We only found a few small mistakes — some kind of awkward phrases and some spelling mistakes. But apart from them, I think the airport has done a great job,” she said.

Campbell said English does not need to be perfect, as long as people can communicate. “I think the meaning is obvious from awkward expressions we found. They are not correct, but cute,” she said.

There is room to improve, according to Campbell, if the airport wants to look more professional to travelers.

“The airport should make the effort to find and utilize native English speakers or Koreans who speak English fluently in order to help them create signs and notices that make sense to English speakers and would not be out of place, at say, Heathrow Airport,” she said.


By Special Reporting Team [joe@joongang.co.kr]

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