Don’t pick on accents, please

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Don’t pick on accents, please

During the G20 summit in Seoul in 2010, Korean reporters were embarrassed at the news conference with U.S. President Barack Obama. When President Obama gave reporters the chance to ask questions, no one raised a hand. Then a Chinese reporter took the microphone. Korean reporters were criticized for being incompetent and unqualified, embarrassing the nation.

But they may not have been incompetent. They were more likely afraid of being singled out and embarrassed. Asking an irrelevant question may have been an issue, but the greater obstacle was English proficiency. They must have thought that revealing their poor pronunciation, strange accent and imperfect grammar would disgrace them for life. So no one dared to ask a question in English.

A few years ago, EBS had Koreans and foreigners listen to a speech by an unidentified man in his 60s. Koreans were harsh on his accent and pronunciation. But foreigners praised his sentence structure and use of advanced vocabulary. When the identity of the speaker was revealed, Koreans were amazed. It was Ban Ki-moon, secretary general of the United Nations. When it comes to a foreign language, Koreans are obsessed with fluency and pronunciation. It is an extension of vanity and empty formality rather than valuing substance and contents.

Many renowned figures were not fluent in the language of their countries. Henry Kissinger, a master of international relations, was one of them. He emigrated from Germany when he was 14 and lived in the United States for 78 years, but his English pronunciation was not perfect. Most Americans who listen to his speech know the speaker is a foreigner.

But no one evaluates him based on his accent. Having orchestrated the U.S.-China rapprochement in the 1970s, Kissinger is considered one of the best secretary of State in history. Americans know that it is his actions that count, not his accent.

Recently, Lotte Group chairman Shin Dong-bin (above photo) was under fire over his Japanese accent. He had to make an apology for his accent and was criticized for lacking Korean identity as a leader of one of the largest conglomerates in the country. A cable news station subtitled his speech strictly based on his pronunciation as a mockery.

But on Sept. 17, Shin attended the National Assembly’s legislative audit session, and it turned out that he did not have trouble communicating in Korean. The fuss was over appearance rather than substance.

The world is increasingly becoming globalized. More people will soon speak Korean with unusual accents, such as second- and third-generation ethnic Koreans living abroad, foreigners naturalized in Korea and North Korean defectors. If you pick on their accent and pronunciation, how can a foreign-born talent, like Kissinger, be successful in Korea?

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

JoongAng Ilbo, Sept. 22, Page 39

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