Dreams vs. realities in English

By September 1, 2017Globalization

We all have childhood dreams. Mine was to become a writer, which, unfortunately, was not well received by my parents because it is a “hungry” job. Due to the absence of parental support and my own doubts about my creative abilities, the dream slowly slipped away and remained as a childhood dream for a long time. Would you believe that the dream has finally come true? I have become a published writer with the publication of a book entitled English language ideologies in Korea: Interpreting the past and present in August 2017.

The initial impetus for the book was sparked by my own language journey. At the age of 23, I decided to become an English-Korean interpreter, a glamorous bilingual, who would be respected for her English language proficiency in Korea caught in the phenomenon of “English fever”.

However, after many years of hard work, when I had finally achieved the dream of becoming a professional interpreter, I found myself perplexed and puzzled as a gap emerged between the pre-held dreams and the realities in the field.

And that’s where English language ideologies in Korea: Interpreting the past and present starts: the book critically examines the contrast between dreams and realities of English in the context of “English fever” in Korea from both historical and contemporary perspectives. It explores two overarching questions: why is English so popular in Korea? And, why, despite the enormous popularity of English, is there such a gap between the promises and realities of English?

In order to explore the first question of why English is so heatedly pursued in Korea, I conducted historical analyses of the development of English in Korea with English-Korean translation and interpreting as a key site of inquiry. The historical relevance of English-Korean translation and interpreting is well illustrated in the fact that English arrived in Korea for the first time in the late 19th century in order to educate English-Korean translators and interpreters. English was important for the embattled Korean government of the time as they actively tried to strengthen relationships with the U.S. in order to curb its ambitious neighbours with predatory designs. Korea’s continued economic, political, and security dependence on the U.S. throughout the modern era has added more power and prestige to English, which has evolved to serve as a form of cultural, economic, social, and symbolic capital with class mobility as a key driver.

The second question of why there is such a gap between dreams and realities in English is examined from the perspective of contemporary English-Korean translators and interpreters, who represent the most engaged and professional learners of English in Korea. The social reputation of the profession as perfect English speakers and glamorous cosmopolitans provides an ideal site to explore the contrast between expectations and experiences in English, which was investigated from multiple perspectives including commodification, gender, and neoliberalism. Internal conflicts relating to English language learning and use are illustrated through interview data analyses, in which the aspect of English as an ideological construct shaping and shaped by speakers’ internalized beliefs in and hopes about the language is highlighted.

By exploring the gap between dreams and realities in English, I endeavoured to make sense of what appears to be an irrational pursuit of English in Korean society. Making huge sacrifices to learn the language only seems a “rational” act in Korea because English has been firmly established as a language of power and prestige as documented and explored in English language ideologies in Korea: Interpreting the past and present. It is my hope that the book highlights the importance of examining local particularities involved in the construction of particular ideologies of English, which is often approached from the monolithic perspective of “English as a global language”.

Author Jinhyun Cho

Dr Jinhyun Cho teaches English-Korean translation and interpreting at Macquarie University in Sydney. Her PhD research explored the phenomenon of “English fever” in South Korea from historical, societal and individual perspectives, with a particular focus on the translating and interpreting profession. A monograph based on her PhD research was published by Springer in 2017 as "English language ideologies in Korea: Interpreting the past and present".

More posts by Jinhyun Cho
  • Paul Desailly

    I love Korea and its moniker for itself: The Land of the Morning Calm. I must say though that I much preferred stepping on to the Korean peninsular from the Fukuoka ferry than from a launch crossing the Yalu from Dandong. C’est la vie, mes amis. Anyway, Dr. Cho has correctly analysed the situation re the popularity of the language of Shakespeare in her lovely country: politics. Jinhyun might consider a comment or two about religion. It seems like there are more churches in Seoul than in Adelaide. The Korean churches, unlike many in Japan, aren’t just for conducting white weddings with all the accoutrements.

    How popular will English remain when America’s legions come home (déjà vu?) and the American empire goes the way of all previous empires? First hand in Red Square in 1990, yes, 1990, I witnessed the sudden and unexpected collapse of the mighty Soviet empire together with an associated decline in the global popularity and teaching of the Russian tongue. There in the very heart of atheistic Communism before the disbelieving eyes of apparatchiks galore a full-on Orthodox mass in all its majesty in praise of the Lord immediately preceded, with the sanction of the state, a demonstration in favour of the Czar’s return.

    LOL

    Paul

    • Jinhyun Cho

      Thanks Paul! I really enjoyed analysing the historical processes by which English has become immensely popular in the Land of the Morning Calm. Religion in Korea is such an interesting subject, and thanks for the inspiration for my future research 🙂

  • Gloria Christabel

    This write-up is pretty interesting, as growing up, I had many dreams for myself as well, that was ‘squashed’ by realist parenting. Nevertheless, I saw the reasoning behind it as it just was not a logical thing to dream about especially in a culture that thrives on realist views and opinions. One of those many dreams was to be a singer, but in Malaysia, the country I come from, the music industry is not progressing like that of the U.S. or Australia even. Singers in Malaysia were always subject to the stereotypical saying “They have no future there (the music industry)”. I therefore understood the reasoning behind the stance that was taken by my parents.

    On one side of the spectrum, I do not blame the Koreans for making such sacrifices to learn the language. The country that I come from has gone to extensive measures to encourage the usage of the English Language in Malaysian society. The school’s curriculum has been revamped several times to accommodate this need. A large number of parents in Malaysia are beginning to opt for English-medium schools for their children due to the growing need for the use of the English Language especially in the Malaysian work force and national academia.

    On the other end of the spectrum though, I do hope that the Korean language does not take a back seat throughout this endeavor. It is crucial that one’s native language is preserved regardless of the importance given to the English Language in one’s country (Wang, 1987).

    ————————————————————————————————————————-
    References

    Wang, Y. Y. (1987). The intelligibility of Malaysian English: a study of some features of spoken
    English produced by University students in Malaysia (Doctoral dissertation, Institute of Education, University of London).

    • Jinhyun Cho

      Thanks Gloria! I can totally relate to how you must have felt when your dream of becoming a singer was rejected by your parents. Different childhood dreams but on the same ground – it is a “hungry” job. I tried to be “realistic” as expected by my parents, but it is kind of ironic that I have come such a long way only to achieve my childhood dream. I have been well aware of the popularity of English in Malaysia, and perhaps you can analyse the gap between dreams and realities in English in Malaysian society? 🙂

  • Julie

    Thank you for the post, Jinhyun. The book greatly impressed me as it focuses on what I think could be similarly worth exploring in my country – “English language ideologies in Vietnam”. English is the most popular foreign language in our educational system and many people’s ‘dreams’ to achieve life goals are much related to it. I also know some people who have quite similar stories as you do. They were always pursuing their ‘dreams’ in English, but later on became ‘perplexed and puzzled’ about what they had gained. As we are not sure about how the ‘gap’ would matter, the exploration into related questions is believed to be very helpful. I’d really love to read the book for more ideas about how we could look into our context.

    • Jinhyun Cho

      It’s great to see the similarities that exist in different societal contexts with regard to the issue of English. There is always a gap between dreams and realities in pursuits of English, but the way in which the gap is understood and negotiated is quite different depending on where it lies. I would love to hear more about your research interest in English in Vietnam, so please keep me informed 🙂

  • Tricia

    Congrats Jinhyun Cho on this dream come true! 😄👍 I think part of sociolinguists’ mission is to explore the gaps between reality and expectations. Clearly, there’s a lot of it out there. Your work is a wonderful contribution to this goal and I would definitely love to read it! 🤓

    • Jinhyun Cho

      Thanks Tricia for the kind words. Yes, I agree that exploring the gaps between expectations and experiences is a useful way of understanding a particular sociolinguistic phenomenon. Hope that you will enjoy reading the book 🙂

  • Wonghoi

    Good afternoon Jinhyun,
    I have heard that the translation major is the best one in the whole linguistic department, and I am from applied linguistic major. It is my pleasure to read this article about how we define the gap between reality and dream in English learning area. Last summer, I have participated into the paper translation work in ICUN, Beijing and I have also observed from the workshop to see how interpreter works in the back of a meeting room. To be honest, I love this job but I could not be able to persue this job due to my learning background of TESL. In terms of the condition in China, most of the white workers choose to study English is only because it might be part of contributions to their career development. Somehow, as for secondary students, their only purpose is to study it as a part of their Gaokao plan, which has a very significant meaning for them. Instead of regarding second language learning as a joy of our life, we need to see it (especially English) as a tool in our future scope. As for me, I think I just love English, and teaching this language is the most comfortable thing for me to do. Anyway, I am very happy to read your work from this website.
    Thanks a lot !

    • Jinhyun Cho

      We all have different ways of relating to languages, and it seems that teaching English suits you. I love teaching and find it very rewarding especially when my work is appreciated by students. Thanks for your comment and interest in my work!

  • Long leg

    Dear Jinhyun,
    In my country, Vietnam, many people would like to study a kind of language (mostly, English) which they could get more advantages from. Many language learners dream to achieve native-like level of language proficiency. However, they may get confused of what they have achieved during their learning process. I also hope to be an English-Vietnamese interpreter and translator. However, I’m not sure about what I should pursue now because English has gradually become a popular language in Vietnam. Many people can understand and speak English fluently so that there is less chance for an English-Vietnamese interpreter do their job.
    Regards,

    • Jinhyun Cho

      It seems that “English fever” is taking hold in Vietnam too. When I embarked on the language journey, I was one of those many people who want to pass for a native speaker. I realized later that pronunciation is only one element of language learning. There are other facets that are far more important than good pronunciation, so don’t worry too much about sound like a standard speaker. Hope that you will achieve your dream of becoming an English-Vietnamese translators and interpreter.

  • Eleonora Beolchi

    What an inspirational story Jinhyun!

    It’s always important to follow your dreams and as much as this is hard at times, we should be clear with our mind and conscience because nobody wants to live a regretful life. Since I was a young girl, I’ve had big dreams of becoming an interpreter and in general of being fluent in English. The interpreting career is full of emotions and gave me a lot on the language level.
    When I embraced the ESL teaching world, it’s been hard and I felt discriminated many times but now that I am teaching English in Australia I feel very proud of myself and satisfied with who I am. The society in which we live is sometimes not ready for big dreams and it is easier to conform to the mass…I can only imagine how the Korean society must have hindered your dreams Jinhyun.
    I think that being ambitious is nothing but good to keep the challenge and the motivation high and reading such positive life experiences is a confirmation that we all need to dream on!
    Elly

    • Jinhyun Cho

      I can relate to how emotional your language journey must have been, and you have my respect for persisting with something that seemed impossible many times. Congratulations on your achievement Elly 🙂

  • Yeongju Lee

    This article is really interesting and it made me keep smiling because I could understand how you felt and what you want to say since I am Korean who has been learning English as the second language. And I also studied English translation when I was in University in Korea and I am doing Master of Applied Linguistic and TESOL course in Macquarie University. I know how hard it is to make a dream come true in Korea, especially if the dream is to work as a so called “hungry job”, but anyway, congratulation!
    I felt the same about why Koreans have comparatively low proficiency compared to the passon and efforts that they put in learning English. There is a huge gap between dreams and realities in English in Korea. Here are what I think about why there is a gap between dreams and realities in English in Korea:
    Koreans put a lot of emphasis on acquiring a high English proficiency, considering it as an essential qualification to be a capable labor or human resource. However, students has been asked to present the tests’ scores as the way to prove their proficiency. That is why English has been taught traditionally in a exclusive format where students focus on the tests and students are taught based on an exam-oriented education rather than learning the ways of how to improve English skills that they can use in the real world.

    • Jinhyun Cho

      Totally agree that the current test-oriented English education in Korea is one of the factors that have caused a gap between dreams and realities in English. The gaps demonstrated in my book are not just about proficiency per se but about beliefs in and ideas about English at societal and personal levels, and you might want to see if you can relate to them as well 🙂

  • MonyCRole

    I could share Cho’s feelings in finding gaps between dream and reality in English. I have worked as an English interpreter and then a student teacher but these two jobs genuinely broke my fantasy and conception of them. When I was younger, I thought interpreters simply copied what they had heard from the speaker, retold it to the hearer and then got paid. It all seemed perfect, a well-paid and highly needed and respected job. However, during my learning progress of interpreting, I found that the effort in gaining professional interpreting skills was unmeasurable and unimaginable. Besides, interpreters do not copy original expressions. Instead, they spend lots of time learning extra knowledge that is relevant to the topics and the contents of speeches in order to better understand the original meaning and present it in target language more precisely and accurately. More importantly, interpreters, particularly official interpreters working for giant enterprises or the government, should learn how to avoid using expressions that display personal standpoints yet they still need to hold the ideology of the institution, the enterprise, the ethnical group or the country that they represent for, which is the most challenging task to complete.

    Likely, being an English teacher indicates not only preparing interesting topics or learning contents for lessons but also taking students’ psychological characteristics, their needs, learning environment and the social context and needs into consideration.

    Cho’s research is interesting and thought-provoking. It suggests enthusiasm to investigate and deal with the differences when gaps occur between “dream” and “reality”.

    • salmat

      Thanks for your interesting insight into the work of interpreters. As an outsider to this profession, I had a similar view on interpreting to the one you had when you were younger: that it was simply translating verbatim what someone else has said. It never occurred to me the additional work they do in understanding the context and content of the language is order to communicate it as efficiently and effectively as possible. What strikes me is how much cognitive load there must be on the interpreter’s working memory in order to carry out so many processes simultaneously. I will look at interpreters with even greater respect and admiration in the future!

      • Jinhyun Cho

        The amount of cognitive load involved in interpreting is just hard to describe. Exhaustion is an understatement. Interpreters are often likened to swans that gracefully move on a lake and paddle hard under the water in order to stay afloat. Great to hear that you will show more respect for interpreters 🙂

  • Jinhyun Cho

    Glad to find someone who shared the same childhood dream 🙂 English as a valued commodity can be found across the globe, not to mention in the case of the former British colonies. It is not just to do with enhanced employability but class and status. English as cultural capital is such a fascinating subject, and perhaps you can write a post about how English is appropriated in Nepal?

  • Jinhyun Cho

    Thanks Lokendra. Happy to learn that my book can be applied to any context in which English is feverishly pursued. It seems that you share the same dream of becoming a writer, and I hope that your dream will magically come true 🙂

  • Jinhyun Cho

    I can totally relate to you Flora why you don’t want French to be seen exclusively as a linguistic commodity. Having said that, the kind of images attached to French – as a language of culture and beauty – also indicates that it has also been commodified albeit in different ways. It’s hard not to approach any languages with commercial motivation in this era of capitalism…

  • Jinhyun Cho

    “Variety is the spice of life” – how profound! 🙂 Let’s keep in mind the values of linguistic diversity.

  • Phoebe N

    Thanks for sharing your interesting and inspirational story with us. I believe that most of us did have many dreams as we were a child but it is truly hard to make them come true due to numerous factors (parental support is one of the most significant ones), but anyway, you finally did it, congrats Cho.
    I think I could effortlessly get the idea of what you called “English-fever” in your country and your feeling as it is also taking hold in my country, Vietnam. It can be said that Vietnamese learners are quite practical, thus, they just devote their time on learning what brings them benefit. Therefore, there has ever been an incredible demand for achieving high level of language proficiency as they suppose that the ability to speak English can place people in higher and more favourable position on job market.

  • GlobalMikeW

    This article reminds me of the phrase “be careful of what you wish for” which infers that what we want may not be as ideal as we imagine. I’d be curious to know what exactly constitutes the gap between the author’s pre-held dream of being an interpreter and her reality. I would have thought that, like most professions, there’s a sliding scale of prestige in translating jobs. Some, such as working with famous people visiting from abroad are extremely glamorous, whilst those that are business or community driven may be more mundane. But if one enters the profession with the sole intent of living a life of glamour, then I could see why there would be disappointment (having wanted to be an actor in my 20’s, I completely understand the impulse). Or it could be that translating was seen as an easy job which simply involved repeating what one person said into a direct translation. In theory this sounds great, but having had experience living abroad, I know that translation very rarely works that cleanly.

    Or perhaps I am way off base with both these ideas and am projecting my own uneducated perception onto a career with so many more layers than I could ever envisage. Continuing with the comparison to actors who must constantly take on new identities, maybe shifting between not just languages, but world views, cultural norms and identities results in a state of existence which is nothing like what was previously imagined in the dream. Interestingly, another article in Language on the Move asks whether bilinguals have two souls, and the internal conflict to which the author alludes may be anchored in a constant oscillating between two languages day in, day out. I can only guess at how demanding it must be having to not just match the visible words on the surface, but the vast array of subtexts, conjugations and ill-fitting concepts between languages. It’s not something I’ve ever considered and so this article is a good reminder that what we perceive is not usually the way it actually is.

  • vy ha

    It seems that “English fever” is taking hold of many Asian countries, including Vietnam. I figure English playing a role in strengthening the political, economic relations with the U.S giving its prestige view is also what has taking place in many Asian countries. I’d like to add another point which related to the cultural factor. Specifically, Holywood, and the movie industry in general, is a powerful channel in transferring the status of prestige and contribute a significant portion in establishing the imperialism of English in Asian countries. Watching these movies gives people a glimpse into the Western culture, the way of living, and in many ways, can be viewed this Western culture can be viewed as better or more prestigious than that of their own.

  • Nadiah Aziz

    Hello there Jinhyun Cho,

    The study that you have carried out and the focus questions addressed are very significant in our current multilingual and multicultural society. In Kuala Lumpur Malaysia, there are many areas that are being labelled as “Korean village” – areas that are well established by Korean society who migrated in the early 90’s. As a result, Koreans can be considered as a fairly big community in our country as they have come up with Korean churches, bakeries, grocery stores, kindergarten, and English language centres for Koreans.

    In Malaysia, Korean language and culture started to gain attention of the locals since the late 90’s when almost everybody I know started watching the Korean series- Full House and then later, K-Pop fever which became even more famous after Gagnam Style became viral on local radio and other social platforms; clubs, pubs, bistros or restaurants, even shopping malls.

    I personally think that it is also essential for English to have a ‘special’ place in Korean society in order to spread Korean language to other parts of the world- for example, English can be used as the medium of language to teach or learn Korean. I remember the singer of Gagnam Style was invited on Ellen De Generes talk show in the States and he seems to have a fairly high level of proficiency in English when he was explaining about the song- this was when I found out that Gagnam is actually a name of a place in Korea. English is also important for the Korean society in order to converse with Malaysians as we only quite recently have students coming back after graduating from Korean universities, perhaps less than 10 years ago, as Malaysians would usually further study in Australia/ Ireland/ France/ India/ China or Japan.

    By the way, it has always been my dream to be a professional interpreter ^_^ but I ended up being a French lecturer to engineering students, helping them to reach intermediate level before going to French universities. I have had my one time opportunity to interpret the speech by The president of The Republique of Guinea in Kuala Lumpur from French to Malay and I have to say it was rather challenging but fun! ^_^ All the best !

  • Mustaqim Haniru

    Thanks for sharing your story, it is very fascinating and i can relate to this, especially the phenomenon of ‘English fever’. Although i am not from Korea (I am Indonesian precisely), I grow up in a small town in Indonesia, where not many people speak English and having English proficiency was regarded ‘cool’ and ‘prestigious’. I still could recall how much I adore people who speak English and how much i enjoy English movies and music, and how much i believe that having adequate English proficiency could grant a promising job. This has driven my interest to learn English and my decision to pursue bachelor degree in English Literature. However, as English exposure was gradually changing (people are widely exposed to English now) and witnessing the real-life expectation in the present workplace, i finally realize that my past expectation/imagination is not entirely true, at least for the present reality. Hence, I am currently studying at Master of Applied linguistics and TESOL, expecting that I could develop not only better English competence, but also theoretical foundation of Applied linguistics field, its practical-level insight, and ready-used expertise in academic and professional setting.

  • DIEU PHUONG THAO NGO

    In my home country- Vietnam, English is entering its “golden” era, extremely similar to what you’re describing in the articles. Everybody is learning English. The starting age has been getting younger and younger. I started around grade 5, while my boyfriend’s little brother started in grade 3 and my niece got engaged with English since kindergarten. Most Vietnamese Millennials’ sentences include at least an English word. The English craze sparked by the promise of better career opportunities and international integration has caused a tremendous increase in English learning demands and numerous teaching centers have emerged to fill that need. My concern is what awaits my dear country after this period. Nobody can be sure of the future. However, stories of pioneering countries such as South Korea’s are extremely valuable to Vietnam. Thank you so much for this insightful article about an interesting book!

  • Yeji LEE

    I totally agree with the point of this article. Actually, I was in the beginning of ‘English fever’ generation, so I started to learn English fairly earlier. From my elementary to university period, English had been one of the major subject and its importance had continuously increased. And now as an English teacher, English is still one of the major subject in Korea. Sometimes, students ask me why they have to study English or why English is so important. I was also thinking of those questions but could not find clear answers. I think this book can help me find proper answers for that. Thank you for introducing interesting book!