Many people around the world dream of learning English. The pursuit of English is rarely only, or even predominantly, about language learning: it’s about self-improvement, self-transformation and the aspiration to live a better life. Unsurprisingly, with English as with anything else in life, dreams and realities do not always match. Recent PhD research conducted by Jinhyun Cho at Macquarie University examines this gap between dreams and realities of English in the national context of South Korea and for one of the most intensely engaged groups of English language learners, namely female translators and interpreters.
This research explores English language ideologies in Korea in relation to the recent phenomenon of “English fever” or yeongeo yeolpung, which refers to the frenzied pursuit of English as valued language capital among Koreans. The popularity of English in Korea has recently attracted significant scholarly attention in sociolinguistics. Despite a growing body of research on the issue of English in Korean society, the question of how the promises of English translate into lived experiences and life course trajectories remains underexplored.
Based on a multi-method qualitative approach, the study draws on three sets of data through which to present a holistic picture of the tensions between dreams and realities in relation to English in Korea: historical textual data, media discourses, and one-on-one interviews with 32 English-Korean translators and interpreters.
Historical textual data are used to trace the genealogy of English in Korea since the late 19th century via Japanese colonization, the post-independence period and industrialization, to government-led globalization campaigns. The English language ideologies identified through the historical periodisation serve as a baseline for the analyses at macro as well as micro levels.
Contemporary English language ideologies are then elucidated through media discourse analyses of news items related to English-medium lectures in higher education in order to examine how dreams about English are sustained and how such dreams contrast with actual classroom experiences.
In order to understand the uptake of these macro-level language ideologies by individuals, interview data from translators and interpreters as the most engaged group of English language learners are then examined. This includes an exploration of the ways in which individual pursuits of linguistic perfectionism reinforce linguistic insecurity in relation to dominant neoliberal discourses of desirable language speakers. Disparities between dreams and realities in English as experienced by the participants are examined from a gender perspective to show that the pursuit of translation and interpreting is a gendered career choice in relation to societal norms of females. Particular attention is paid to the recent media phenomenon of “good-looking interpreters.” The analysis demonstrates how English has been remoulded as an embodied capital in which aesthetic qualities of speakers can enhance the value of English.
The findings of this study highlight the multiplicity and evolutionary nature of English language ideologies. The historical documentation of the development of English suggests English as multiple forms of capital – cultural, economic, political, social and symbolic – with class mobility as a key driver. In addition to the earlier meanings of English, the micro-level investigations illustrate more diverse aspects of English as a gendered tool to achieve desirable female biographies, as an instrument to enhance individual competitiveness, and as added value to personal aesthetics. While such diverse ideologies attached to English testify to the enormous value attached to English and possibly answer the question as to why English is so popular in Korea, the examination of media discourses about English-medium lectures reveals the use of English as a tool to sustain existing societal structures that advantage the already powerful conservative media. Combined with the constant mediatisation of the benefits of English, neoliberal influences on English in which achieving linguistic perfectionism is presented as real and feasible further contribute to masking the sustained gap between dreams and realities in English. As people blame themselves for lacking individual commitment to the mastery of English as celebrated in popular neoliberal personhood, the substantial costs of the pursuit of English remain hidden, which in turn drives more people to pursuing English and further fuels “English fever”.
Overall, the research illuminates historical, mediatized and gendered aspects of English as an ideological construct. The study has implications for future research and stakeholders, particularly as related to the need to rethink English as a global language, the diversification of English language ideologies in gender, and the potential of translation and interpreting for interdisciplinary research.
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Cho, J. (2012). Campus in English or campus in shock? English Today, 28 (02), 18-25 DOI: 10.1017/S026607841200020X
Cho, J. (2015). Sleepless in Seoul: Neoliberalism, English fever, and linguistic insecurity among Korean interpreters Multilingua DOI: 10.1515/multi-2013-0047
Cho, J. (2016). Interpreting English Language Ideologies in Korea: Dreams Vs. Realities. (PhD), Macquarie University. Retrieved from http://minerva.mq.edu.au:8080/vital/access/manager/Repository/mq:60718 [open access to full thesis]
Piller, I., & Cho, J. (2013). Neoliberalism as language policy Language in Society, 42 (01), 23-44 DOI: 10.1017/S0047404512000887 [open access to full article]