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The East and West of language


December 12, 2008
- Will Loewen

SEOUL, Korea — When Ana and I made the move from West to East in 2007, we were determined to learn Korean quickly so that we could go about our daily life independent of translators. When we began serving at Jesus Village Church in Chuncheon, we were assured that we didn’t need to learn a lot to get by as most Koreans know at least a little English.

Despite our best efforts to learn Korean more fully, the process has slowed. A large part of our responsibility here in Seoul, Korea is teaching English and we’ve found people would much rather practice their English with us than help us practice our Korean.

With the impact of globalization and the dominance of Western powers, the English language has seeped into almost every aspect of life in Korea. Some might say this is another negative impact of neo-colonialism, that a culture is being destroyed by an external power – but language has always been fluid. It adapts and changes to meet new realities. Even English developed over time as speakers of German and French dialects melded their vocabularies with the lavish expressions of local Latin-speaking priests, scholars and nobility. This convergence begins to explain why English is so difficult to learn and also to teach. In addition, new experiences and commercial products require new words, which are often created by melding English words with another language’s pronunciation style. This happens all over the world, developing new sub-languages. In Korea people call that sub-language Konglish.

As it turns out, Konglish is everywhere. I hear it on the soccer pitch; when the ball leaves the playing field, players cry ah-oo-teuh (out). When a player wants the ball they yell pa-seuh (pass). And when a player has performed well, his teammates say nah-ee-seuh (nice). Near our apartment there are a number of seuh-keuh-reen goal-peuh (screen golf) locations where customers can tee off for an indoor simulated experience. Even the nation’s rallying cry has a familiar ring; hwa-ee-teeng (fighting).

Not to be outdone, the business world is equally full of blended expressions. There are a number of western-style restaurants where the words for menu items are essentially the same as back home. Almost every convenience store name contains the word ma-teuh (mart), apartment complex names include the word hah-ee-cheuh (heights), and restaurants advertise their food as weil bing (well-being). In the local music scene, three recent popular songs are One More Time, U-Go-Girl and Nobody but You, which are sung almost entirely in Korean except for the English title words which are repeated in the chorus.

Despite the fact that TV news broadcasts and almost all other aspects of Korean life are littered with Konglish, the Korean Bible and Christian songs are void of it. Even the sermons preached from Korean pulpits are virtually unaffected. When Western missionaries introduced the Christian faith and its scriptures here more than a hundred years ago, they did so in the Korean language. Koreans use words like Hallelujah, Jehovah, and Israel which may sound English to us because they are so familiar – but they are all drawn from the original Hebrew form. In the church, Bible book titles, characters and expressions are part of a vocabulary that exists outside of native culture.

This over-arching concept regarding biblical language parallels our faith. While our ancestral roots may spring from different places, we have all since been grafted into the same life-giving vine. But just as everyday language cannot be controlled by a central governing body, the story of God’s people will not be limited by politics, national borders or language. Truly, in Christ there is no East or West.