Posted by: sbilingual | January 19, 2012

Do looks affect whether people expect you to know their language?

Does one’s physical appearance have something to do with the language(s) he is expected to speak? Perhaps it does. A few weeks ago, I gave a talk on Korean culture at the State University of New York at Buffalo. I talked mainly about the positive elements of South Korean culture, such as the enormous popularity of hallyu, the remarkable success of Samsung, LG and Hyundai in the American market, and the bright prospect of globalizing Korea.

Borrowing from, I even introduced, “50 Reasons Why Seoul is No. 1, the World’s Greatest City.” American professors and students were quite impressed by South Korea’s remarkably quick transformation from a poor, war-ridden country to an affluent advanced nation. Amazed, they exclaimed: “South Korea is a small country, and yet, so dynamic. Where on earth does her incredible energy come from?”

After the talk, a young Korean-American approached me and told me: “I was born in the States and wanted to learn about my parents’ country. So when I joined the U.S. army, I volunteered to serve in the 8th Army in Korea.”

“Did you enjoy your stay in Korea?” I asked.

“No, I didn’t,” he answered rather sadly. “In fact, it was the worst years of my life. I tried to make friends, but nobody wanted to be my friend. Wherever I went, I was not welcomed.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I tried to comfort him.

He continued, “To learn about Korean culture and make Korean friends, I even attended the Korean Language Institute at Yonsei University for six months, but it didn’t work out either.”

Then he concluded, “Koreans are friendly to white Americans only. To Korean-Americans, they are not only unfriendly, but even hostile. I don’t understand their psychology. I went to Korea with high expectations and warm affection for the people. But I came back to the States, frustrated and full of resentment.”

Listening to his unpleasant experience in Korea, I was as embarrassed as could be. Such a thing is not supposed to happen in a globalizing society where all boundaries collapse and all cultures blend. Surely, not all Korean-Americans’ experiences are as bad as this young man’s. Nevertheless, I often hear complaints from Korean-Americans who are living in Korea that they experience an identity crisis because Koreans think of them as neither Korean nor American.

Perhaps, then, such discrimination has something to do with Korean-Americans’ physical appearance? Since they look like us, we naturally expect them to speak Korean. When we find them unable to speak Korean, we lose interest in them (unless we want to practice English with them.) At the same time, there are those ultra-nationalists who assert, “Korean-Americans are essentially Korean, so they should be able to speak Korean. Otherwise, they are not Koreans.” It seems many people look first at others’ physical appearances to conjure up certain stereotypes and assumptions about languages the person can or should speak.

On the other hand, in Korean language classes at American universities, Korean-American students sometimes benefit unfairly due to their physical appearance. In his recent newspaper article entitled, “Red Alert: Korean Language Education in the United States,” professor Emanuel Pastreich at Kyung Hee University points out that Korean language instruction revolves around Korean-American students only, thereby alienating European or African-American students who want to learn the Korean language seriously. He argues that many Korean-American students, called “heritage students,” tend to take Korean language courses not because they are particularly interested in Korea, but in order to earn an easy “A.” And yet, language instructors, who are invariably graduate students from Korea, naturally assume that Korean-Americans are much better prepared to learn the Korean language than European or African-Americans, and thus favor the former in class.

Assumptions about one’s language abilities based on one’s physical appearance are common even in a “melting pot” nation like the United States. I have noticed that I get looks of surprise from some Americans when I speak in French. An American once told me, “I can’t imagine an Asian speaking French or German.” If I speak in either Japanese or Chinese, many people would find it “normal” and probably would not blink an eye. If I speak in a European language, however, the language does not “fit” my physical appearance and thus draws people’s attention. It’s unfortunate that one’s physical appearance delimits the languages one is supposed to speak.

It would be funny, and even exasperating, if someone asked me if I could speak English. I have been a professor of English for the past 36 years, and have lived in the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada for more than 10 years. Besides, I have taught at American universities for about six years now. Since I look different from Caucasian Americans, however, sometimes funny things happen. When I sat down in a Delta airplane to New York City the other day, a flight attendant approached me and kindly asked, “Do you speak English?”

By Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon, a professor of English at Seoul National University, is editor of the literary quarterly “21st Century Literature.” ― Ed.

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  1. Thanks for sharing 🙂

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