english vs. korean

posted by eunac

Technically, Korean is my “first” language although I am American born and raised. Before I went to school I learned Korean from my parents. In fact, watching my home videos from when I was a baby, I’m amazed at how much better I was at Korean then than I am now. Luckily, in middle school I was intensely interested in Korean culture, so I can communicate in, write in, and understand Korean fairly well. That being the case, something has always bugged me about English. We all know that in Azn culture, it is extremely important to show respect towards our elders and our language reflects that. There are formal and informal ways of saying the exact same thing. In English, however, that isn’t really the case. We say, “How are you?” to both our friends and our elders in the exact same way. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, I’m simply stating that as a person who has grown up with Korean culture, it’s odd for me. I always feel like I’m being rude when I ask an older person a question and simply use the word “you” instead of… I don’t know, something more formal. However, I’ve noticed that in America the relationships between older and younger people are more easy-going than in Asia and the language could be a big factor into why that is. Perhaps youngsters feel more at ease with elders because we essentially speak in the same way to them as we would someone our own age. All I know is that I don’t necessarily feel comfortable when my friends’ parents tell me to call them by their first name or when I’m asking a teacher a question and I keep using the same “you” that I would use with a friend – it just seems rude to me, and that definitely ties back in with the culture and language differences. I often wonder why English doesn’t have more formal language. I’ve studied Spanish and French in school, and I know that those two languages have the same kind of formal language that Korean has (and I’m also sure that many other languages have formal language as well). So why doesn’t English?



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5 responses to “english vs. korean

  1. It’s the same situation for Filipinos. Although English is my first language, I grew up in the Philippines and only moved to Canada when I was 24. When I address my Mom in Filipino, I use language that recognizes her status as my elder, for which there is no English equivalent. Since language shapes our thoughts, for Asians respect for elders is truly a more internalized state of mind than it is for non-Asians whose languages make no such distinctions among age groups. In fact, I suspect some people would consider our mindset a form of ageism. I also address my older sister and older brother with specific forms (Ate, Kuya) that have no English equivalents.

  2. RK

    I lived in Korea until I was 12, so I totally understand the confusion you describe here regarding speaking to the elders in a more casual way. But I think I’ve adapted to the “Canadian” or “North American” attitude a lot. When I went to visit Korea, one of the reasons people knew I was from “elsewhere” was because I would make way too much direct eye contact with the elders, which is considered kind of rude in Korea. I also find I am a lot more demure when I speak Korean – part of it is that I am more comfortable in English, but I do think the built-in respect of the language plays a part too.

  3. Formal language has evolved, probably more rapidly than earlier generations. The French “vous” is rarely used in Quebec yet I believe it is common in France. The honourific “you” in Chinese, 您, is distinguishable in Mandarin but not sure if it is still in use. Other Chinese dialects don’t seem to have that spoken word.

    Interesting to hear that Korean and Filipino cultures have upheld tradition.

  4. Actually the word “you” is the formal 2nd person pronoun in English. The informal word “thee” died out a little over a century ago, although I’m not sure why. So don’t feel bad using “you” with elders, perhaps you should feel weird using the word “you” with your peers!

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