Thursday, February 16, 2006

Coreons cant spel

An article over at Naver warns that Korean students can no longer spell Korean words and blames this decline on English. [Update: the English translation just came out.] The 'evidence' comes from a collection of writing from middle school students. Of 200 students who wrote essays on their hopes for the future, only 2 students had no spelling mistakes.

200602160109Here is a sampling of the student errors. If you ask me, the most interesting thing about these samples is not the spelling errors, but how at least two students found a way to say how much they hate the Japanese when talking about their future hopes. I hope they got extra credit for that.

This 'study' smells like BS to me. First off, did the students know that their spelling would be checked? The topic of the essay certainly doesn't sound academic, and I imagine the students just assumed that their writing was not going to evaluated carefully for things like grammar and spelling. They might have done a lot better if they knew it was important to check the spelling before submitting it.  Secondly, I don't know how long these essays were, but minor spelling errors are common even among those who are generally good spellers. When people write, they get caught up in what they are saying and minor spelling errors and grammar mistakes naturally crop up. Most good writers will go back and edit their writing for grammar and spelling IF they have time and IF they deem that is necessary for their intended audience (only the most anal of writers would spell check a private journal entry, for example).

So is spelling a big problem in Korea? It could be, but I don't think this study really shows anything other than how a good number of people with PhDs after their names in this country don't seem to know the fundamentals of good research design.

English study is quickly blamed for this 'problem'. Here's the justification:

인천의 모 중학교 이모(38) 교사는 지난해 12월 영어 시험문제를 채점하면서 당황했다. caterpillar(애벌레)의 철자와
한글 뜻을 쓰라고 했더니 350명 중 70% 정도가 영어 철자를 맞게 썼지만 한글은 ‘에벌레’ 또는 ‘애벌래’로 썼다.

70% of students were able to spell the English word 'caterpillar' correctly, but spelled it wrong in Korean(애벌레). This is a bullshit sample. The word caterpillar, though a bit long, is not really a very difficult word to spell in English (unlike a lot of other English words). The phonetics and the spelling are not so far apart and it follows common spelling patterns. The word in Korean, however (애벌레), is particularly difficult to spell because it uses two forms (애 and 에) which are phonetically very similar in spoken Korean and thus easily confused in spelling. And surprise, surprise, this is where the mistakes were made.

I'm sure this teacher was very choosy in finding such an example to further the 'English is killing the Korean language' agenda, and if you did comparisons with other words you would find that Koreans are far better spellers of their own language than of English. Take any second year Spanish student in a high school in any English speaking country and test them on the spelling of a commonly misspelled word in English like 'beggar' in English and in Spanish  and they'll probably get it right more in Spanish (mendigo). It wouldn't mean we have to panic and stop teaching Spanish in school; it only means that some words are easier to spell in a second language than in ones first language. It happens.

The article goes on to give the 'shocking' news that 2 out of 3 university students don't know what a particular expression means (강의 도중 군도(群島)--count me among the 66%). And then the article describes how much time is spent on English these days and jumps to the conclusion that this is the main problem.


Almost every problem with spelling and vocabulary knowledge in ANY language of a literate country can be traced to one thing: lack of extensive reading. Reading is THE way that the exceeding majority of people get an advanced vocabulary. A host of studies has given evidence that vocabulary knowledge and spelling are strongly correlated to ones reading habits. This is because spoken speech uses a fraction of the vocabulary used in writing.

The fact is, in Korea, the US and probably every other developed and developing country people are not reading as much as they used to, especially young people. TV, movies and video games have seen to that. A U.S. study (that actually seems to be well done, in contrast to the above study) shows how much of a problem this is.

The biggest drop in vocabulary is in teens and pre-teens. In just the
last 50 years the working vocabulary of a 14-year-old has dropped from
25,000 words to 10,000 words. These days, high school graduates have
only 20,000 to 25,000 words in their vocabulary. This is also related
to teens not reading as often.

Pretty drastic numbers. However, in defense of American high school students, I would like to point out that certain words have many meanings and this might explain the drop in vocabulary. The word 'fuck' alone probably made hundreds of other vocabulary words obsolete. For example, take  the title of the article I just linked:

'Old English': "U.S. vocabulary moribund, dwindling, fading fast"

"New English": "U.S. vocabulary is fucked."

Pretty much says the same thing, doesn't it? Who needs a large vocabulary?

Silliness aside, if you really want to 'save' the Korean language, help kids to discover the joy of reading rather than make them spend hours every day memorizing facts that they will happily forget 1 day after the test.

There exists a minority of overly-nationalistic scholars and educators in Korea that resort to these kinds of scare tactics about the Korean language and identity being corrupted by foreign influences (read: America and the English language). From a linguistic standpoint, it's a faulty argument. Was English 'better' before the Norman conquest, which brought a huge number of French words into common English and changed the grammar? Did Latin 'corrupt' English back when it was viewed as a superior language and used for new academic terms?  Is the English language worse off because we allowed Native American words into English (and words from basically every immigrant group that came to America)? Should we make our own word for kimchi to 'save' our language (in case we do, 'hoobastank', for some reason, sounds fitting to me)?

I think the stronger argument is that all of these 'corruptions' made our language richer. At worst, it just made the language different, but certainly no worse off. I don't see any evidence at all to suggest that Korea's case is any different. So for all Koreans and patronizing foreigners who jump on the
'linguistic imperialism' bandwagon, I say GSFP (Get Some Fucking

A final word on the whole 'spelling' controversy. You have to admit that the importance of spelling has diminished in the age of spell checkers. I'm not saying that spelling is completely unimportant, but I question the value of spending valuable education time memorizing the spelling of words when 1) correct spelling can be learned rather well incidentally through extensive reading in the language, 2) most writing these days is done electronically and can be spell-checked by the computer and 3)  despite what anal people like the author of 'Eats, Shoots, and Leaves' would have you believe, misspelling a word every now and then just doesn't mean that much.

Though I wouldn't recommend misspelling words on your resume, especially if you claim to be an English teacher.

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