A good portion of those of us who find ourselves in South Korea came here because of employment. Our main qualification? We’re “native speakers.”
We were born in a country in possession of a tongue that just so happens to be one that people in other countries are eager to speak. Whether we’re teachers, business people, or entertainers, our “native speaker” status is usually what propelled us into our current positions.
Thus, equipped with our English language skills, we arrive in Korea, only to discover English is already everywhere. It’s not only taught in every school in Korea—it’s on TV, in K-Pop songs, adapted in loan words (English words adapted to Korea via Hangeul), scrawled on all manner of clothing, and splashed across ads for every product imaginable.
Often, the English we find in Korea is pure gibberish, a strand of non-sequiturs thrown on a page, but other times it seems to intriguingly sit just shy of meaning.
Still, this English isn’t quite the native English we know; it seems familiar, and yet, it’s not. Often, the English we find in Korea has been bent on the tongue of a non-native speaker, made to work in some unfamiliar way. Sometimes this results in pure gibberish, a strand of non-sequiturs thrown on a page, but other times it seems to intriguingly sit just shy of meaning.
As a writer, it is this second sort of English that is the most alluring to me. Sure, it provides a laugh (indeed, there’s a whole website devoted to “Engrish” from countries like South Korea, China, and Japan), but there’s something almost poetic about its mistaken-ness. It’s as if the English I’ve always known has slipped a little, gone a little fuzzy, becoming blurry enough to make way for new meaning.
Take for example a t-shirt I recently saw for sale at one of those cheap clothing shops that dot the area around Ewha Women’s University (my favorite place to find “mistaken English” shirts). It read “Keep it Neil.” Is “Neil” merely a misheard representation of “Real?” Or is there a significant “Neil” out there who should “Keep it?” And if that is the case, what is being kept?
Of course, such questions aren’t serious, but they represent the opportunity inherent in this non-native English. Think of these mistakes like rabbit holes: they invite you to fall down, like Alice in Wonderland, and reach a universe delightfully estranged from your own.
Seeing our native tongue placed in another context, we come to realize that there’s a kind of poetry in this other English, one that asks us to re-discover what we already know inside its “mistaken” context. To see the words not so much as a mistake that must be corrected, but a mistake that should be spoken by us, the native speakers.
One of my favorite pieces of mistaken English is a T-shirt that I own that reads: “Love is Person You Thing About During All the Sad Songs.” I love this shirt because there’s a kind of poignancy in the fact that one mistaken letter in this phrase-“g” instead of “k”-changes the whole meaning.
There’s something alluring about love being an act of “thing-ing” instead of “think-ing.” When I “thing,” I engage with something tangible, I’m doing something concrete which feels more weighty than merely “thinking.” In this shirt’s estimation, during the sad songs I don’t just think about this other person, I actively make them a thing in my mind, an object that comes into focus as the song plays. Of course, “thing-ing” then becomes all the more painful as we realize the feeling of love only comes in the absence of the thing we so cherish. Have I ever thought of love in this way before?
Often, Koreans avoid speaking English because they fear they’ll make mistakes. I wish I could tell them that I love their mistakes, but I realize this sounds strange in a context where a premium is placed on correct usage. Still, their mistaken English sometimes seems magical; it opens up new fields of meaning. In effect, they express something in a way that I—a native speaker—would never have thought of.
Granted, it may seem like a stretch to make so much meaning out of a “mistake.” But the greatest literary theorists teach us that this space—between the sign (the word) and the signifier (the meaning)—is a space of play, a gap ripe with possibility. It is this space that allows for productive misunderstandings to occur as words change their meaning depending on time and circumstance. Thus, in Korea, English takes on new and unexpected meanings—it becomes Konglish, it gets garbled in advertisements, it acquires new value as a status symbol, it blurs on a non-native tongue.
As native speakers of English in Korea, we have a unique opportunity to observe English shifting all around us. It’s a rich site to be in, linguistically speaking. We merely need to jump down the rabbit hole and “thing” our way to a new perspective.