Suicide by English

When I lived in Taiwan, I always visited my grandparents at Korea over summer break. During those visits, my grandmother would hand me a few dollars of allowance and say, “Hyunjin-ah, read lots of books. Especially Korean books.” Of course, I didn’t do what she wanted me to do. I went to an American school, spoke English with friends and families (except my grandparents who weren’t fluent in the language), and was perfectly capable of communicating in Korean when necessary. There was no compelling reason for me to burden myself with reading in two different languages. When I asked my grandmother now why she put so much pressure on reading in my native language, she said indignantly, “Because you were born a Korean and Koreans must know hangul (Korean).” She wanted me to maintain/improve my Korean through reading.

I recalled this memory after I watched a Ted talk by Patricia Ryan, an English teacher at Dubai who taught in the gulf area for 30 years. She raised three interesting points:

  1. English is a big business.
  2. Language is dying.
  3. Knowledge is dying with language.

Apparently, one of the many languages in the world disappears every 14 days. The existing 6000 languages will be reduced to 600 in 90 years. (1) This is in part due to the growing English business, westernization, and globalization. English is being used in more and more countries these days. Ryan says this is only natural since the worlds top ranked universities are either in the United States or the United Kingdom, and parents around the globe want only the best for their children. Thus the proliferating English institutions in various Eastern countries including Korea. “When a language dies, you don’t know what we lose with that language,” she said. Research and studies done in various languages provide a wider perspective and more chance of discovery and too much English is killing language and knowledge.

But I’d like to say that she shouldn’t have stopped there. Death of a language not only kills knowledge, but also culture. Total elimination of a language wipes an entire culture from the surface of the world, which is not so different from genocide.

Why do I put it so harshly? Take away the language you speak from your life, what does it leave you with? Nothing. Language is intricately related to your culture and identity. Without English, the beautiful collections of Mark Twain’s work wouldn’t exist to represent American literature. Early colonial Americans wouldn’t have been able to express their ideas or expound equality and democracy to build the worlds biggest and most powerful democratic country.

The same goes for Koreans. The culture of respecting elders is reflected plainly in the structure of the Korean language; for example, you must add 요(yo) at the end of sentences when addressing someone older to show respect. There are words, such as 효(hyo) that represent the deep rooted sentiment of respect and love specifically for parents. The different dialects of each region also represent the various cultures within Korea. But things have changed a lot in Korea these days. There are private foreign language schools that are now ranked higher than all the Korean public schools. Universities are also teaching in English. If you turn the TV on to a fashion channel, you hear words like “lovely,” “chic,” and “floral” instead of Korean words. People are using English and Korean hybrid words colloquially. Even I often just pronounce English words in a Korean way (Konglish) in my daily conversations. I’m afraid Korean is also on its way to annihilation.

At this rate, I’m afraid we would lose all the diverse and rich cultures of human kind and end up with one meshed-up civilization united by English. I’m not bashing English or English educators around the world. Without a doubt, English has become the world’s unifying language and is absolutely necessary for international cooperation and business. This common language opened people from all the different corners of the globe to each other’s societies, which led to so many new discoveries in the recent decade. But I want to shout out to all those bilingual or multi-cultural students, who, like me, are guilty of neglecting their mother tongue. Don’t kill yourselves or your cultures by abandoning  your language. Your native language is what connects you to your grandparents and your ancestors and eventually your identity. As much as English is important in your successes and practical achievements in the business worlds, don’t let go of the most prominent connection to your native country.

Please, don’t commit suicide by English.



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