Whenever my Korean wife and I have a factual disagreement, we often refer to the Internet to settle the dispute. Since I am American, I often refer to western resources like news organizations, Wikipedia and even the UN site first. She's fluent in English, so I can't fudge the facts on her either. However, even if my wonderfully Korean wife knows she has been proven wrong by a number sites and resources, she often defaults to a Korean source. No result can be proven, no argument won, unless she sees it reported from a Korean source. Of course, when she pulls up Naver, I can't understand all the details as my Korean is not as strong as her English.
I have encountered this same attitude with many of my Korean friends as well. All of them refuse to believe anything unless it is reported in Korean, BY a Korean. And sometimes I even hear the exclusionary statement, "He's probably Korean-American." What gives? Why does my wife do this? Do I have to become fluent in order to properly debate?
First, kudos to your excellent and informative blog. The Korean wonders where you got the inspiration. :)
Onto your question. The Korean can first think of one possible explanation is that your wife may not be as fluent in English as you think. It may sound incredible, but it is actually very easy for a native speaker to overestimate a second language learner’s language proficiency, especially if the second language learner appears to have a good handle on pronunciation or grammar.
The Korean’s situation is somewhat of a mirror image of yours. The Korean Fiancée immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 12, which means her Korean language development more or less stopped at around 6th grade level. The Korean Fiancée has very good Korean pronunciation and perfect grammar, which normally makes her 6th grade level Korean language skills undetectable.
But when the Korean Fiancée enters into a situation where she needs to speak at a higher level Korean, her limitations in Korean become very obvious. (This is usually when the Korean Mother is speaking to the Korean Fiancée.) Although the Korean Fiancée speaks grammatically correct Korean with nearly imperceptible accent, she simply does not know easy Korean words that, say, a Korean 8th grader would know. It would be fair to say that it would take her a significant struggle to read Korean newspapers.
It is only natural for native speakers to be somewhat ignorant about the subtle struggles of a second language learner. In our day-to-day lives, we rarely reflect on when we learned a particular word. (Did we learn the word “embark” during elementary school, or in high school?) It takes an even rarer reflection to think about someone else’s level of vocabulary. Once we hear someone speaking in correct grammar and pronunciation with sentences that make sense, we hardly think about the level of vocabulary with which the person is comfortable.
This is a real possibility – the Expat Wife may appear fluent, but she may have a hard time understanding any high-level English. And because of that, she just does not feel comfortable with the sources to which you point since she does not understand everything in those sources. That could be why she resorts to a Korean source so that she can feel more comfortable with what she does understand.
But then again, the Korean does not know the level of English fluency that the Expat Wife has. For all he knows, she could be an accomplished professor in English literature who can explain the intricacies of 9th century English expressed in Beowulf. If that’s the case, the Korean takes back everything he said up to this point.
Let's just make one rule clear: if there is any remote reason to
put up a shapely picture of Angelina Jolie
(like the fact that she was animated like this picture in the movie Beowulf,)
the Korean will put it up. Ok? Ok.
The likelier possibility (that the Korean can think of) involves something more fundamental – namely, our understanding of persuasion. Particularly in Europe, North America and other Anglophone countries, there is a prevalent notion that “reason” is this free-floating entity that any “reasonable” person would be able to grasp. Under this theory, the identity of the speaker or the language employed by the speaker does not matter, as long as the speaker speaks with “reason,” which alone is enough to persuade other “reasonable” people.
More after the jump.
Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at email@example.com.
This theory – having its roots in Romanticism and/or Enlightenment – has an illustrious history that does not need to be discussed this post. It would suffice to say that it is wrong, all wrong. And the Expat’s experience precisely shows why that theory is wrong. Contrary to that theory, people – not just Korean people, mind you – deeply care about the identity and the language of the speaker in order to be persuaded. You would not listen to a doctor about how to fix your car, and you would not listen to a mechanic about how to improve your health. So which theory is more convincing: the theory that brands most people as “unreasonable”, or an alternative?
Aristotle, ready to pimp-smack Rousseau
Ancient Greeks knew better. Aristotle identified ethos, logos, and pathos as the three modes of persuasion. With ethos, the speaker establishes her knowledge and credibility. With logos, the speaker takes logical steps to her conclusion. With pathos, the speaker makes an emotional connection with the listener and convinces the listener to accept her conclusion. The fundamental flaw of the Romanticist/Enlightenment theory of persuasion is that it relies exclusively on logos. When the argument solely based on logic fails, the speaker of the argument often resorts to labeling her listeners as “emotional” or “irrational” instead of reflecting on the shortcomings of her own argument. (It is not a coincidence that expats in Korea frequently characterize Koreans as “emotional” and “irrational"!)
In fact, the Korean previously outlined the use of the three modes of persuasion when trying to be a constructive critic of Korea as a non-Korean. In that post, the Korean emphasized pathos, the emotional connection between the speaker and the listener. This time, the focus will be on ethos, i.e. the ability to establish the credibility of the speaker.
To be sure – as the Expat himself must certainly know – the way the Expat Wife acts (as described by the Expat) is not universal among Koreans. For most Koreans, it is more like a mild skepticism at non-Korean sources, not much different from any other people in the world. (Heck, the Korean doubts that the Expat Wife insists on a Korean sources for all topics, all the time.) And this skepticism is for a good reason. Even the most reputable English-language news organization often gets things completely wrong, because they operate out of the background knowledge that is different from Koreans’. This is particularly stark when such a news organization reports on Korea.
For a case in point, take a look at this article that an AAK! reader sent to the Korean. The headline of the article asks: “Will South Korea become Christian?” The article describes Yoido Full Gospel Church, one of the largest churches in the world with more than 750,000 members, and has a quote from a pastor in a box: “Sooner or later Christianity will be a major religion in Korea.” The article closes with this sentence: “But at a time of such rapid social change, few can confidently predict the long-term place of Christian faith in the country's future.”
The Korean was flabbergasted. Christianity has more than 200-year history in Korea! Pyongyang had so many Christians by the late 19th century that it was called “Jerusalem of the East”! More than 25 percent of all Koreans are Christians (both Catholics and Protestants.) The current Korean president Lee Myoung-Bak is a devout Christian (so much so that he was accused to favoring his church members when making cabinet appointments,) and so were two out of the three presidents previous to him. Christianity has already had a place in Korea for a pretty darn long time! A reporter working for freakin’ BBC – one of the most respected news media in the world – did not know this, and wrote an article wondering about the long-term place of Christianity in Korea? Seriously?
Saint Daegeon Andrew Kim (1821-1846),
the first Korean Catholic priest, martyr and saint,
would roll over in his grave if anyone dared to question
the long-term place of Christianity in Korea
In fact, the Expat’s excellent blog has an example of this as well. Based on this study, the Expat previously wrote that parents who employ corporal punishment ran the risk of lowering their children’s IQ. But in his intellectually honest follow-up, the Expat noted that, despite very prevalent use of corporal punishment in Korea, Koreans on average actually have the highest IQs in the world.
The Korean actually thinks the entire IQ thing is dubious, but that is beside the point. The point is that many of the “facts” we consider to be set in stone are in fact highly malleable and context-sensitive. This, in turn, means that getting the correct context means everything when it comes to establishing what we consider to be facts.
This feeds directly into ethos. Establishing ethos is not just about saying, “I am a trustworthy person and I do not lie.” It is also about saying, “I know what I am talking about.” Unless you can establish that you (or the sources you employ to back you up) have the requisite background knowledge to adequately explain the situation at hand, you cannot convincingly say that you know what you are talking about.
The bottom line is this: many of the "facts" (not all, but more than you think) that Americans/Canadians/other Anglophonic people consider to be true are often inapplicable to Korea. This often happens because the provider of the facts either do not have Korea's situation in mind, or -- if they do have that in mind -- gets Korea's situation wrong. Because of that, it is completely rational to rely on a more trustworthy source. And for Koreans, that source will more likely be a fellow Korean, who presumably would have greater background knowledge about Korea to put a given knowledge in a proper context.
(Mind you, the Korean is NOT saying that Korean sources always have greater background knowledge or that they always put knowledge in a proper context. He is only saying that it is more likely, and therefore it is rational for Koreans to depend more on Korean sources.)
Which brings us to the Expat's last question: “Do I have to become fluent in order to properly debate?”
The answer is: OF COURSE! To be sure, even if someone are a racial minority immigrant, she can go on with her life without necessarily having to learn more than basic language and customs of her newly adopted home country. But if she, for whatever reason, do not become fluent in the language and assimilate into the society, there is no way in hell her opinion will be taken seriously in that country. That is true in any society. Being able to persuade and convince others in your society is a powerful function – it is a way in which you impose your will upon that society. It will never come for cheap.
Do not despair, Expat. As a fellow immigrant (or at least, someone who is residing in a different country from the one in which he grew up,) the Korean can completely sympathize. Really, this is what being a minority is all about. Upon his moving to America, the Korean had to quickly learn English in a manner that was by no means pleasant. The Korean also consciously erased his accent, word by word, until people could not notice that he learned English when he was 16. The Korean did not that for shits and giggles, you know -- the Korean had to do it in order to be taken seriously and to have a meaningful life and career in America. Could you imagine anyone reading this blog if the Korean wrote in broken, ungrammatical English? Even with pretty decent English, it is hard enough to convince people that fan death is real.
Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at firstname.lastname@example.org.