Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Secrets of Lost - Daniel Dae Kim's Korean Accent

Dear Korean,

What did you think of Daniel Dae Kim's pronunciation of Korean in
Lost? Given that he didn't grow up in Korea, how was his accent?

Jennifer



Dear Jennifer,

The Korean watched exactly half an episode of Lost so far, pretty much by accident. From that half an episode, the Korean recalls that Mr. Kim's Korean accent was really terrible.

But the Korean is willing to give a fair assessment, so he reviewed these clips:


And the Korean's verdict is...?

Mr. Kim's accent is a lot better than the Korean remembered. Judged only based on these clips, Mr. Kim's Korean is solid. He will have no problem getting himself understood in Korea.

But one can easily tell that Mr. Kim did not grow up speaking Korean. There are three major indicators to that effect. First is that -- and this is probably not Mr. Kim's fault -- sometimes, Korean phrases that Jin is speaking are awkwardly written. For example, in the second clip when the caption reads "How do I lose to both Hurley and Mike?", Jin is saying: "헐리하고 마이크한테 어떻게 질 수가 있어?" This is not incorrect, since Korean phrase literally means "How do I lose to Hurley and Mike?" But the phrase sounds as if Jin is actually looking for a way in which he can lose to Hurley and Mike, not as if Jin cannot believe that he lost to Hurley and Mike. (The Korean's suggested translation: "헐리하고 마이크한테 진다는게 말이 돼?", which would mean "How is it possible that I lost to Hurley and Mike?")

Second, Mr. Kim's rhythm of speaking the language is really, really off. This is more obvious in the second clip: Jin is screaming, but he is not accentuating the right words in the sentence to convey that he is royally pissed off. At some points in the clip, Jin sounds like he is reading a book at the top of his voice. (And the awkwardly written sentences, again, do not help. Because few Koreans would say such phrases, it is not easy to figure out where the proper emphasis should go.) Unfortunately for Mr. Kim, there is really no way to learn that rhythm other than simply being around Korean speakers all the time and picking it up, since the rhythm in Korean speech is not exactly a standard grammatical point.

Lastly, Mr. Kim is having trouble pronouncing certain consonants that are really difficult for English speakers. The most obvious incidence of this is when Jin says in the first clip: "총 맞으면 다 그래." ("That's what happens when you get shot.") Mr. Kim pronounces the word "총" ("gun") like 쫑. Of course, this differentiation is one of the toughest parts about Korean -- personally, the Korean has never seen a English-as-first-language, Korean-as-second-language person to be able to perfectly distinguish ㅈ, ㅊ and ㅉ sounds.

Of course, none of this should take away one bit from Daniel Dae Kim's achievements in Lost. Mr. Kim is a pioneer in successfully providing an image of a strong Asian American male on television, and all Asian American men -- and in particular Korean American men -- owe a little bit to him.

As an aside, Yunjin Kim's Korean accent is pitch perfect, mostly because she is a rare breed who has appeared in both Korean and American movies and television shows.

Please, no spoilers in the comments. The Korean plans to watch the entire show in one sitting via Netflix one day. 

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

36 comments:

  1. So I guess Daniel Dae Kim shouldn't consider enrolling in a TKSOL program if his acting career fades, which I hope it doesn't as he is incredibly hot from his head to his toes. I think his next role should be as a lifeguard in a remake of Baywatch.

    Kim Yunjin emigrated to the US at the age of ten, as I recall, and speaks English with a slight Korean-American accent.

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  2. Daniel Dae Kim's Korean gets significantly better throughout the show. I had an opportunity to speak with an ABC exec for the show and she told me they stuck a new tutor with him after getting complaints from viewers on his Korean. That being said, I completely agree with your analysis on his Korean.

    LOST is a great show! :)

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  3. I noticed that Yunjin used jondaemal. Among Korean couples I knew of the same age, the woman would use jondaemal when speaking to her husband in front of others but use banmal when speaking privately or at home. The doctor doesn't understand Korean, so Yunjin's use of jondaemal seems oddly formal. What do you think?

    My Korean students always used honorifics in referring to me in my presence even if they spoke to me directly in English whereas my non-Korean speaking office mate's students referred to her in crude ear-grating banmal, using her surname only.

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  4. I've only seen bits and parts of the series, but Kim's Korean gets progressively better over the course of the series, but I'd never buy that he was born and raised in Korea based on his Korean.

    The other minor Korean characters' Korean ranges from awful to "did they fly this guy in Kwangju?". One minor character actually sounded like he was one of the voice actors that voices all the elderly men in oldschool Korean cartoons.

    However--so many of the Korea flashbacks are very unlike the Korea that I know, that, if it weren't for the captions, the presence of Asian people and the occasional "exotic" set decoration, I wouldn't have known what country we were in.

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  5. "The doctor doesn't understand Korean, so Yunjin's use of jondaemal seems oddly formal. What do you think?"

    You should check out how Choo Shin Soo's wife talks to and about her famous husband. It's as if she's talking to and about her 조상님들. I guess some women in Pusan area -- Choo's wife originates there I think -- still talk with extreme honorifics when referring to husbands. Or maybe she's just an extreme case, I dunno. Anyways, it was kinda hilarious to watch and I imagine Seoul people would find it entertaining too.

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  6. Sonagi wrote:
    I think his next role should be as a lifeguard in a remake of Baywatch.

    His next role will be as a cop on "Hawaii Five-O." I'm looking forward to running into him in Safeway.

    SK wrote:
    Daniel Dae Kim's Korean gets significantly better throughout the show.

    Meanwhile, so does Jin's English.

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  7. Never watched Lost, but judging on the golf clip: does "strong Asian American male" means "one is who simultaneously aggressive and pathetic"? That's an unfortunate combo.

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  8. Илья Казначеев, that's an early presentation of the character, before he evolved into a better person on The Island.

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  9. I never understood why they hired an Korean-American to play someone who doesn't speak English, yet hired a native Korean to play someone who does. Couldn't they just have made Daniel Kim's character a Korean American, or hired a Korean actor?

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  10. However--so many of the Korea flashbacks are very unlike the Korea that I know, that, if it weren't for the captions, the presence of Asian people and the occasional "exotic" set decoration, I wouldn't have known what country we were in.

    Fortunately, I had no idea what the vegetation of Korea really looked like when I watched M*A*S*H, filmed in the sagebrush covered hills and fields of the California desert.

    I was a huge fan of Hawaii Five-O. Jack Lord was the first male entertainer I had a crush on. I hope Daniel Dae Kim and the other Asian-American actors grow their hair down to their collars, 70s style.

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  11. The Seoul Searcher wrote:
    I never understood why they hired an Korean-American to play someone who doesn't speak English, yet hired a native Korean to play someone who does. Couldn't they just have made Daniel Kim's character a Korean American,

    That would have completely changed the storyline, in a way they probably didn't want to go. Although the plain was flying from English-speaking Australia to English-speaking California, Jin and Sun provided the a believable element of being survivors who didn't really speak English (though one really did, it turned out).

    or hired a Korean actor?

    That's a taller order than you think. They were looking for a type, let's say a handsome-looking, well-built person, who could play tough, look vulnerable in a way his character didn't intend, and grow with the role. That limits the number of people you can hire and they may simply not have found that among the KoKos who applied, if any.

    Look at the poor crop of people they generally had playing the Korean-speak roles — who I assume are KoKos, but could be first-generation kyopo who came a long time ago.

    Plus, there is the added potential problem of reduced ability of communication with a KoKo versus a kyopo. Television production cannot be like MLB in this regard.

    Ultimately, very few people really complained about "how badly" Jin speaks Korean, with most people who don't speak Korean at all having little inkling that this would be a discussion on K-blogs like this.

    To many, it's no more of an issue than, say, uber-cute Ilsa Fisher or Portia de Rossi playing movie and TV roles with an American accent, even though they're both Australian.

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  12. refresh_daemon wrote:
    However--so many of the Korea flashbacks are very unlike the Korea that I know, that, if it weren't for the captions, the presence of Asian people and the occasional "exotic" set decoration, I wouldn't have known what country we were in.

    Well, that happens with television (and many movies). I could say the exact same thing about the Los Angeles scenes (of which there were many). Living on Oahu, I could see the Oahu-ness exuding from each and every outdoor scene, including the ones that were supposed to be Scottish monasteries or Oxford.

    The Jin and Sun wedding scene at Byodo-in Temple was clearly not Korean to people who are in or from Korea, but to the rest of the audience, it looks sufficiently authentic. And even to the Korean audience, most are rational enough to recognize that they can't fly a bunch of the cast off to Korea for a more authentic-looking scene (except for the Netizens and the Han River Bridge thing).

    Count me among them. I grew up seeing "Little House on the Prairie" knowing full well even as a kid that "Minnesota" was a backlot in L.A. County somewhere. It was curious, but ultimately not that big a deal.

    Sonagi wrote:
    Fortunately, I had no idea what the vegetation of Korea really looked like when I watched M*A*S*H, filmed in the sagebrush covered hills and fields of the California desert.

    Moving on with this theme, I have to take issue with the idea that that was the California desert. On the one hand you could loosely define all of Southern California as a vast desert (hence the need for OCers to drink water from their toilets).

    But the mountains of M*A*S*H are in the Santa Monica Mountains, near Malibu, which is coastal Mediterranean climate (and gets its fair share of rain in the winter). It's a stand-in for lots of "countryside" scenes needed by Hollywood. Indeed, this is where "Dukes of Hazzard" (Georgia) and "Little House" (Minnesota) were filmed as well.

    The brush and lack of trees look very different from Korea now, but back in the 1940s and 1950s, after Korean forests had largely been denuded by a population desperate for fuel in the final years of World War II and then by bombs in the Korean War, the Santa Monica Mountains probably looked more convincing at one time.

    Certainly, from a distance they can.

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  13. kushibo:

    I'm pretty aware of the practical realities of making faraway locations authentic, since I actually work in TV production. Ultimately, with most shows (and movies--though movies are more capable of being mobile) you will end up leaving some part of the viewing public disbelieving what they're seeing because "they know better" and writers, production designers, actors, etc. just can't be masters of everything.

    So, it's not really a putdown on the show--they don't film in Korea and have probably two people on their entire staff that really knows anything about the country--their language coach and Kim Yunjin and neither are paid to be a cultural consultant. You can't really expect very much, especially since they're probably trying to control the budget and make do with what they have.

    But, it's still amusing to pick nits, at least as long as my suspension of disbelief is wobbled. Even the indoor aesthetics from the Korea scenes (either built on a soundstage or maybe using actual houses in Hawaii) did not strike true to the aesthetics and design of Korean buildings. They reminded me of some the fancy American buildings and houses in Los Angeles that have some generic "exotic Asian decor".

    Fun stuff. Too bad the show went off its rails during the third season and never fully recovered. I'm guessing with as many sharks in the water around Hawaii, it's inevitable that it'd have to jump some of them. ;)

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  14. @Kushibo

    That limits the number of people you can hire and they may simply not have found that among the KoKos who applied, if any.

    No well built handsome Koko's? Really? I beg to differ.

    Plus, there is the added potential problem of reduced ability of communication with a KoKo versus a kyopo.

    I totally understand that concern, but you're forgetting that they DID hire a KoKo. They communicated just fine with her.

    I think for one time characters that aren't reoccurring, their lack of Korean skills is permissable. However, if it is a main character, who is supposed to be playing someone who speaks Korean and nothing else, then that's a pretty important detail. I have similar feelings about using James Kyson Lee to play Ando in Heroes. His Japanese was terrible at first. He's certainly getting better as time goes on though.

    To many, it's no more of an issue than, say, uber-cute Ilsa Fisher or Portia de Rossi playing movie and TV roles with an American accent, even though they're both Australian.

    Really? Native English speakers playing native English speakers? I don't see it as similar at all. It's not like DDK is from Gyeongsang and speaks with Busan saturi in real life, but uses Seoul-mal in LOST. If it were, then it would be similar.

    I guess you are right about one thing, however. If I didn't speak Korean, then I wouldn't have noticed that DDK didn't really speak Korean, and it probably wouldn't have taken away from the story.

    That being said, it was precisely the reason why I didn't watch LOST past the first episode, because the show lost credibility with me the instant DDK spoke Korean and then there was the time that the Korean lady fashioned a hypodermic needle out of a sea-urchin, like it was some kind of knowledge that all Asian people have.

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  15. The Seoul Searcher wrote:
    No well built handsome Koko's? Really? I beg to differ.

    Reread what I wrote and try again.

    I totally understand that concern, but you're forgetting that they DID hire a KoKo. They communicated just fine with her.

    Kim Yunjin lived in the US from the age of ten, during which time she was involved in acting projects in the US, until she returned to Korea at the age of twenty-three.

    She had some cache as a somewhat famous Korean actress that might help with marketing in Asia (and the producers might have known of Shiri) when she was picked for the Sun role.

    On the other hand, how many moderately or very famous Korean male celebrities are already conversant in English and would fit the role?

    I'm not asking rhetorically. I honestly don't know which celebrities speak English comparably with Kim Yunjin, but I know enough to believe the answer is "not many."

    However, if it is a main character, who is supposed to be playing someone who speaks Korean and nothing else, then that's a pretty important detail.

    Jin was speaking mostly English sometime after season 2.

    That being said, it was precisely the reason why I didn't watch LOST past the first episode, because the show lost credibility with me the instant DDK spoke Korean

    Wow. That's pretty tough criteria. Given your demand for perfection, what a limited spectrum you must have to choose from.

    and then there was the time that the Korean lady fashioned a hypodermic needle out of a sea-urchin, like it was some kind of knowledge that all Asian people have.

    Or she was someone resourceful with what was around her and familiar to her... like seafood. The seafood the non-Korean passengers were generally grossed out by.

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  16. @kushibo

    I understand your point that probably DDK fit the bill for everything they wanted out of him looks wise and he's not a bad actor. I just think it wouldn't have been too hard to find a 1 or 1.5 generation Korean-American actor who speaks Korean natively.

    Wow. That's pretty tough criteria. Given your demand for perfection, what a limited spectrum you must have to choose from.
    Put it this way...
    Do you live in Korea? Well, if you do, or did, I am sure you have seen one of those TV shows where they are acting out a story that happened somewhere in America, so they hire white actors and do all the scenes in English. Only to native speakers of English, they are OBVIOUSLY Russian actors. I'm certain that anyone with any kind of long term Korea experience has seen one of these shows at least once.

    Now, can you watch this show and constantly suspend your disbelief? For me, no, I can't, because there's now way I'll believe that those people are Americans.

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  17. Or she was someone resourceful with what was around her and familiar to her... like seafood. The seafood the non-Korean passengers were generally grossed out by.

    1. Sea Urchins are much more common in Japanese cuisine than in Korean. As such it is more likely that any of the Americans would have encountered sea urchin sushi in the U.S., which is why the American writers even thought of it.

    2. Uni, the sea urchin most commonly used in sushi is a native species to the north atlantic, and is not found in the waters surrounding Korea.

    I didn't take TOO much issue with it, but it did send up red flags.

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  18. The Korean Said:
    Mr. Kim is a pioneer in successfully providing an image of a strong Asian American male on television

    No he isn't. Sure the actor is Asian-American, but the character he is playing isn't. And that's the point exactly. There aren't enough roles for Asian-American men to play Asian-American men in Hollywood. The most prominent Asian-American actors are best known for their roles as foreigners. Key exceptions being John Cho and Kal Penn (Harold and Kumar).

    I don't live in the U.S. and haven't watched as much U.S. TV as a lot of people who post here, but the last time I saw a strong Asian-American male on TV was on the Survivor that Yul Kwon won, on a REALITY SHOW!

    Is there any show at all with an Asian-American actor playing an Asian-American character these days? Kal Penn in House is one. Are there others?

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  19. You really don't watch much TV, do you? Kal Penn's character offed himself (so that Kal Penn could work for the Obama administration).

    I almost never watch "House" (though I penned a fanfic) and even I know that. ;)

    WORD VERIFICATION: rhanium, the biochemical secret behind Rain's popularity throughout Asia.

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  20. Is there any show at all with an Asian-American actor playing an Asian-American character these days?

    For the past several seasons, Miles and his father were characters on "Lost." There's Tom Haverford on "Parks & Recreation," while "Community" has Abed and Señor Chang. NBC's mid-season replacement "100 Questions" on the same night has an Asian-American female in the ensemble cast as well.

    This is not meant to be an exhaustive list. I'm only digging into the programs I watch. "Friday Night Lights," "V," and "Desperate Housewives" have no significant Asian American presence whatsoever. Neither did "Pushing Daisies." "Parenthood," despite taking place in the Bay Area, has no apparent Asian Americans.

    If Asian Americans represent 1 out of every 25 Americans, I'd say parity is much closer than before.

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  21. "But the mountains of M*A*S*H are in the Santa Monica Mountains, near Malibu, which is coastal Mediterranean climate (and gets its fair share of rain in the winter).

    The brush and lack of trees look very different from Korea now, but back in the 1940s and 1950s, after Korean forests had largely been denuded by a population desperate for fuel in the final years of World War II and then by bombs in the Korean War, the Santa Monica Mountains probably looked more convincing at one time. "


    You are correct that coastal California is not desert. Its biome is called Chaparral, fairly dry and similar to some Mediterranean climates. The precipitation pattern is opposite to Korea's rainy summers and dry winters. While Korea was deforested after the war, it would still have looked lush and green in the rain-soaked early summer with grasses, small shrubs, and saplings. The province where I lived in China was deforested with a climate similar to Seoul's, and it looked green from May to early August, when the summer heat took its toll. In any case, most viewers, like me at the time, didn't know the difference, so spending money building and filming on a distant set wouldn't be feasible.

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  22. You really don't watch much TV, do you? Kal Penn's character offed himself (so that Kal Penn could work for the Obama administration)

    I watch American TV only if I see it on Korean cable channels. Right now, Kal Penn is still on House.

    If Asian Americans represent 1 out of every 25 Americans, I'd say parity is much closer than before.

    Well, that depends. I would guess that 70-80% of TV shows take place in an urban or suburban setting. In those settings Asian-Americans would be more than a paltry percentage. (About 1 in 10 for Los Angeles and New York.)

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  23. I went to see the band Previously On Lost. Much to my surprise Daniel Dae Kim, Jorge Garcia ("Hurly"), and a couple of the writers for Lost were at the show. I said hi to DDK. Shook his hand. Congratulated him on a successful run and informed him (as if he didn't already know) that my Korean cousin informed me that his Korean was not all that good on the show. He asked me if I was Korean. I let him know that my Korean language skills were no where near his.

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  24. oh god, don't watch lost beyond the first season.

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  25. Danny's horrendous Americanized Korean accent hurts my ears....

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  26. Sonagi,

    Yes, Yunjin does have a slight Korean American accent but it's very slight.

    It is possible to come as a child to the USA and have no accent at all. I had an ex who came to the states at age 9 and she had not accent at all.

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  27. Taking issue with movies/shows where the sets don't really correlate with the location that the show claims to be in is kind of pointless. For us New Yorkers, nearly every show and movie where the story takes place in New York is grating to watch (and that's a lot of entertainment content that is shot & claimed to take place here).

    Brooklyn is often subbed for Manhattan, downtown Manhattan is often subbed for the Upper East or West side...and poor 72nd and Broadway is constantly being recast as 42nd street or something else. As if by magic, East side trains start making stops on the West side, and trains that don't venture into the outer boroughs, or select boroughs start heading into those previously "uncharted territories". When you watch a movie or show, and your home town manages to make it into the pic, be prepared to "suspend your disbelief" as Dave Chappelle said...otherwise, you'd watch nothing.

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  28. Dorian wrote:
    For us New Yorkers, nearly every show and movie where the story takes place in New York is grating to watch (and that's a lot of entertainment content that is shot & claimed to take place here).

    Knowing that so much of "The O.C." was actually filmed in — gasp! — Los Angeles County, I feel your pain and understand that grating feeling.

    But having a NYC location merely filmed in the wrong part of NYC, or something from OC filmed next door in L.A., is a far cry from, say, California standing in for Minnesota or Korea, or Oahu standing in for (on "Lost") Oxford, Los Angeles, Seoul, rural Korea, Australia, Iowa, etc., etc. :)

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  29. ...or USC campus in Los Angeles standing in for Harvard in Boston. There were freaking palm trees in Boston!

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  30. There were freaking palm trees in Boston!

    I really, really, really hate it when the people using California as a stand-in for other places don't bother to remove the palm trees.

    Particularly the ones in the foreground, but I'm unforgiving even for the ones in the distant background. It's like they're not even trying.

    What buildings at USC were used as a stand-in for Harvard? Even though my own father attended USC, I must admit I only recall going there once, during a nighttime K-pop concert I was dragged to by my date some years ago that was funny because one of the stars didn't want to wear her glasses and she fell off the stage... twice.

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  31. As a Korean blogger about LOST, I have to concur with The Korean on every point. However, I'm a little disappointed The Korean didn't address an important related question: how does Daniel Dae Kim's EngRish accent sound?

    I can forgive his Korean because he isn't a native speaker. But EVERY Korean American knows how to do a credible imitation of their parents speaking broken English. Against that backdrop, Daniel's Engrish seems pretty weak.

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  32. But Daniel Dae Kim was born in Busan, and moved to America, and learned how to speak Korean from his parents who are also from Busan. I've heard people say that he speaks with a very recognizable Busan-accent which is why they say his Korean sounds bad.

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  33. To all Daniel Dae's fans: http://pann.nate.com/video/211749140

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  34. I'm not Korean but even I can tell his Korean sounds kind of weird, mainly in the second clip. I watch a lot of Korean television so I'm pretty familiar with the rhythm (or at least I think so).

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  35. Does his wife speak Japanese on the show? I studied it in high school, and I feel like some of the syllables sounded just like Japanese.

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  36. A very interesting conversation. I see a reverse situation while watching Philip Lee (a Korean American) in Korean Dramas. I can't really comment on his Korean, but I can comment on his use of English in the dramas. His pronunciation is perfect, as it is his first language. However, it is problematic, because his rhythm is off. This is mostly because, as yet, he is a very inexperienced actor. Because I have a degree in theatre, I sensed that was true even when he spoke Korean, but when he speaks English it is obvious. My suspicion is that it is probably not easy to find someone who can not only speak the language with the needed accents, but also find one that can act. Just my two-cents worth.

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