Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Language and Culture as a Double-edged Sword

Without question, Korea has a strong culture and a strong language. Culture as an element of language or language as an element of culture probably characterizes the human situation worldwide, across a diverse range of cultures. But the relationship is particularly strong in Korea. Despite being located adjacent to China, which also has a long history and looms large on the world scene, Korea can rightfully boast that its alphabet, Hangeul (한글) is a crowning cultural achievement. It is perhaps the most scientific and phonetic alphabet in the world. I would venture that the majority of foreigners, when they first begin studying Korean, are struck by the genius of Hangeul. Today, there is a good argument to be made that the highly scientific and phonetic character of this alphabet facilitated the uptake of computers,mobile phones and other devices for electronic communication. However, as illustrated in the current national debate about English education in Korea, the Korean language and its Hangeul alphabet are also a source of nationalistic pride and can be viewed as limiting Korea's participation in the global internet. The most popular and dominant search engine in South Korea is Naver, a service that searches only Korean language (Hangeul) web sites and documents. The nation's immensely popular social networking site, Cyworld, failed in its initial attempt to penetrate markets outside of Korea. The new government of President Lee Myung Bak is facing opposition to its plan to improve English education, in part because some Koreans believe it will diminish appreciation of the Korean language. Hence, even with rapidly advancing 21st century technology, language remains exceedingly important. Also, it is a double-edged sword.

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