"Why Koreans Can't
If you are an English teacher in the Republic of
Korea, how many times have you
heard, "I can't English" or "I can English a
little." I have heard those two expressions too many times
for it to be an individual error. I have come to discover that it is a
form of interlanguage which is caused by collective faulty teaching in
Korea. Let me show you what has happened and is happening.
Koreans love to use their L1 (mother tongue) to explain English
grammar. That's not the problem, necessarily. The problem is
how they use their L1 to explain various English grammar points.
You see, they will translate certain phrases with
what's called "free translation" and tell their students that
it is what's called a "literal translation". At this
time, I have to stop and explain these terms.
There are 3 kinds of translations:
1. word-for-word translation
2. literal translation
3. free translation
Let me give you some examples:
Let's use the following Korean sentence:
I'll transliterate that for you expats that cannot
1. A word-for-word translation would look like
2. A literal translation would look like this:
"With regard to myself,
a swimming capability
or equally: "In
my case, there is
a swimming capability."
3. A free translation would look like this:
"I can swim."
As you can plainly see, the word-for-word translation
doesn't make a lot of sense. The literal translation makes sense,
but we don't use that particular structure in English. In the free
translation, surface structure is completely disregarded and only
meaning is translated.
So, as aforementioned above, Korean English teachers
collectively and grossly erroneously teach their students that "naneun"
is the subject of the sentence above. Then, they grossly
erroneously teach that the phrase "~hal suga eopda."
So, why do Koreans say, "I can't
English"? Because in the Korean language, it is said,
yeongeoreul hal suga oepda.)
1. word-for-word trans:
naneun = myself +neun
(the emphatic particle)
capability +ga (the subject particle)
eopda = doesn't
2. literal translation:
In my case,
3. free translation:
I can't speak English.
So, what's the problem? The problem is
1. Koreans are taught that "naneun"
is the subject = "I"
2. Koreans are taught that "~hal suga
eopda" means "can't"
So by default, the subject of the sentence [the true
subject] becomes the object. And you get: "I can't
If you are confused out of you gourd, I
understand. You have to pretty much be bilingual in English and
Korean to see my point.
I put neun in italics (above), because
it is what's called a particle. A particle has no meaning by
itself. It must be attached to something. It is also a kind
of suffix, which means it can only be attached to the end of a
word. Many Koreans think that it is a subject particle, but it
isn't! According to a Dr. of Linguistics (Dr.C.J.Ramstedt), it is called the emphatic
I put ga in italics (above), because is
the subject particle.
I put reul in italics (above), because
that is the object particle.
So, what some KOREAN ENGLISH TEACHERS were trying to
tell me once, was that in the above example, the Korean people defy all
rules of linguistics and Universal Grammar, and suddenly change their
emphatic particle to a subject particle, the subject to an
verb, and the object of the present-participle-adjective into the
the object of the sentence.
Nice try, guys, but I DON'T THINK SO.
I'm sorry, but the rules of YOUR OWN grammar do NOT change so drastically just to fit your personal world view of
Korean English teachers confuse the
sense out of them with
faulty grammar explanations AND do them
great disservice by omitting the word-for-word and literal translations.
Dr. C.J.Ramstedt, who has written a book, entitled:
Grammar", originally published in 1939, explains
what I just explained about all the particles. [I have the 1997
English edition, published by The Finno-Ugrian Society, in Helsinki.]
So, what I'm suggesting is that if a teacher of
English wishes to use translation in order to convey meaning, he/she SHOULD teach
in a progression from...
The reason I suggest this, is because it is
imperative that Students SEE and COMPREHEND the capacities of a language
in all its variableness. It is not wrong to say, for instance,
"In my case, there is a swimming
And if I were to hear that
sentence, I would praise the student for making a grammatically correct
sentence. Then, I would explain that there is another, more-common
way to express that thought: "I can swim."
Yet, not once in my eight years of TEFL in Korea have I
ever heard a Korean use the structure:
"In my case, there is
[present-participle adj.] capability."
Instead, I hear the following structure:
"I can (or cannot) [+
object]" (no verb)
...all the bloody time. And, frankly, it still hurts my ears
to hear it.
The problem of using a free translation ONLY, of
course translates to a whole slew of English errors.
I hear stuff like: "I am hard to
Well, I'd better save that for another essay.
July 5, 2003
updated: Jan. 7, 2004