The Korea Herald


[Robert J. Fouser] Social attitudes toward language proficiency

By Korea Herald

Published : May 17, 2024 - 05:35

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Defining proficiency in a second language is one of the most controversial topics in second-language education. In the past, near-native proficiency was considered the ideal, but that has changed with the spread of communicative language teaching beginning in the 1980s. CLT focuses on individual learner needs rather than a definition that can be applied across groups of learners. Second-language teachers understand this, but society at large often has complex and conflicting ideas about second-language proficiency.

Perhaps nothing is more fraught than pronunciation. Second-language teaching in school includes pronunciation, of course, but it remains peripheral to most curriculums. Teachers usually do not have enough time to help students individually with pronunciation, while others worry that pestering students about pronunciation could affect student motivation.

Attitudes toward pronunciation in society mixed with a range of assumptions about identity. In some societies, a pronunciation that deviates too much from an expected standard can stir negative judgments that can affect job prospects. This explains why people try to “correct their accents” when they move from a place with a distinct regional accent. It also explains why some highly-level professionals, such as doctors and corporate executives, of immigrant origin in English-speaking countries pay for accent correction lessons. In some places, by contrast, good pronunciation can be viewed as an attempt by an outsider to jump in, which is not always welcome.

Slang and a range of colloquial expressions are also problematic. Second-language classes typically introduce different styles of speech, but the range is narrower than society. The assumption is that students will learn slang and colloquial expressions when they use the language with native speakers, often in the country where it is spoken.

In society at large, reactions vary widely. Second-language speakers who are highly proficient often use slang and colloquial expressions without stirring negative reactions. Negative reactions come to the fore more often when less-proficient speakers try to use expressions that are considered beyond their ability. This is particularly true with slang and, most especially, vulgarities. Expectations vary with age, gender, and social status, making it difficult for second-language learners to discern expectations regarding appropriateness.

Grammar stirs fewer emotions but can still cause stress. For many second language teachers in school, grammar remains the core of language teaching. Textbooks and classroom teaching still present grammatical forms and practice that, it is hoped, leads toward understanding and use of the forms. Tests of second-language proficiency that are used for university entrance, for example, evaluate the ability to manipulate grammatical forms. In many countries, grammatical form remains at the core of second-language teaching.

In society, people usually think about grammar in the context of “mistakes,” or forms that deviate from the standard. Many grammatical mistakes are little noticed, but problems arise when mistakes are used to judge language proficiency negatively. Over corrections, for example, can sap the confidence of second-language learners even if they appear thankful for the unsolicited advice. Comments about not being able to understand can have a similar, if not more negative, impact.

Many second-language speakers learn over time how to mediate these complex and conflicting social attitudes. They pay attention to pronunciation. They have a repertoire of expressions and phrases that they can use with confidence to smooth communication and approximate social norms. They have a sense for which types of slang and colloquial expressions will go over well. They have strategies for quickly changing the subject away from a language lesson about mistakes. And more.

Second-language speakers who have not developed strategies for dealing with the whims of society often find themselves frustrated. Some lose interest in language learning and end up plateauing at a low level of proficiency. Others stop using the language and retreat into a linguistic enclave.

These issues are important for learners and teachers of Korean as a second language. Like other societies, Korean society has complex and contradictory attitudes toward Korean-as-a-second-language speakers. Whether they are greater or less than other societies makes no difference.

One thing, however, that differentiates Korean from most other commonly taught second languages is its recent emergence on the world stage. This means that older generations grew up assuming that few non-Koreans learned or used the language. Younger Koreans, by contrast, have grown up more accustomed to seeing Korean being used as a second language. Many have used English or another language for travel, which puts them in a better position to empathize with second-language learners in Korea.

Robert J. Fouser

Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Providence, Rhode Island. He can be reached at The views expressed here are the writer’s own. -- Ed.