Let me start this post by saying that I’m pleased that non Koreans like K-pop. When I was growing up in Chicago, few people knew that Korea even existed as a country. None of my American friends were interested in Korean music and they certainly didn’t idolize any Korean stars.
So, that being said …
There’s a post going around on Tumblr about Korean musicians and their inability to speak English perfectly:
I think it’s really telling that the people whining about the English in K-Pop are conflating “professional” standards with non-Korean English. There’s also an assumption here that accents from countries like the U.S. and England qualify as “correct” native pronunciation against which other accents can be judged. Apparently, pronunciation from places like India, HK, Thailand, Singapore and the Philippines, many of which are geographically closer to South Korea, are somehow inferior and unprofessional.
It’s also disturbing to see people hiding behind the “It’s my opinion” excuse. An opinion is not a magic cure-all. You can stick “It’s my opinion that” in front of just about anything:It’s my opinion that the moon is made of cheese. It’s my opinion that air is poisonous to dogs. It doesn’t make it accurate or well-evidenced. It doesn’t make criticism invalid. Opinions can be wrong.
And it certainly doesn’t make the latent imperialism of the OP “okay.”
The standard for “correct” English pronunciation is not centered in the West.
Edit: Are there really people comparing their trips to Europe with the power dynamics of English, a language spread throughout the world with military bloodshed and cultural imperialism? Really?
But one of the commenters wrote this:
“I wouldn’t dare go to sing in another country unless I could pronounce their language to basic standards. That’s me though. I really wish people would stop jumping on each other and try to understand with someone’s opinion. It’s okay to disagree. That’s why it’s an opinion.”
Where to begin?
First, this is like me saying, “I just know that if I was a famous supermodel, I’d look a lot better than the girls featured in Vogue.” Right. Because the likelihood of me actually ever becoming a supermodel is a big ol’ ZERO.
Second, what’s the likelihood that the person who made that hollow comment will ever become a professional musician, much less one who needs to learn another language before going to that country to sing in that country’s official language? Does Beyonce need to sing in Korean when performing in Seoul? So should Green Day sing in Mandarin performing in China? Did Paul McCartney sing in Japanese when performing in Tokyo?
Do you know how you become fluent in a foreign language without a trace of your native accent? Sure, there are exceptions to any rule, but the most efficient way is to move to the country where the language you want to learn is spoken and immerse yourself by speaking it every day, surrounded by the accent you want to emulate. For instance, I speak perfect American English. Why? Because I’ve lived in the U.S. since I was four years old.
My mother has lived in the U.S. the same length of time as I have. However, she doesn’t speak “perfect” English. She has an accent. Why? Because she came to the U.S. after puberty. Learning a new language and acquiring that native accent is best accomplished before you reach puberty.
So, in order for these K-pop stars to speak English in a way that would please some of their fans better, there would have to be a lot of things going on. A manager would have to handpick these children when they are super young on the off chance that they would grow up to have what it takes to become a K-pop star. Their parents would need to send them away to a foreign land so that they lose their Korean accent. They would have to return to Korea to train in singing and dancing and acting, and try not to lose the American/English/Australian etc. accent they’ve acquired living abroad. And, they would have to be one of the few who have the combination of looks, talent and luck to be chosen to perform in one of these groups.
K-pop groups are doing their part to cater to English speakers, by including Korean Americans who are fluent in both languages. PSY went to college in the U.S. and is bilingual. As far as I’m concerned, that’s more than enough.
And, finally, if you want to listen to people who speak English well (regardless of accents, grammar or pronunciation), don’t expect to get it from bands. Music isn’t the forum to hear perfect English, not even by American or British bands.
Don’t believe me? Go listen to just about any song on the radio and then try diagramming their sentences.
© 2013 JAE-HA KIM
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