Newsflash: K-pop bands sing in Korean

By Jae-Ha Kim
July 27, 2013

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:


Pleonasmism does a good job of breaking it down here:

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 | All Rights Reserved

Comments (24)

  1. thereblogg says:

    Reblogging for good anti-imperalism commentary. 🙂
    Also to add my less articulate 2¢. So Jay Park. Dudes from WASHINGTON. As in born and raised American. As in there’s a reason his music is so American sounding.
    Go to any youtube video where he speaks english. You’ll see comments saying “wow his english is so good!” Or if there’s some real gold you’ll see “wow! His english is ALMOST perfect.
    So basically some people that like his music can’t even tell he is a fluent English speaker…’s almost like it doesn’t matter…it’s almost like you don’t need English to enjoy Korean music … Weird

  2. thorsockrock says:


    As a white USA citizen, ya’ll demanding, racist, spoiled kpop fans need to back the heck off and listen to what thisisnotkorea is saying. And I mean actually read it, absorb it, think about it, read it again, and hear it. Do our stars bother to learn other languages in great detail to cater to international fans by singing their songs in a language that isn’t theirs? No. Because they’re US-based. You cannot seriously be complaining because Korean stars are, you know, Korean. I really need you guys to actually think about what you’re saying. Contrary to popular belief, the USA isn’t the center of the universe. It’s not ruler of the world. English is not the superior language. Even within English there are several different accents and dialects. People coming to the USA don’t owe us anything. They don’t owe us learning English with whatever your preferred accent and dialect is. They don’t owe us perfect pronunciation. We, however, owe them a little respect as people are due. That means understanding if they don’t speak English or perfect English or whatever. They have their own lives, their own things to do. It’s not a personal insult to you if they don’t speak English.

    And “Engrish”, really? =\

  3. No one will see this, but honestly, I think the way they pronounce English words is adorable. x3
    I love it, especially because everyone ends up talking about it, and basically bonding over it.

    The way they pronounce certain words, it just makes them all the more distinct, and it makes people realize that just because they are idols, doesn’t mean they’re abso perfect in every single way. No, even they have some flaws, and it’s those flaws that make their fans’ hearts throb, and causes me to fall just a little more in love with their performances. And rather than putting up a front of “perfection,” I’d like to see how they improve over time, rather than complaining because it’s not how you want it to be.

  4. John says:

    People didn’t know that Korea existed? I think the author is exaggerating.

    • Jae-Ha Kim says:

      Surprising, huh, considering that there was a huge U.S. military presence in Korea during the Korean War. But, no, most people here didn’t know that Korea was a country when I was a little kid. There’s a generation of us Korean-Americans who were asked to answer this question countless times: “Are you Chinese or Japanese?” And those were the only options. But, of course, I’m probably exaggerating.

  5. And here we have the same racist mentality that possessed my “friend” to comment on my south korean roommate singing a korean birthday song to me with the classic “This is America, we speak english.” bit.

    This is also the same racist mentality that is more comfortable defending their “right” to offend people than sitting the fuck down, listening and using a bit of critical thinking to get some perspective.

    BUT IT IS UNDERSTOOD. Trying to see how you are culpable in offending people and creating a platform for an open dialogue between cultures is waaaaaay less important than “oPpAS nEW CocEPT JUst fUrrr Mee buT thiS ‘MerRIca wae Ur EngriSH.”


  6. 0nekiss0neheart says:

    OR… Maybe they can’t fucking pronounce it correctly because they’ve been speaking Korean all their lives and English is fucking hard to speak.

  7. Da fuq?? If you can’t handle a fire on the “loof” then get out! These are the same kpop fans who complained that Korean companies won’t let foreign NONKOREAN SPEAKERS to audition for a group. “I pay for their albums too so I have the right to impose my standards onto non native English speakers and think its constructive criticism.” News flash, the English isn’t in there to appeal to foreign audiences (and quite frankly they shouldn’t have to appeal to you) it’s to make them seem more “with it” much like how “whatever” and “far out” and “cool” were it phrases back in the day.
    Also, show me ONE non native Korean speaker who can speak it perfectly without any accents just because “they sang a few Korean songs” please, show me. I’m a pretty damn good Korean speaker and even native Koreans can tell I’m not from around here. Languages are fucking hard, and accents shouldn’t matter as long as you are able to convey the message.

  8. sugakooked says:

    ^^my grandmother has been in n. america for over 45 years and still cannot pronounce things right. hell, i’ve been speaking and reading english fluently since i was born and still cannot pronouce some things right!

  9. JONG SU OH says:

  10. Morris says:

    Very well said. I don’t listen to K-pop for their English, I listen because it’s an exposure to Korean pop culture.

  11. to be honest. i would hire someone to help me get the right pronunciation of korean lyrics if i had to sing them. i mean it’s not that they have to have proper pronunciation but if they’re looking to cater to wider audiences it’s a good to invest in that sort of thing. everyone has to change something with whatever they are bringing to a different culture.

    plus i don’t think it’s “white people accent” to pronounce roof with the ‘r’. africans pronounce roof the same way americans or australians or the british do. it’s simply that asian languages don’t have it. they don’t have to change the way they speak to make their songs better, it’s just about who they expect to be listening to their songs and whether or not they’re happy with what comes out.

    and we can argue what ‘correct’ pronuniciation is but really there isn’t any such thing other than the universal way english words are spoken (ex. roof being spoken with a hard ‘r’ is common to the large majority of countries that speak english as the first/second language) it’s based on your first language and the extent of your exposure to english.

    i also think that when it’s said that english speakers have a power over non-english speakers. it can be the same in other countries. i was incredibly intimidated when i went to italy recently because i didn’t speak the language and i ended feeling pressured by the store owners into buying things because they were natives and obviously had the power in the situation.

  12. Brutus Youn says:

    I don’t think there’s an expectation of K-pop stars to have perfect English, certainly not when they talk or give interviews. I think the criticism is simply they could do a better job with pronunciation in their singing, especially when it’s only a few English words that are laced into their songs. If they cared about English speaking foreign markets they could put a little more of an effort here, but understandably it’s not a priority.

    • Jae-Ha Kim says:

      English is a very difficult language to learn and its words are difficult to pronounce for non native speakers. Should K-pop singers’ use of English be grammatically correct? The writer in me says yes. But the pop fan who has heard the English language mutilated by English-speaking bands doesn’t care if a foreign band can’t pronounce English words correctly.

      • Brutus Youn says:

        Personally I don’t care myself either whether they pronounce English correctly, but certainly some people do care, and I think it should be open to criticism. Let’s put this in another perspective.. say an American band decides to emulate the style and singing of some French style music, sing 90% of the songs in English, but they sing a few words in French and they completely mangle the pronunciation. Shouldn’t they be open to be criticized for not trying to sound more authentically French? In the end it’s completely up to the band… if they want French people to listen to their music, they would do well to spend more time trying to pronounce things more correctly, if they don’t think it’s worth the time because 99% of their audience is English speaking and don’t care about French pronunciation then that’s completely their prerogative. I would say the same is happening for K-pop, they don’t feel like they need to pronounce English well because 99% of their audience is Korean then that’s completely their choice to do so. I don’t think it’s necessarily an expectation, but it is completely understandable that English speakers want to hear English sung “the right way” just like French speakers would want to hear French sung “the right way”. Well that’s the rationale anyways, not necessarily right or wrong, but along those lines the criticism seems valid..

        • Emma Swenson says:

          I understand your point but I disagree with you Brutus. I am American. I don’t expect foreigners to sound American. Patti LaBelle sang “Lady Marmalade.” No one would mistake her accent for French. No one complained. Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz retain their accents and still get roles speaking accented English in U.S. films.

          ETA: I have to agree with Pleonasmism’s theory in the original post. s/he stated it better than I could.

          • Brutus Youn says:

            I’m sorry I am not advocating that we should all expect people to speak perfect accent-less English, and the point isn’t whether you or me thinks it’s ok. The issue here is simply the fact that there are a lot more native english speakers who now listen to K-pop whereas in the past the numbers were not very significant, and these people can tell that the English doesn’t sound legit. If a native english speaker is listening to a K-pop song and is enjoying everything sung in Korean and then they start to sing something in completely mangled English and it diminishes their enjoyment of the song, I think that’s legitimate criticism.

  13. Lois Ingersoll Maurice says:

    Interesting points. There has been a lot of chatter for a while about why these idols can’t pronounce English words and why don’t they spend more time learning to speak English properly. Sure, if they want to, have at it, I suppose. But I bristle at the expectation that another nationality that doesn’t speak English as its first language should be expected to speak it in a manner that’s pleasing to the Western ear.

  14. Mike Kessler says:

    I’m having flashbacks of my German relatives wanting English-speaking pop stars to sound more German:

  15. pleonasmism says:

    So some last thoughts on the discussion going on here and here:

    Lady Gaga, bless her heart, regularly attempts (and sometimes mangles) foreign languages in her music and videos. But I have yet to read essays from teenagers in places like Sweden, France and Italy complaining that she needs to work on her accent in order to be taken seriously as a professional.
    And the reason they don’t do that is that’s not the point of her use of foreign languages. Self-evidently, it’s not the point, and they recognize that.

    Lady Gaga markets aggressively to all parts of the world in ways K-Pop stars, with the recent exception of PSY, do not. But we still don’t judge her professionalism by what native speakers of those attempted languages think.
    Second, I want to address the idea that the intended audience of K-Pop doesn’t matter when considering the importance of accents. Since they’re using English, the argument goes, all the music is fair game for critique according to (geographically specific ideas of) what is fluent and what is not.

    I think this misses the point, and when you look at the differences in K-Pop among:

    a) the English for mostly domestic audiences,

    b) the English in “English version” tracks for mostly domestic audiences,

    c) the English in tracks meant for primary distribution overseas,

    d) the English in tracks publicized as distributed overseas but meant to generate most of their sales in Asia,

    e) the English in J-Pop tracks sung by K-Pop artists,

    f) the English in J-Pop tracks translated from K-Pop songs sung by K-Pop artists,

    a few things become clear.

    Namely, that unless the tracks were written, produced or sung by native English speakers, the fluency of the English is generally dependent on where the songs are being marketed. Note that it isn’t that the industry can’t generate English that is “fluent”; it can and does. But unless the songs are meant to appeal primarily to a international audience, perfectly fluent Western English, while a boon and a PR point, is not considered a must.

    Which makes sense to me. That a country whose native language is not English would find it convenient to code-switch between forms and uses of English depending on the purpose of the product is neither strange nor impractical.
    In this context, the idea that their English needs to be “better” is ridiculous on its face.

    And to hear certain people complaining that they feel excluded by a culture’s borrowing, use, manipulation and transformation of language, given the West’s long and inglorious history of cultural appropriation, is pretty damn shady to me.

    • Jae-Ha Kim says:

      Please note that pleonasmism has posted links in the comments above. You’ll only see them if you hover over the words. (e.g. where she says “here and here,” as well as the a-f points.)

  16. bklyn1984 says:

  17. TMI_Institute says:

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