Grr. As someone constantly editing Korean academic articles for a journal, this continues to frustrate me (HT to Korea Beat and original Korean here and here). Even journalists and academics, who should be writing clearly and defining terms while avoiding arguments based on clear cultural biases (and assuming them to be universal), often write the muddiest prose, using equally murky logic. Well, any one of us who has been subjected to editing any papers in Korea -- from student to professor -- knows the nature of the problem.
And it's not just that us asshole foreigners think so -- if you ask a well-educated Korean person whom you have established is herself a good writer, you'll hear the same thing: "Koreans can't write."
It may sound harsh, and one may also point to the fact that there are a lot of shitty writers in the States or wherever as well -- but trust me. If you've ever been asked to translate or proofread a cover letter, resume, conference presentation, or academic paper, you will be flabbergasted at how relatively bad these documents are. But the reason is no mystery. It lies in the -- surprise! -- education system.
Having identified this problem in my own classes, I realize that a lot of Koreans are never even taught to write, as in many of my COLLEGE students report to me having never been properly trained to write an essay. Nope, not even that crappy 5-paragraph style. Some claim they have at some point in high school, but guess how much essay writing the average high school student here does while studying for the college entrance exam. Suffice it to say that indeed, some Koreans have indeed been exposed to the rigid 5-paragraph form. But that's it.
In college, there's the ubiquitous "report." But as anyone who has taught college here knows, these are generally written from a single to perhaps a few secondary/tertiary sources (usually the latter), and is simply a summary of the subject followed by a "conclusion" in which the student usually says their either agree or disagree. For all intents and purposes, it's structurally no different from the "book reports" I did in middle school. I'm not being facetious. I'm being serious.
And as we all have experienced, most of the "reports" are completely plagiarized. Or partially so. Or you have some over-zealous professors/instructors telling students to not use Wikipedia or that it's "unreliable." Sure, as a tertiary source. But a Wikipedia entry is a great starting point for 1) getting a basic background on pretty much any subject that isn't the focus of some present and ongoing controversy, since while the ownership of Tokdo/Takeshima may be in question, George Washington, the origin of the cotton gin, the Geneva Convention's definition of genocide, or the terms of the SALT II treaty are all not. And they a whole list of secondary and primary sources in all approved, complete articles, something the Encyclopedia Britannica does not. But I digress, as usual.
The main problem, as I'm sure you won't be surprised to hear, is that everything that students learn in Korea is taught as formula, as filling in a set of boxes, as things to check off on a list. Look at a Korean resume -- there's a standard format. And when I say "standard," I mean a single, standardized form from which one does not deviate. That's why Koreans have so much trouble making American-style resumes -- while there are certain things to cover for certain purposes, the actual formatting, style, and how you present yourself is up to you.
When Korean kids are taught the 5-paragraph style (and many of them are now taught to ACE it, math-problem-and-drill style, as part of the preparation for the new essay section of the American SAT), they get really formulaic:
INTRO (what I will talk about)
BODY PARAGRAPH 1 (first point or example)
BODY PARAGRAPH 2 (second point or example)
BODY PARAGRAPH 3 (third point or example)
CONCLUSION (what I said in the intro, often nearly to the word!)
Now, you might complexify it up by teaching students to perhaps define a term in BODY 1, give academic examples in BODY 2, spice it up with a corroborating and interesting example from personal experience in BODY 3, but in any case, people will write in these formulaic ways.
And I can't even count the number of "Conclusion" sections of Korean academic papers where the conclusion was an actual copy-and-paste of the assertions made in the abstract or introduction, except with a copy-and-paste of a few specific conclusions presented in the body of the paper. No synthesis, no revelatory interpretation, nada. Just cut-and-paste, as if entered into fields in a computer-writing program and generated into final form. Seriously, I think one could write an easy program for writing essays that basically sums up how most Korean academics write.
And these are the better examples, mind you.
Point is, articles such as the one that started this kvetch about writing in Korea are common. They're not the exception. They appear in the Chosun Ilbo, one of Korea's most venerated newspapers. And I see similar kinds of writing, logic, and basic common sense-related problems in academic writing as well.
In the end, as is true of so many things here for me, it all goes back to the education system. You teach people to rote memorize -- and more than even that, organize everything you know into neat little boxes, multiple choice options, and official definitions, and the fact that Koreans are largely horrible writers should come as no surprise to anyone.
And to those few expected idiots who are saying this is "racist" -- define your terms. I'm not saying it's "genetic" or the result of some vague and overused definition of Korean "culture" or anything similarly outrageous. It's simply the result of Korean pedagogy, the structure of the school system and testing regimes, and their results. And it's a problem that many educated Koreans constantly get irritated about as well.
The solution to the problem is easy: at every level, teach students to write and think properly, i.e. in terms of complexity, logic, and critique. But like any real problem in education systems, both problem and solution are clear; the will to make any real changes is the real sticking point. I won't be holding my breath.
Here's my comment for that Korea Beat post, and the one that inspired this blog post.