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Los Angeles Review of Books: Down with the English Language

Linguistic Life in South Korea once moved me to write a short essay in Korean called “영어에 대한 네 가지 거짓말” or “Four Lies About English.” The first lie, to translate it back into that native language of mine, holds that English speakers can live comfortably in every country in the world; the second, that all those countries have agreed to communicate in English with each other; the third, that because the people of countries like Sweden or Germany speak English well in addition to their native languages, Koreans can and should do the same; and the fourth, that anyone unable to master English is a fool. These particular misconceptions, though I could have included others, have taken root in Korean society to the extent that many Koreans grow flabbergasted when I try to disabuse them.

Not that I alone can do much to mend Korea’s deeply unhealthy relationship with English, a language now slathered liberally on every surface of its cityscapes — except the advertisements for cram schools and practice apps, which shame their readers for having spent years and years studying English without any speaking ability to show for it. Japan, a country I visit often, hasn’t caught as virulent an “English fever,” as Koreans call it (or as I called it on LARB’s Korea Blog last year, “English cancer”), and so, despite my far weaker command of Japanese than Korean, I always feel a weight lift from my mind when I go there, taking comfort in the unambiguous fact that the language of Japan is Japanese: those I address in it will never, ever reply in English — and were I to speak in English, most of them would reply, often at length, in Japanese anyway.

The Japanese novelist Minae Mizumura, however, does believe that her countrymen labor under “the feeling that they ought to know English,” an “irrational obsession, a paranoia that has spread across the nation like a plague.” As in Korea, it happens because “most people, despite years of suffering from mandatory English courses in junior high, high school, and college, end up with little or no grasp of the language,” and so, “feeling defeated, and blaming themselves for the defeat, ordinary people have succumbed to a kind of mass hysteria, convinced despite all evidence to the contrary that they can and must master the language.” Mizumura makes this diagnosis in her treatise The Fall of Language in the Age of English, a surprise hit upon its original publication in Japan in 2008 and recently translated by Mari Yoshihara and Juliet Winters Carpenter.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.