Tuesday, September 11, 2012

On Korean Writing Style: Non-Linear Rhetorical

Collegue Rocky Stewart, a professor in our department well versed in linguistics and writing, gave a lecture a few months ago on Korean writing styles to help our teachers have a better conception of how to teach English cross-culturally to our Korean students. If English were said to have 2 unique writing structures, they would be said to be: (1) unity in writing, and (2) lack of repetition. Likewise, Korean in the following samples has been reduced to two unique writing features:

Feature #1: 기성전귤

The non-linear Korean pattern of writing originated from the "qi-cheng-zhuan-he)" (起承轉合)style in Chinese. The Korean version, 기성전귤, comprises 4 stages: “beginning”, “development”, “turn”, and “end”. A similar pattern can also be found in Japanese writing (“ki-sho-ten-ketsu”). And do to their non-linear style, English readers may find the pattern confusing.

Example 1 of Korean Writing:
The Ministry of Home Affairs is planning to strengthen the period of training for public officials from 3 days to 6 days per year in order to solidify the spirituality of the public officials. The training is to be conducted at the Spiritual Cultural Institute which is rendered in English as the Institute for Korean Studies.

A new meaning of “national” is attached to the word “spiritual”. Perhaps this comes from the term “spiritual culture”.

A member of the Korean Alphabet Society complained that the architectural design of the Institute for the Korean Studies resembles a Buddhist Temple and thus is not Korean. This is not so because Buddhism, though imported from India, is a Korean religion. Likewise Christianity is a Korean religion.

Any attempt to label what is national and what is foreign fails,

Perhaps too much emphasis on nationalism may do more harm than good.

Instead of inspiring nationalism we should be appealing to universal reason and proper moral conduct. The civil spirit must take precedence over the national spirit.

I am reminded of this when, changing trains at the subway, I witness the rush to occupy seats on route to the sports centre where the Olympic Games are to be held. How do we enhance the nation’s prestige through a sports event? As a teacher, I am partly responsible for this situation.

Spiritual poverty is best observed in a metropolitan area like Seoul. Why is our public transport system so multi-layered with standing buses at the bottom, then regular buses, and finally taxis which move constantly to catch more passengers?

Once you catch a taxi you have to listen to the loud radio controlled by the driver.

“Dear administrators, please do not talk about spiritual things unless you are interested in implementing concrete ethical conduct.”

According to English analysis, this style of writing would be broken down into 5 non-linear parts: beginning of argument, "loose" development of argument, main point of argument, concepts indirectly connected with the argument, conclusion of main theme (the latter does not appear in this writing sample). However, from the Korean writing perspective there would be 4 parts: beginning, development, turn, and end (the latter which does not appear). From this, it becomes obvious that conclusions, summaries and how to finish the writing becomes obviously a point that differs between English and Korean writing styles. One obvious feature which was not said is that Koreans typically want to conclude with a wide overall statement like "I hope my children will never have this problem" when the topic was strictly relating a narrative on a traumatic childhood event of a grandparent, for example. From my perspective on this, Koreans would typically like to finish with a statement that (involves them, but from a collective point of view, and usually stemming the sentence with "I hope".

Feature #2: Indirection

The writing is not developed in a straight line proceeding from a statement of the central idea followed by elaboration. Instead, the subject is looked at indirectly through examining issues not directly related to the main idea.

Other non-linear or indirect features are “discontinuity” (see German examples) and “abrupt transition” (see Hindi example).

Example 2 of Korean Writing:
Foreigners who reside in Korea as well as those who study the Korean language in foreign countries are, despite their deep interest, ignorant of the basis on which the Korean alphabet, Hangul, was formulated. The Korean alphabet, composed of combination of lines and curves, seems more difficult than the Japanese kana for those who use the Roman alphabet, and as the combination of vowels and consonants multiples, it appears more difficult to memorize all the combinations. This seemingly complicated combination of vowels and consonants can, on the contrary, be mastered with no more effort than is needed to learn the Roman alphabet or Japanese kana, for one must merely memorize two dozen vowels and consonants, the principal letters of the Korean alphabet.

The principal concern of foreign as well as Korean scholars has been on what foundation the Korean alphabet was formulated. (Kang and Kim 1979:5)

No Korean analysis of this writing was offered, but from an English writing perspective, this writing can be broken down into 3 parts: main topic in the thesis statement, discussing around the topic or illustrating the main issue from tangential views; restating the main topic in the beginning of the next paragraph. From an experiential point-of-view, it's rather hard to define clearly enough for the students to understand that this style of writing isn't exactly on the topic.

For another look at this writing and more in-depth studies on other non-linear styles (Chinese, Arabic, Japanese, French, German, Thai, Hindi), refer to the on-line source.

In short, the 5 points to focus clearly on when teaching writing to our non-linear writing Korean students is that a strong thesis statement should:

(1) make a claim. it should raise specific issues for the essay to explore.
(2) not say something that is obviously true or a statement of fact. it should make an assertion that some readers may diasgree with.
(3) no restate conventional wisdom, i.e. it should not say something that has been said many times before.
(4) not state only the writer's personal conviction, likes or dislikes.
(5) not oversimplify or make too broad a claim (Rosenwasser & Stephen 2006)

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