Lost in Translation: Cultural Differences in Linguistic Aspect

From left: Christoph Heider, Secretary General of the European Chamber of Commerce in Korea, Seo-young Chae, Professor in the English Language and Literature Department at Sogang University, and Mark Tetto, CFO of Korea-based startup Vingle and .

SEOUL, March 17, 2015 – The Asia Society Korea Center, in partnership with Kyobo Life and the European Chamber of Commerce in Korea, hosted the second lecture of its Monthly Luncheon Series at the Lotte Hotel Seoul on Tuesday. The event was a cross cultural training seminar based around the topic, “Lost in Translation: Cultural Differences in Linguistic Aspect”. The guest speakers were Christoph Heider, Secretary General of the European Chamber of Commerce in Korea, Mark Tetto, CFO of Korea-based startup Vingle and Seo-young Chae, Professor in the English Language and Literature Department at Sogang University.

Professor Chae kicked off the seminar by giving an insight into Korean culture from a linguistic perspective in an attempt to explain issues such as why Koreans often ask your age or want to call you brother or sister. The talk focused around 3 main points; the evidence of hierarchy in the Korean language, how social hierarchy is reflected in Korean language and why family is considered prototype for a lot of Koreans. Dr. Chae explained how social hierarchy is ingrained in the language, more than any other language of the world, and depending on who you are talking to will determine what vocabulary, verb endings, particles, suffixes and address terms to use. Scholars say that traditionally there were 8 levels of honorific endings and around 4-6 are in use today.

The next perspective into cultural linguistic differences was given by Mark Tetto who gave a foreign take on things through many anecdotes and real life examples. The key point that Mr. Tetto made was that the Korean language forces you to make a choice every time you speak. When addressing someone, you need to decide what level of honorific ending to use and how this can sometimes lead to confusion or misunderstanding. Mr. Tetto gave some examples of his own faux pas while living and working in Korea and how these misinterpretations came about. Another example of confusion is the use of names in the working environment; Korea is trying to model itself on Silicon Valley so the use of first names was encouraged. However, this can be very harsh to the Korean ear and usually leads to the switching between different speech levels depending on if English or Korean is being spoken.

The final part of the seminar was given by Christoph Heider who gave a business related insight into culture and language. He started off by giving his own anecdote on how he was often left confused and irritated when receiving correspondence from Korean colleagues who would refer to him by only his family name, Heider. This would be considered very impolite in his home country of Germany and is an example of how culture and historical background has a high impact on language. Mr. Heider explained how European language is a low context language in which we disregard the environment and speak in a direct way. Korean on the other hand is a high context language where we have to take into account the atmosphere, situation, body language etc. It is crucial to be aware of these differences in business as they can have a big impact on discussion, in the drawing up of contracts, or in meetings and negotiations.

Concluding these three fascinating insights into language and culture was a question and answer session in which guests were invited to ask the speakers a variety of questions. The seminar prompted a lot of audience participation and this engagement was carried on throughout lunch with lots of great discussion. The event was a huge success and was both interesting and educational for all those in attendance.