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Koreans frustrated by Romanised signboards

A street in central Seoul is crowded with signboards in foreign languages. (Photo by Kim Myung-sub/The Korea Herald)

Publication Date : 09-10-2012


For 82-year-old Kim, going out for a cup of coffee with her friends takes a lot of effort.

“All the shop signs are written in English and I can’t read them,” she said.

She grumbled that many of her friends try a different approach when they search for places to sit down and chat over beverages.

“We first look through the window to see if anyone is drinking something. If they do, we open the door and take a seat. But no way can we understand that they are coffee houses by just reading the signs ― they are all English letters without Hangeul,” she said, referring to the Korean alphabet.

As using English has moved beyond a trend, an increasing number of signboards are Romanised ― whether the names are English or Korean.

Many Koreans who are unfamiliar with English or Romanised Korean often find themselves lost in a sea of shop signs in foreign languages.

When a Korea Herald reporter took a cab recently and tried to get to a television station in southern Seoul, she couldn’t figure out why the driver kept asking for directions though they were just across the street from the destination.

“I kept telling him that it was the building with ‘Arirang’ in red letters.” She recalled.

After several seconds of struggle, the driver, who turned red in the face, grunted, “I didn’t see the sign. It’s in English! How am I supposed to know that’s Arirang?”

“I realised that while some people take English for granted, it isn’t really for all Koreans,” the reporter said.

For a simple survey, The Korea Herald walked up one block of Gangnam Boulevard, a busy shopping district in southern Seoul, and observed the signboards on the streets to find that out of the 518 signboards seen, 65 were written entirely in the Roman alphabet. Most of them were restaurants, coffee shops and eateries with sportswear stores and perfumeries also common.

From global giants such as McDonalds and Adidas to local bistros such as Nolita, the signboards did not carry Hangeul at all.

“It is frustrating to complain about Koreans’ use of English or the Romanisation of Korean words,” said Kim Hanbitnari, an official of the Korean Language Society.

“The problem is that the public does not raise the issue,” he added.

The government does not seem to be aware of the problem, either. The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, in charge of Hangeul policies, told The Korea Herald that it has never conducted a survey or study on excessive Romanisation of store signboards.

By law, outdoor signboards must be written in Hangeul. An administrative leader of a district can allow a dual-language system with a foreign language if it helps local tourism. Only those with a registered trademark can be exempt from the regulation ― among the 65 signboards with Romanisation only that were spotted on the Gangnam Boulevard block, 53 seemed to fall under this case.

“We will conduct tighter monitoring on all-Romanised signboards,” an official of the Seoul Metropolitan Government told The Korea Herald.

Ironically the one district in Korea that has strictly stuck to the principle of using Hangeul ― Insa-dong ― is a foreigner-frequented tourism district in central Seoul specialising in Korean traditional art and products.

In order to maintain its image as an area of traditional culture, the city administration has ordered even global enterprises such as Starbucks and Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf to forgo the Romanisation policy and use Korean-language signs. This was the first case in the world for the global giants, but their headquarters have reportedly expressed satisfaction that it had a substantial promotional effect and a positive public response.

“Even if people are legitimately using all-English signboards, it doesn’t mean the elderly people or those unfamiliar with foreign languages feel any more comfortable. Writing Hangeul along with English is the least they can do for the general public,” said Kim Hanbitnari.


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