App helps N. Korea refugees ‘speak South­ern’

The China Post - - GUIDE POST - BY JUNG HA- WON

A new smart­phone app de­vel­oped in Seoul aims to help North Korean refugees over­come one of the big­gest chal­lenges they face in ad­just­ing to life in South Korea — speak­ing Korean.

Seven decades of al­most to­tal sep­a­ra­tion have en­gi­neered a rad­i­cal split in the once com­mon lan­guage of the two Koreas.

For North Korean de­fec­tors who risk their lives es­cap­ing to the South via China, this lin­guis­tic di­ver­gence rep­re­sents a size­able bar­rier in their strug­gle to as­sim­i­late when even some­thing as sim­ple as buy­ing an ice cream re­quires a new vo­cab­u­lary.

The two Koreas still share the same writ­ing sys­tem, known as Hangeul — a pho­netic al­pha­bet de­vel­oped in the 15th cen­tury to re­place Chi­nese char­ac­ters.

So a North Korean refugee would have no trou­ble read­ing the translit­er­a­tion “Ah-ee-sir-ker-rim” that South Kore­ans use for “ice cream” — but he or she would not nec­es­sar­ily have any idea what the term meant or re­ferred to.

And that’s where the Univoca app comes in.

De­vel­oped by Seoul’s top ad­ver- tis­ing firm, Cheil World­wide, the app of­fers trans­la­tions of 3,600 key words culled from South Korean high school text­books as well as ev­ery­day slang ex­pres­sions.

Tap­ping in the Hangeul for “ice cream” brings up the word ohreum-bose­ung-yi (lit­er­ally “coated ice”), as ice cream is known in North Korea.

Fo­cus on Teenagers

Cre­ated as a part of the com­pany’s so­cial out­reach pro­gram, the free app has been down­loaded more than 1,500 times since its launch in mid-March, said Choi Jae-Young, the Cheil manager in charge of the project.

“We were look­ing for ways to help so­cially marginal­ized peo­ple suf­fer­ing from com­mu­ni­ca­tion prob­lems ... and re­al­ized young North Korean de­fec­tors have this big lan­guage bar­rier when study­ing at school,” Choi told AFP.

A group of North Korean de­fec­tors, in­clud­ing stu­dent vol­un­teers and pro­fes­sion­als like for­mer school teach­ers, helped in the task of iden­ti­fy­ing — and trans­lat­ing — com­mon South Korean words that may per­plex the young refugees.

One of them, 22-year-old col­lege stu­dent Noelle Kim, said work­ing on the project had brought back strong mem­o­ries of her own lin­guis­tic strug­gles when she ar­rived in Seoul five years ago.

“Even ask­ing for di­rec­tions on the street was dif­fi­cult be­cause I couldn’t un­der­stand all the words peo­ple were us­ing in the an­swer,” Kim told AFP.

“And I just felt too ashamed to ad­mit it and ask what those words meant,” she added.

Ex­perts es­ti­mate such dif­fer­ences now ex­tend to one third of the words spo­ken on the streets of Seoul and Py­ongyang, and up to two thirds in busi­ness and of­fi­cial set­tings.

Baf­fling English Words

Par­tic­u­larly baf­fling to new North Korean ar­rivals are the large num­ber of English words that have been pho­net­i­cally in­cor­po­rated into the South Korean lex­i­con.

Where a South Korean would com­fort­ably re­fer to a “penalty kick” in foot­ball, in the North they use a com­pletely dif­fer­ent Korean word mean­ing “11-me­ter pun­ish­ment.”

The dif­fi­cul­ties are even more pro­nounced for young refugees who have to cope with the sort of rapidly chang­ing youth slang com­mon to most coun­tries.

“For North Korean teen de­fec­tors, who are more sen­si­tive to cul­tural dif­fer­ences, the lan­guage is­sue is con­sid­ered a first pri­or­ity to solve when set­tling down in South Korea,” Cheil said in a state­ment.


An un­dated hand­out photo re­leased on Thurs­day, March 26 by Cheil World­wide shows an in­struc­tor demon­strat­ing a Korean lan­guage mo­bile phone app to a group North Korean de­fec­tors.

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