Preserving Cultural Identity in English Language Use by Korean Immigrants

By Heajune Lee
2020, Vol. 12 No. 10 | pg. 1/1


This paper argues that the Korean cultural values of humility and social deference directly influence the linguistic choices in Korean immigrants’ English emails. This relationship can be seen in consistent qualification of requests, ambiguous use of verbs, and excessive use of impersonal statements. To support this argument, I first examine the literature establishing a strong relationship between an individual’s identity and linguistic choices. Given the centrality of humility and respect in Korea’s Confucian society, I explore ways in which these cultural values are encoded in Korean practices and in Koreans’ use of English as a second language (L2). I then apply this research to primary analysis of English emails written by Korean immigrants. As personal and professional communication has increasingly transitioned to online platforms, my analysis of email writing extends key sociolinguistic concepts by applying them to a modern communication medium. This paper also contributes to the growing body of literature relating specific linguistic trends in second language use to the and values encoded in an individual’s first language. Rather than endorsing a normative view of English language practices, I call for greater sensitivity to the cultural roots of Asian immigrants’ linguistic practices, an attitude that can facilitate more meaningful participation by this demographic in American society.

I open my inbox to another email titled “Proofread please~.” With a slight chuckle, I open the message from my mom, a non-native English speaker, and skim through the contents. My edits are always fairly similar, and I quickly add comments to her recurring linguistic choices–overuse of passive voice in one sentence, omission of definite articles in another. Where she had written “I wish it is helpful,” I carefully substitute the more casual phrase, “hope it helps!” In one section expressing disagreement with a colleague’s proposal, I urge her to use more direct language, clearly stating why she considers her idea to be more effective. Over the years, editing my mom’s emails has felt at times like a conversation between two fundamentally different approaches to communication. Multiple scholars reaffirm this view; the linguistics literature clearly establishes that culture and social environment shape an individual’s language practices. Accordingly, the linguistic choices of second language learners demonstrate consistent trends that distinguish them from native users of the language, and can be analyzed as sociolinguistic phenomena (Kim, 2007; Chang, 2010; Yook, 2010). My experiences thus led me to two questions: to what extent do the linguistic patterns I observed reflect core values in the Korean culture? Furthermore, how does past literature on the sociocultural roots of second language practices apply to email discourse?

In this paper, I argue that the Korean cultural values of humility and social deference directly influence the linguistic choices in Korean immigrants’ English emails. This relationship can be seen in consistent qualification of requests, ambiguous use of power verbs, and excessive use of impersonal statements. To support this argument, I first examine the literature establishing a strong relationship between an individual’s identity and linguistic choices. Given the centrality of humility and respect in Korea’s Confucian society, I explore ways in which these cultural values are encoded in Korean language practices and in Koreans’ use of English as a second language (L2). I then apply this research to primary analysis of English emails written by Korean immigrants. As personal and professional communication has increasingly transitioned to online platforms, my analysis of email writing will extend key sociolinguistic concepts by applying them to a modern communication medium. This paper also contributes to the growing body of literature relating specific linguistic trends in second language use to the culture and values encoded in an individual’s first language (Byon, 2005; Yook, 2010). It is important to note that this study seeks to assess the linguistic landscape of Korean speakers using their L2 English. Rather than endorsing a normative view of English language practices, I call for greater sensitivity to the cultural roots of Asian immigrants’ linguistic practices, an attitude that can facilitate more meaningful participation by this demographic in American society.

Close Ties Between Language and Identity

Previous sociolinguistic studies have established a clear relationship between an individual’s identity and linguistic choices (Pierce, 1995; Houck, 1992; Kramsch & Widdowson, 1998). In an important paper on identity in linguistic practice, Pierce (1995) presents the notion of a bidirectional relationship between identity and language use. She suggests that language “constitutes and is constituted by” an individual’s sense of identity, which can only be understood with respect to the broader social context (pp. 13). Inherent social factors like power relations and cultural values play an important role in language use, both by shaping an individual’s sense of self relative to their society and directly influencing their linguistic choices in daily interactions. Pierce’s notion of identity as a “site of struggle” (pp. 9) further suggests that an individual’s sense of self is not fixed but influenced by language rules and practices employed within social interactions (also see Kim, 2007). These studies are thus consistent with a conception of language practices as a medium for capturing and transmitting cultural identity.

The influence of cultural values on linguistic choices translates to use of a second language (L2) by non-native speakers. Kasper has written extensively about pragmatic transfer, or the influence of previous extralinguistic knowledge, social norms, values and perceptions on learners’ L2 pragmatic knowledge and behavior (Kasper, 1992, pp. 207). To the extent that a language captures and communicates the social norms, values, and social identity of its speakers, transfer of linguistic norms and “speech act knowledge”1 from one’s native language to a second language demonstrates preservation and expression of such underlying social values in a different language (pp. 206). Kasper further suggests that “sociopragmatic transfer” (pp. 209) takes place when social perceptions underlying L2 linguistic action are influenced by assessment of subjectively equivalent L1 (first or native language) contexts. An individual’s experience in their native culture can thus influence their perceptions of contextual factors, the overall politeness of an interaction, and the appropriateness of particular linguistic action in the second language. For instance, Japanese speakers using their L2 English apply the same contextual parameters in selecting refusal strategies employed in Japanese, rather than the strategies of American native speakers (Beebe et al., 1990).

Interestingly, immigrants can deliberately employ L1-influenced styles and norms in the L2 to express their cultural identity and demonstrate solidarity with a linguistic community (Kim, 2007, pp. 5). Pragmatic transfer can therefore be understood both as a sociolinguistic phenomenon and an intentional linguistic choice demonstrating the cultural identity of immigrants in a non-native social context. From this perspective arises the notion that different languages, regardless of their internal structure or associated cultural attitudes, can serve as tools that preserve and transmit an individual’s pre-existing values or cultural identity. This can lead to systematic linguistic practices that distinguish the language use of L2 speakers from that of native speakers.

Humility and Social Deference

The values of humility and social deference lie at the heart of Korean society’s cultural norms and social attitudes. Social conduct in South Korean society is rooted in the country’s Confucian legacy, a regional tradition that emphasizes social harmony through hierarchical relationships and diminishing of the self in favor of respect for authority (Sleziak, 2013). In personal memoirs, East Asian immigrants have demonstrated the centrality of these values to their cultural identity, as they continue to shape the behavior of generations of immigrants in the US (Tateishi, 2007). Various studies examining the identity of Korean speakers further highlight hierarchism, collectivism, and high consideration as defining components of Korea’s Confucian culture (Chang, 2010; Kim, 2007).

The cultural emphasis on age-based social hierarchy and respect for those in higher positions can be seen in Korean language practices. An important example is the complex system of referential and addressee honorifics (Kim, 2016, pp. 100), in which speakers employ distinct levels of verbal suffixes to acknowledge the differing power dynamics between interlocutors. Similarly, the strict use of titles and deferential address terms arises from the rigid hierarchical emphasis of Korean culture. Korean speakers are also more likely than native English speakers to use hearer-oriented language in making requests, a linguistic choice tied to the cultural emphasis on respect in social relations (Kim, 2007, pp. 84). The structure of the Korean language and the linguistic tendencies of Korean speakers thus encode cultural notions of hierarchy and habitual thinking about humility. Various scholars have proposed pragmatic transfer of these cultural values occurs in Korean speakers’ use of L2 English, for instance, in their use of “imposition minimizers,”2 apology, and distinct politeness strategies (Kim, 2007, pp. 85; also see Suh, 2006; Byon, 2005). These studies thus provide the basis for my examination of pragmatic transfer in Korean immigrants’ English emails.

Transmitting Cultural Identity Online

While the above overview demonstrates research into pragmatic transfer in Korean immigrants’ L2 English conversations, there is a surprising lack of research on this demographic’s English emails. The focus on email is increasingly relevant given the dominance of this platform, particularly in English, in our globalized, internet-dependent society. Moreover, the hybrid nature of this medium, which frequently incorporates oral conversation strategies into written form, offers unique value for scholarly analysis (Kim, 2016). Various studies have validated the utility of examining email communication through a sociolinguistic lens (Noda, 2013, Tseng, 2016; Bjørge, 2007). Hui (2010) demonstrates that English emails written by Chinese L2 English speakers revealed pragmatic transfer from Chinese cultural ideas of assertiveness, power distance, and avoidance of uncertainty. Similarly, Kim (2016) analyzed the role of cultural values in Korean emails written by native Korean speakers. Analysis of emails in this research is particularly significant as many Korean and East Asian immigrants in the US form culturally homogenous communities, in which the L1 remains their main language for communication (Liu & Geron, 2008). Email thus serves as a primary channel for English use, capturing the linguistic environment of Korean immigrants in the US.

Research Methodology

In this paper, I analyze the language practices of three Korean immigrants in personal English emails. All subjects are bilingual and learned English as their L2. The emails analyzed spanned a period of ten years and included communication in both personal and professional contexts, such as a conversation with a realtor, communication with the teacher of the participant’s child, and business emails about organizing workplace educational workshops. The exchanges with a teacher provided an especially interesting context for sociolinguistic analysis. In the primary school setting, teachers primarily communicate with their students’ parents through email, and most school information is released through online media. Accordingly, parent-teacher relations are frequently established and conducted online (Thompson, Mazer, & Grady, 2015), accentuating the importance of email linguistic practices to the nature of the relationship. In this study, I conducted a qualitative analysis of the participants’ English emails, looking for consistent, distinctive trends in their linguistic choices that related to humility and deference. My research ultimately revealed three trends demonstrating pragmatic transfer of these values: qualification of requests, ambiguous use of verbs denoting power and authority, and excessive use of impersonal statements.

Humility and Social Deference in Email Language Practices

Qualification of requests

The requesting behavior of Korean immigrants particularly demonstrates the influence of cultural values in their English emails. Request making offers unique situations for sociolinguistic analysis, as it involves an individual imposing a cost on the addressee. Given the importance of cultural values to the degree of politeness of an interaction, pragmatic transfer is salient in the specific linguistic choices of an individual’s request (Kim, 2007; Hwang & Lee, 2014; Chang, 2009). Past studies of requesting behavior demonstrate that the Korean language contains mitigating devices3 not typically encountered in English conversation, such as the promise of reward or justification of request (Kim, 2007; Hwang & Lee, 2014; Chang, 2009; Houck, 1992). Korean speakers in their L1 and L2 also employ more internal modifications, a type of mitigating device, in requesting behavior than L1 English speakers across all situations (Kim, 2007, pp. 60). This linguistic trend is consistent with the respect-oriented cultural values encoded in Korean conversational attitudes. Qualification of requests thus served as an important area of analysis in my research. When making requests in both professional and personal conversations, my participants framed their statements with qualifying conditions, as in the expression below, that limited the scope of their request.

If you are O.K., could you send an email to the Superintendent, Mr. Cole and Assistant Superintendent, Mrs. Smith?”

Additionally, participants mitigated the imposition by seeking the addressee’s input on the necessity of the action called for in the request.

“I guess, although it is one-day workshop, we need to prepare scholarship coveringthe expense with hotel stay and flight for any applicant. How do you think? 

In the above expression, the participant further mitigated her request through the use of a subjective qualifier (“I guess…”), introducing uncertainty into the act of making the request. She avoided directly asking the addressee to complete a task by framing her request as a general statement of collective responsibility (“we need to prepare…”), a tone she complemented through the concluding question seeking the addressee’s opinion. Participants similarly relied on modal verbs “might” and “may” as a means to suggest that the addressee fulfill a specific request, rather than making a direct request.

Ambiguous use of power verbs

Participants also demonstrated pragmatic transfer in their use of verbs denoting power and authority. Age and power-based relationships are crucial components of Korean culture; Korean language conversations are thus stabilized by a clear understanding of the power dynamic between interlocutors and involve linguistic forms appropriate to the relative power balance (Oh, 2016). Commonly referenced examples of this cultural dynamic are the system of honorific markers – or deferential variants of verbs—intended to acknowledge the nature of a relationship and honor those of higher status (Kim, 2016, pp. 100). The relative lack of clarity on power dynamics in the English language can lead to ambiguous language practices, as observed in my participants’ linguistic choices.

“We let all the kids write a little note on her Birthday card while she was not here.” 

“If you find anyone who is interested in this workshop, please let him or her contact Mrs. Jane Doe, president of the organization.” 

“A few kids forgot to do their history and culture homework sheet last few weeks. It is also homework so please let your child do the homework sheet.

Expressions such as the above demonstrated my participants’ tendency to extend the use of verbs denoting power and permission beyond the conventional usages of L1 English speakers. The use of such verbs in the first two scenarios (referring to parents’ authority over their children and permission to contact an authority figure) aligns with the language practices of L1 English speakers. Yet the use of the verb “let” in the third scenario (encouraging parents to help their children with their homework) assigns the same level of authority to the parents, in a situation in which L1 English speakers would have assigned greater agency to the child. The importance of rigid hierarchy in Korean social relations may have led my participants to employ the verbal phrase consistently across all three scenarios. Similarly, the lack of clear association between specific linguistic forms and different power dynamics in the English language may have influenced my participant’s transfer of habitual language practices from their L1 Korean to their L2 English emails.

Excessive use of impersonal statements

Through their use of impersonal statements, my participants further highlighted the transfer of humility and social deference in their English emails. Korean speakers in L1 Korean conversation are more likely to use “agent avoiders”4 than native English speakers (Kim, 2016, pp. 64, 94). Linguists suggest the passive and impersonal construction of this linguistic device allows individuals to avoid direct confrontation with the addressee, in line with the deferential basis of the Korean culture. Accordingly, this underlying cultural attitude influenced my participants’ linguistic choices.

“From now on, it might be better to give potential buyer that the current price is not hard number and the seller is willing to negotiate.”

“Just in case for next buyers, it would be better to remove these items from MLS.”

The passive construction of these linguistic choice allowed the participant to avoid infringing on the authority of the addressee—a realtor— in their professional field. The use of both impersonal statements—framing an implied suggestion—and comparative adjectives—creating relative, rather than absolute observations—recalls the indirect tone of Korean “agent avoiders.” Ultimately, the impersonal structure allowed the participant to strategically make suggestions while maintaining deference to the addressee’s professional expertise.

Research Limitations

As with any case study, my small sample size leaves open the possibility that the observed trends may be a product of the specific linguistic experiences of my participants. However, the implications of the observed linguistic choices are consistent with the core characteristics attributed to the Korean culture and subject to pragmatic transfer. Furthermore, many of these trends align with linguistic behaviors noted in earlier studies (Kim, 2007; Shin, 2011; Chang, 2010). Even if the particular linguistic trends presented are influenced by my participants’ experiences, they can be seen as manifestations of the key values attributed to Korean culture and underlying Koreans’ linguistic practices.


The pragmatic transfer of cultural values in Korean immigrants’ English emails provides important insight into their (and more broadly East Asian immigrants’) position in the US. As both professional and personal relationships are managed through email communication, the Korean tendency toward humility in requests and deferential, impersonal language circumscribes immigrants’ social relations in American society. I encountered this trend over many years of editing my mom’s English emails, an experience which led me to write a guide to English email writing for L2 speakers. Yet over the course of this research, I have found that my approach to email editing has changed significantly; rather than focusing on conformity to L1 English styles, I began, almost unconsciously, to edit mainly for clarity of communication. I’ve come to realize that the consistent linguistic practices of Korean immigrants, and L2 English speakers more broadly, convey unique and deliberate attitudes that shouldn’t be edited out simply for conformity to a particular set of cultural values.

Yet this realization makes it incumbent on the next generation of Asian-Americans—fluent in the language practices of L1 English speakers and connected to Korean cultural values—to take on the role of cultural ambassadors. As they attain greater visibility and take on leadership in the classroom, community, and professional industries, Asian Americans are uniquely positioned to raise awareness of their cultural values and ensure their cultural identity is accurately represented to the public. While some may place the onus for cultural sensitivity on L1 English communities, established communities and institutions have not demonstrated the motivation or capability to understand the cultural and linguistic characteristics of the US’s diverse immigrant communities.

Instead, this generation’s efforts to foster widespread societal awareness of their East Asian mentalities can spur conversational contexts that facilitate smoother interaction and clear comprehension for immigrants in the US. And these efforts need not take place on a macro-level; by taking on greater intentionality in proofreading an immigrant parent’s email or initiating conversations on Asian cultural values, Asian Americans can empower immigrants to communicate confidently online and in-person, without editing for the underlying cultural values.


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1.) Rules of speaking such as address terms and honorifics, and politeness-marking devices such as the directness or indirectness of one’s language.

2.) A speech act in which the speaker tries to minimize the cost imposed on the addressee as a result of a request.

3.) Linguistic tools to soften or mitigate the degree of imposition of a request.

4.) Syntactic devices allowing speaker not to mention either themselves or the hearer as agents.

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