Obama speaking Korean – a history
Note: I originally wrote this a few months ago, and it was going fine until I discovered that in President Obama’s most recent visit, he used the word “애도” – condolences – when expressing his sympathy for the victims of the Sewol disaster. That took away all my enthusiasm for this otherwise fairly light-hearted post. So, I’ll just note that he said it, he said it fine, and pass up the opportunity to link it.
You might assume that the President of the United States would have little time to devote himself to the study of East Asian languages. In the case of Barrack Obama, all evidence suggests that you would be correct in this assumption.
Despite this, on a surprising number of occasions, Obama has managed to memorize, more or less, a short Korean phrase and drop it in to a speech.
Here is a complete history of Barrack Obama speaking Korean, or at least all the examples I could find. If I’ve missed some, please let me know.
1. 2008 election campaign – “안녕하세요”
Obama showed an early affinity for the Korean language during his first presidential campaign, getting off a spontaneous and perfectly serviceable “안영하세요” during a town hall campaign stop. While lacking fluidity, one does get the sense that he has at some point learned not just the syllables, but that pitch and emphasis in Korean is relatively even; it isn’t the typical sing-song, “annyeong haseyo” of the average beginner. A pretty good first effort, particularly for being spontaneous.
Unfortunately, his next effort would be considerably less successful:
2. June 2009, welcoming Lee Myung Bak to the White House – “환영합니다”
Anyone’s early efforts at speaking a language in public are likely to be mortifying. I, for instance, will always remember my own whispered, inaudible and probably incomprehensible 감사합니다.
So perhaps President Obama can be forgiven for his hilarious botch-job on 환영합니다 – “welcome”. Still, there’s no avoiding that it is awful. Perhaps he should have chosen a simpler phrase. As it is he seems to induce some genuine hilarity from Lee Myeong Bak, a man not normally known for having a humorous and light-hearted disposition.
Watch and cringe as Obama takes a quick peek at a crib note, opens his mouth, screws the phrase up halfway through, then perseveres regardless.
3. August 2009. Redemption in Korea – “안녕하세요”.
A couple of months later, Obama redeemed himself with an excellent “안녕하세요” in Korea.
Obama seems to have a good ear for languages. Being in Korea, and no doubt having heard the phrase a number of times since his arrival, he manages to capture the rhythms and rapid slurring with which Koreans typically say the phrase very well. Possibly a native speaker of Korean would fault his accent, but to my ears it’s pretty perfect.
4. October 2011 – Back on the horse with “환영합니다”
Obama could be forgiven for feeling a sense of deja vu when in October 2011, Lee Myung Bak made a return visit to the United States, and Obama once again found himself standing before an audience with “환영합니다” written on a cue card before him.
Practice makes – well, if not perfect, at least something less embarrassing. Lee Myung Bak manages to restrain his laughter, and afterwards Obama looks undeniably pleased with himself.
5. Hankuk University, March 2012 – “감사합니다”
If there is one general criticism I would make of Obama’s Korean, it is his accent. Not his American accent – his Obama accent. His public speaking has a distinctive rhythm and intonation to it. It works great in English, but it doesn’t suit the somewhat staccato rhythm of spoken Korean.
Still, if you are going to butcher another language, a little self-deprecation up front can do wonders, as Obama seemed to have learned by the time he turned “감사합니다” into a two-word phrase during this speech at Hankuk University.
6. May 2013, Korea – “환갑”
Showing an admirable attempt to expand his Korean vocabulary, in 2013 Obama ventured away from the safety of simple greetings to use the word “환갑”, a sixtieth birthday. While he seems to have gone back to the crib sheet, the pronunciation isn’t too bad.
Definitely still a beginner, but not without promise.