Korean honorifics and politeness in second language learning

Korean honorifics and politeness in second language learning. By Lucien Brown. (Pragmatics and beyond new series 206.) Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2011. Pp. xiv, 311. ISBN 9789027256102. $149 (Hb).

Reviewed by Sofia Rüdiger, University of Bayreuth

One of the newest additions to John Benjamin’s Pragmatics and beyond new series, this monograph investigates the acquisition of honorifics and politeness by second-language (L2) learners of Korean. Using a variety of research methods, the author describes and analyzes differences between honorifics and politeness usage of native speakers and advanced learners of Korean as a second language.

The nine chapters of the book can be divided into two parts. The first part consists of the introductory chapter and three chapters providing theoretical background relevant to the study. Ch. 2 introduces the complex Korean honorifics system to the reader. After explaining the different components of the system in separation (i.e. hearer honorifics, referent honorifics, and forms of address), the author also demonstrates how these components work together to form the distinct Korean honorifics system. The description of the factors influencing native speakers’ usage of honorifics is important for the later discussion of data. This is followed by a comprehensive overview of politeness theories and honorifics in general in Ch. 3. The author adopts a frame-based approach to politeness and differentiates between ‘indexical politeness’ and ‘modulation politeness’. The chapter is concluded by a description of politeness ideologies pertaining to Korean society and culture. The last theoretical section of the book, Ch. 4, deals with honorifics and pragmatic development in a second language.

The second part of the book contains analyses of a significant amount of data obtained by the author using different data gathering methods. In Ch. 5 the author analyzes the results of a discourse completion test. Using data obtained from L2 speakers as well as native speakers of Korean allows the author to directly compare the performance of both groups regarding the different components of the Korean honorifics system. Ch. 6 is concerned with the usage of honorifics in two different role-plays (i.e. ‘the professor role-play’ with a superior status and ‘the friend role-play’ with an intimate, equal status). This dual distinction between interactions between L2 speakers and people with superior status and new acquaintances, on the one hand, and people with intimate, equal status and subordinates, on the other hand, also functions as framework for the analysis of recordings of natural interactions in Ch. 7. An analysis of honorific-sensitive incidents as reported by the L2 speakers in the introspective interviews in Ch. 8 is followed by the discussion and conclusion in Ch. 9. The use of tables and figures in the data analysis chapters is favorable, and a mix of in-depth qualitative and quantitative analysis make this study highly comprehensive and insightful.

L2 learners of Korean apply honorifics differently than native speaker norms prescribe. The author found patterns of under-generalization of honorific forms indexing ‘separation’ and non-honorific speech styles indexing ’connection’. He connects this more egalitarian use of language, besides other factors, mainly to the politeness ideologies of the L2 speakers pertaining to Western societies and cultures. As a result, this study has implications for politeness research, interlanguage pragmatics, and language pedagogy.