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Review of  Korean Honorifics and Politeness in Second Language Learning

Reviewer: Jieun Ryu
Book Title: Korean Honorifics and Politeness in Second Language Learning
Book Author: Lucien Brown
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Language Acquisition
Subject Language(s): Korean
Issue Number: 22.5144

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AUTHOR: Brown, Lucien
TITLE: Korean Honorifics and Politeness in Second Language Learning
SERIES TITLE: Pragmatics & Beyond New Series 206
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2011

Jieun Ryu, Second Language Acquisition and Teaching, University of Arizona


This monograph, entitled ''Korean Honorifics and Politeness in Second Language
Learning,'' originates from the author's doctoral dissertation submitted at the
University of London. In his book, Brown investigates the use of Korean
honorifics by second-language speakers of Korean from ''Western'' backgrounds. The
author also explores how social identity in Korean society and ideology towards
politeness affect advanced speakers' development and practical application of
the honorifics system. Mixed methods were used to collect data (e.g. discourse
completion tests (DCTs), role-plays, natural interactions, and interviews). The
book is comprised of nine chapters, along with notes on transcriptions, and

The book begins with an introduction, followed by chapters that include research
questions, a justification and overview of methodology, and a thorough
description of the Korean honorifics system. The first two chapters present the
document's theoretical background and establish a methodological framework. The
following four chapters then provide data analysis of each method of study. The
author concludes the book with not only an elaboration of future research
directions, but also with recommended teaching implications. Appendices include
study DCTs, raw DCT scores, prompts for role-plays, as well as recordings of
natural interactions, interview questions, and a summary of each participant's
honorific usage.

Chapter 1, ''Introduction,'' offers an overview of the study. First, the author
provides the objectives and research questions of the study, which focuses on
competence in the Korean honorifics system of advanced speakers of Korean as a
Second Language (KSL) and the effect of ideologies and identity on honorifics
development. Gaps in previous research approaches to Korean honorifics
development and interlanguage pragmatics are discussed. Then, participant and
data collection information are provided. The author also briefly describes
common terminology that frequently appears in honorifics books.

In Chapter 2, ''The Korean honorifics system,'' a brief survey of the honorifics
system is presented. Three categories of honorifics - referent, hearer, and
bystander - are explored with cross-linguistic examples. Referent honorifics
index “the relationship between the speaker and the grammatical referents in the
sentence or between different grammatical referents” (p. 30). Hearer honorifics
“index the relationship between the speaker and the addressee or immediate
audience” (p. 23) and are expressed as a speech style in Korean. Bystander
honorifics “index the presence of specific onlookers at the scene of a speech
event” (p. 20). The chapter provides a thorough description of hearer
honorifics, referent honorifics, and address forms of Korean honorifics in
isolation. Next, co-occurrence of different honorifics, and factors influencing
honorifics use, are discussed. Honorifics-use factors include power and distance
between interlocutors, formality of context, and strategic uses such as
softening assertions, sarcasm, jokes, anger, and insults. The author concludes
the chapter by briefly comparing differences between the use of honorifics in
Japanese and Korean.

In Chapter 3, ''Honorifics and politeness,'' the author reviews how the honorifics
system is positioned in previous politeness research by examining four
approaches. Brown and Levinson’s (1987) first approach views politeness as a
universal strategic process and approaches honorifics as a face threatening act
(FTA) mitigator. The second approach is specific to Korean and Japanese; the
honorifics system of these languages is driven by “deference” (which is
obligatory according to Hwang (1990) and Ide (1989)), rather than “politeness”
(which depends on the speakers’ strategic choice). Another approach is the
“relational work” model proposed by Watts (1989), who describes the linguistic
behavior division between “polite,” which is positively marked behavior that
attracts the hearer’s attention, and “politic,” which is conventionalized
unmarked behavior. Lastly, a normative/strategic model is proposed by Korean
linguists Lee (2001) and Yoo (1996), who state that normative uses of honorifics
meet social expectations, while strategic uses pursue specific purposes. This
final approach favors the strategic process proposed by Brown and Levinson
(1987). It is revealed that mainstream views on ''politeness'' and ''honorifics''
are not adequate enough to explain Korean honorifics usage. To resolve this
discrepancy, the author proposes the ''frame-based'' (Terkourafi, 2005) politeness
model as the optimal solution. “Frames” are normative expectations of
appropriate behavior, and the frame-based view includes regularity in its
criteria for judging politeness. Therefore, a frame-based approach judges
politeness of linguistic behavior when it occurs regularly in a given context
and is unmarked. The author follows with a discussion on the importance of
ideology and a reconceptualized notion of ''face as interactional and relational''
in interlanguage pragmatic studies. Finally, the chapter introduces ideologies
affecting Korean honorifics usage that are different from those of ''Western''

Chapter 4, ''Honorifics and L2 pragmatic development,'' provides the framework for
analyzing interlanguage pragmatic development in Korean honorifics. First, the
author briefly provides a definition of ''pragmalinguistic knowledge'' as
“knowledge of the actual linguistic resources needed for conveying communicative
acts or interpersonal meanings (p. 86).” Then, L2 sociopragmatic knowledge
development and identity in development are discussed as ''re-framing,'' that is,
“re-analyzing and enriching existing frames” (p. 89) by L2 speakers, and
''re-facing,'' that is, construction of new public self-image by L2 speakers,
followed by factors affecting re-framing (e.g. native language and cultures,
over/under-generalization, and classroom instruction), and, finally, re-facing
(e.g. attitudes of the Korean community and L2 speakers).

In Chapter 5, ''Data analysis: Discourse Completion Test,'' DCTs that were
completed by 20 advanced speakers of KSL and 40 native Korean (L1) speakers are
analyzed by individual honorifics types. The results revealed that: 1) L2
speakers use honorifics with less variation than L1 speakers; 2) honorifics
usage is less affected by power factors, and L2 speakers use honorifics in a
more egalitarian way than L1 speakers; and 3) professional and non-heritage
speakers use more honorifics than exchange students and heritage speakers,
except in the case of the subject honorific. With the exception of heritage
speakers, the subject honorific is seldom used.

The results in Chapter 6, entitled ''Data analysis: Role-plays,'' reveal a lack of
referent honorifics competence by L2 speakers. Moreover, egalitarian usage of
honorifics, that is, avoidance of using too-high or too-low honorifics, and the
application of modulation politeness strategy (i.e. the honorific style upgrade
to show more respect) are found, showing that the politeness ideology of L2
speakers' own culture plays a role when they use Korean honorifics.

In Chapter 7, ''Data analysis: Natural interactions,'' the analysis of transcribed
data shows that the same trends found from DCTs and role-play exist in
real-world interactions. The author discusses L2 speakers' honorifics usage
patterns in relation to the participants' politeness ideology derived from their
native cultural background. In addition, the effect of identity perceived by
Korean community members, and by L2 speakers themselves on honorifics usage, is
discussed. The identity effect was counted as a possible explanation of
incidences in which exchange students used non-honorifics when honorific usage
was required or desirable.

Chapter 8, ''Data analysis: Honorific sensitive incidents,'' analyzes
retrospective interviews of participants. The chapter discusses the factors
influencing the use of honorifics found in the interviews, including a lack of
pragmalinguistic knowledge, perception of L1 Koreans towards L2 speakers, and L2
speakers' negotiation of their own identity as being between Korean and that of
a foreigner.

Chapter 9, ''Discussion and conclusion,'' summarizes and discusses the main
findings in terms of Korean honorifics competence by each honorifics system and
the effects of identities and ideologies on honorifics usage. Next, the author
provides recommendations for future research on politeness and interlanguage
pragmatics. He also gives recommendations for more effective means of teaching
based on his findings. Lastly, directions for further Korean honorifics research
are suggested.


This well-implemented study provides researchers of Korean honorifics use
valuable insights into how advanced KSL speakers use honorifics. Given the lack
of research in the area of Korean honorifics from a social semiotic perspective
(Halliday, 1978), this study is a great example of how advanced KSL speakers'
honorifics usage can be explained from this perspective. Using both quantitative
and qualitative data, this book succeeds in describing how honorifics usage is
implemented through negotiation of politeness between the socially constructed
identities of L2 speakers. A target audience of this monograph includes
individuals involved in research on interlanguage pragmatic development and
politeness, as well as KSL teachers of advanced Korean students.

Another merit of this study is its analysis of interactions occurring in a
natural setting, which is an area that lacks adequate research in the field.
Most research on Korean honorifics is conducted in a classroom setting. DCTs are
perceived as reflecting naturally occurring interaction; however, one can't deny
that they contain artificial aspects when compared to natural interaction. By
analyzing the natural conversation of L2 speakers, the study allows researchers
to see the actual language practiced by L2 speakers rather than their
performance in the classroom.

Furthermore, explicit discussion of pedagogical implications -- another merit of
this study -- will attract KSL researchers who are also teachers. However, I
think that the lack of explicit examples might make it difficult for the average
KSL teacher to apply the suggested recommendations in his/her class.

Participant classification of having a “Western” background is striking in
Chapter 1. The author identified this group in what may be viewed as an
artificial manner. Participants were identified as being from a ''Western''
background in terms of perception toward social interaction even though their
ethnicity and nationality varied significantly. Half of the participants were
classified as “heritage” language learners, while the other half was comprised
of people from Japan, the USA, Canada, Ukraine, Austria, and New Zealand. The
author justified his choice of the “Western” background category for all
participants by saying “the results of the project show that the socialization
that all of these speakers had undergone in Western society had shaped (or at
least had played a major role in shaping) the assumptions they held regarding
human interaction” (p. 9). The author also concluded that appropriate honorifics
use failure by Japanese ethnicity participants was derived from a “Western” view
of honorifics. However, it seems that his argument neglects the influence of
social norms or “frames” of the participants’ native language. For example,
heritage learners’ perceptions toward politeness might be heavily influenced by
Korean culture and language rather than English while they interact with native
Koreans. In addition, the Japanese participants might have failed in Korean
honorifics usage, not because of a “Western” perception, but rather because of
Japanese-specific perceptions toward politeness. Instead of grouping
participants as having a “Western” background, a more detailed discussion of the
cultural backgrounds affecting the participants’ politeness ideology, and their
use of Korean honorifics, would have possibly gained more attention from
researchers and instructors with students of non-western backgrounds.

Furthermore, it is difficult to agree with the author’s argument on in-class
teacher-student interaction without more evidence from interviews. In Chapter 8,
Brown presented the analysis of interviews with participants, and concluded that
pragmalinguistic skill deficit affects honorifics usage of KSL speakers. He
pointed out that one reason for a lack of pragmalinguistic skill is due to
in-class teacher-student interaction. Teachers don’t provide explicit feedback
-- or any feedback -- for unsuccessful referent honorific use by advanced KSL
speakers (p. 224). However, there is no interview data provided to support the
connection between the lack of explicit feedback and referent honorific usage.
There are other possible factors leading to low pragmalinguistic skill in
in-class interactions. The lack of explicit feedback from the teacher can be one
factor, as the author suggested. Also, it is possible that KSL learners are not
sensitive enough to native Korean speakers’ feedback, as the author mentioned
later in the same chapter. More likely, it is also possible that multiple
factors are interacting together. Finally, one shouldn’t neglect that there
might be a chance that feedback and pragmalinguistic skill are not related to
each other at all. Regarding the above possibilities that can result in
different conclusions from the author’s argument, Brown’s claim on the
relationship between the lack of explicit feedback from teaching and students’
low pragmalinguistics skills can’t be persuasive without more evidence. This
issue of the relation between these two factors can be a research question in
future work. It would be very interesting to find out this relationship, which
would result in a valuable contribution to the field.

In sum, this monograph provides an absolutely valuable contribution to research
on Korean honorifics and interlanguage pragmatics.


Brown, P. & Levinson, S. (1987). Politeness: Some universals in language usage.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Halliday, M. A. K. (1978). Language as social semiotic: The social
interpretation of language and meaning. Maryland: University Park Press.

Hwang, J. (1990). ‘Deference’ versus ‘politeness’ in Korean speech.
International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 82, 41-55.

Ide, S. (1989). Formal forms and discernment. Multilingua, 8(2), 223-248.

Lee, J. (2001). Kwuke kyengepep saypng-uy cenlyakcek thukseng (The
characteristics of the strategic use of Korean honorifics). Ehakyenkwu (Language
Research), 35(1), 91-122.

Terkourafi, M. (2005). Beyond the micro-level in politeness research. Journal of
Politeness Research, 1, 237-262.

Watts, R. (1989). Relevance and relational work: Linguistic politeness as
politic behavior. Multilingua, 8(2), 131-166.

Yoo, S. (1996). Kwnke chengca taywo emi-uy kyochey sayong(switching)-kwa chengca
taywupep cheykyey –him(power)-kwa yutay(solidarity)-uy cengtoseng-ey uyhan
tamhwa pwunsekcek cepkun (Korean hearer honorifics and hearer honorifics
switching – discourse approach based on degrees of power and solidarity).
Unpublished PhD dissertation, Korea University.

Jieun Ryu is a Ph.D. student in the Second Language Acquisition and Teaching (SLAT) program at the University of Arizona (UA). She currently works as a tutor for foreign language and heritage learners of Korean at the UA Critical Language Program. Her research interests include second language acquisition and pedagogy, Korean as a second/foreign language, pragmatics, and discourse analysis.