Friday, December 15, 2006

Ban Ki-moon: "Franco-phony"?

A Reuters article claims that French speakers are disappointed in the new UN head, South Korean Ban Ki-moon, who, it turns out, is much like most Korean speakers of French: functionally incompetent. From the article:

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - South Korea's Ban Ki-moon, who becomes U.N. secretary-general on January 1, let down French speakers around the world on Thursday by muffing an easy question on the language's central role at the United Nations.

"He's a franco-phony," quipped one reporter after witnessing the U.N. leader mangle his response.

France, a permanent member of the 15-nation U.N. Security Council with veto power over the selection of the new secretary-general, has always insisted that the U.N. leader be able to speak in French.

And Ban, sworn in on Thursday to succeed outgoing U.N. leader Kofi Annan of Ghana, boasts that he spent a year learning the language to please Paris.

He was then asked at a news conference by a French-speaking Canadian radio reporter to say, in French, why he thought the language should remain the United Nations' second most important language after English.

"I wasn't able to follow your question," a bewildered-looking Ban responded in English. "If you could speak lentement en francais (slowly in French)..."

The journalist repeated the question more slowly. Still, Ban failed to understand.

Finally, a U.N. official translated the question into English, and Ban responded -- in English.

Let me tell you something from my end of the spectrum, as a lowly bacterium swimming around in this giddy, teeming petri dish of a peninsula: it saddens me that French is such a neglected language here. I've met a few truly excellent French speakers-- Koreans whose French leaves mine in the dust. But alas, I can count the number of such speakers on half a hand.

French isn't known as a macho language in the States. Here in Korea, it's much the same: girls are far more likely to select French than boys are. But of the men and women I've met who claim to speak some French, very, very few actually speak the language with anything approaching even minimal competence. The most common student complaint is that French is hard to pronounce, and I would have to agree that Korean phonetics can get in a French learner's way. Unlike Spanish, French sounds are almost impossible to transliterate into Korean (unless we're talking about the French spoken by les Tessinois in Switzerland; their accent reminds me strongly of Korean attempts at French). That said, French is by no means difficult for a determined Korean to learn. Many students, I think, psych themselves out early on, and the teachers, for various reasons, don't provide much support.

At Smoo, I've met plenty of women who claim to be majoring in French-- usually French literature. From what I gather, their classes are taught almost entirely in Korean, and are little more than futile exercises in the grammar-translation method. I don't blame the students for coming out of their programs largely unable to speak French: they hear so little of it and have almost no opportunities to practice it. A good, long dose of immersion is often a great way for such students to make up for lost time (though for some Koreans, the immersion experience can be a bit traumatic). I wish more students took that route.

Now, here's the thing: if that Reuters article is to be trusted, Mr. Ban (in my mind, he's "Banky") did, in fact, study French. Alors comment en est-il sorti avec un français merdique? How did he end up with such shitty French? Did he spend most of his time in Korean-themed bars in France, hanging out with other Koreans, not learning a damn thing?

Well... if Kofi Annan was all rueful gazes, anti-US sanctimony, and wounded dignity, here's hoping that Banky will prove to be his energetic, pratfalling antithesis. I have high hopes for the comedic potential of Mr. Ban's tenure. This is The Moment of Truth, after all: the fookin' YOO-ENN! The ultimate spotlight! The consummate power trip! The one, the only, the biggest Don't Fuck It Up opportunity there will ever be for Dynamic Korea and Hi Seoul! God, the man could ruin it all by cracking tasteless jokes about Japanese and black people.* I hope there's video when it happens. God bless YouTube!

Ah, Banky, Banky, Banky... Banky's got a lot in common with Nancy Pelosi right now: the curtain's about to rise, and things are already looking grim. Heh.

*Oh, yeah-- that reminds me: I see that Oliver Stone has done us Yanks proud by cracking wise about a series of murders in Suffolk, England-- to a British audience during an awards ceremony, no less! Go, Ollie!

UPDATE: This L'Express article makes no mention of Ban's language ability. It notes that his priority will be rebuilding confidence in the UN (I love what that implies about Annan's tenure), dealing with nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and UN reform. Ban seeks to make a "dynamic and courageous" UN; he also notes that people might mistake his discretion and politeness for weakness, but he is capable of making tough decisions.

Ban slyly remarks that he's a slippery fellow, too: "...quand je le souhaite, je peux vous échapper aussi habilement qu'un agent secret"-- "when I want to, I can escape you as deftly as a secret agent." That's, uh... good to know. The Clinton comparison shows he's aiming high.


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