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Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter Mouton March 18, 2015

Sleepless in Seoul: Neoliberalism, English fever, and linguistic insecurity among Korean interpreters

  • Jinhyun Cho EMAIL logo
From the journal Multilingua


This article examines the socially constructed nature of significant linguistic insecurity with regard to the English language in Korean society as informed by neoliberalism. It specifically explores how linguistic insecurity leads to the pursuit of linguistic perfectionism under the popular discourse of neoliberal personhood. Participants are English-Korean translators and interpreters who spent extended periods of their youth abroad in English immersion contexts. Informants’ narratives trace their linguistic journeys from linguistic adjustment overseas to readjustment and career decisions back home. This study examines their experiences at school and work, with a particular focus on their relationships with non-returnees. The findings reveal that in contrast to the commonly-held beliefs that returnees are competent and confident speakers of English, they suffer from anxieties related to unrealistically high “native-like” expectations of their English back home. Their career choice can be traced to a strong belief in the ideals of neoliberal personhood, through which they hope to transform themselves for social recognition. This, however, remains elusive due to heightened competition over English against an ever-rising bar. The article concludes that the current state represents a “no-win” situation, in which linguistic insecurity and perfectionism continue to be reinforced in neoliberal discourses of individual accountability.


I am deeply grateful to Professor Ingrid Piller and three anonymous reviewers for their valuable feedback on earlier drafts of this manuscript.


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Published Online: 2015-3-18
Published in Print: 2015-9-1

©2015 by De Gruyter Mouton

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