Characterizing ‘Broken English’ and Linguistic Judgements in the Korean Diaspora

Melanie Keller | Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München

The stigmatizing descriptor ‘broken English’ is commonly used and recognized in the English-speaking world. It serves to emphasize the “otherness” of marginalized groups and does not generally measure communicative ability or accuracy (Lindemann & Moran 2017: 663). The limited existing linguistic research tends to focus on the term’s use by native speakers in reference to nonnative speakers and their English skills. But does the purpose or intention behind ‘broken English’ change when a nonnative speaker applies the term to themself? This paper will contribute to research on ‘broken English’ from a nonnative speaker perspective by conducting a critical discourse analysis of language-biographical interviews with 7 Korean immigrants in the United States. The aim of this analysis is to dissect the meanings and functions of ‘broken English’. Each participant has been living in the US for at least 25 years, yet most of them claim to speak not just ‘bad’ English, but specifically ‘broken English’. Asians in the US being seen as perpetual foreigners, whether foreign-born or not (Jo 2018: 58), along with a pervasive standard language ideology shape the linguistic judgements and self-perceptions of these Korean immigrants. Surprisingly, ‘broken English’ is not always connotated negatively and not all self-identified ‘broken English’ speakers in these data express dissatisfaction with their language skills. As nebulous as this term’s meaning can be, this linguistic analysis will show that its use inherently functions to maintain existing and imbalanced societal power structures.


Jo, Ji-Yeon O. 2018. Homing: An Affective Topography of Ethnic Korean Return Migration. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Lindemann, Stephanie and Katherine Moran. 2017. “The role of the descriptor ‘broken English’ in ideologies about nonnative speech”. Language in Society 46(5): 649-669.