Language can be one of the more daunting parts of living in Asia. If you are in or around Seoul you may find some signs in English and some Korean English-speakers, not to mention a large community of English-speaking expats, but if you are outside the capital city, English usage can be quite sparse. Most teaching jobs do not require any knowledge of Korean, especially programs that favor immersion-style learning. Many expats live successfully in Korea for many years without ever learning any Korean, it IS possible, but a cursory understanding can get you far in your day-to-day life.
How You Can Learn Korean!
The good news is that Korean is probably the easiest to learn of the East Asian languages because it is phonetic (a finite number of symbols represent certain sounds). I found it to be worth the while to learn the basics of the Korean alphabet because if you can sound things out, you’ll find it easier to follow the names of people and places, and you’ll also be able to figure out some words that were adopted from English (for example the word for computer is written ??? and is sounded out com-pyoo-taw).
You may notice that many people want to be your friend suddenly. Koreans are generally very eager to learn and practice their English. Language exchange partners are a common arrangement if you do have an interest in learning a bit of the language, or if you’d just like to get to know some friendly Korean people.
About the Korean Language
There are many things that commonly get lost in translation:
1) Koreans will frequently ask how old you are when you’ve only just met. They are not trying to be rude, but in the rules of Korean grammar, the verb tense two people use when they talk to one another depends on how much older or younger they are compared to each other, so it’s considered normal to have this understanding of relative ages from the start, even if you will not be communicating in Korean.
2) Koreans of both genders may tell you outright that you are beautiful/handsome. To many westerners this is off-putting or embarrassing, but they don’t mean to make you uncomfortable, it’s just a subject that Koreans are rather forward about.
3) In connection with point 2, you may be told that you have a small face, big nose, or big eyes. These are considered attractive traits, so though it may sound strange, these are meant as compliments.
4) The Korean alphabet has little distinction between L and R, no F, V, short I sound, or Z whatsoever. This results in sentences like “Teacher, your pashion is lusty” (what the student meant was, “Teacher, your fashion is rusty,” talking about a very very old sweatshirt) or “Team, ret’s eat some pea-jah” (translation: “Tim, let’s eat some pizza”)
5) In connection with point 4, cut Koreans some slack! Their alphabet has several vowels or letter combinations that do not exist in English and I’m sure English speakers sound just as funny trying to pronounce names like Hwa Eui-Hyun.
6) Konglish refers to a mixture of English words that mean something else in a Korean context. Some of the common ones:
– “cunning” means cheating or copying
– “fighting!” is an encouraging cheer like “keep your head up!” or “let’s go!”
– “cider” refers to sprite or 7up
– “so-so” is overused and in strange ways like “I am very so-so” but basically means “ok” or “boring”
– “sick” is often used as in “my leg is sick” meaning hurt or broken
– “same-same” means “this is the same as that”
– “handphone” is a mobile or cell phone
Learning Korean Will Make Your Life Much Easier!
Having the right TESOL certificate will help you earn much respect from employers and students, yet many Koreans will appreciate the gesture if you try to grasp their language even a little bit. I found that most people were extremely patient and helpful when I was first learning, not to mention extremely impressed and amused when I managed to produce anything intelligible at all.
And when all else fails, charades and pictionary are fairly universal. When I first got to Korea the point-and-smile method was very effective for me at restaurants and in finding directions, and the marker and whiteboard was extremely useful when giving directions to my first very low-level ESL classes. The key is to stay as patient and friendly as possible, and a great many people will reciprocate.