I’ve been asked repeatedly how difficult it is to get around in Korea not knowing Korean. I’ve probably already said this and I’ll probably say it a million more times, but it is EXTREMELY difficult. Walking into a restaurant, not being able to say, “where can I sit”, “how much does this cost”, “what’s in this”, or really communicate in any way except the mime/pointing game makes eating out an adventure every time. Luckily, I don’t have any food allergies.
The strange thing is that although there are so many English teachers here, there seems to be a disproportionately negative amount of English speakers here. For all the children that I know for a fact are sitting in English classes late into the evenings every day of the week, I still feel like in the public sphere, it is rare to encounter ANYONE who can understand basic phrases in English. I find myself at the store looking around at random children assuming they’ve taken an English class and I seriously consider employing them as a translator…
Even more so, I sometimes feel like if more people in general were bilingual and had gone through the experience of trying to communicate with such limited vocabulary and a strange accent, maybe everyone’s communication skills would be better. Maybe this is just a bonus skill I’ve gained since becoming a teacher, but I would say I consistently make a real effort sincerely trying to understand people who don’t speak English when they try to communicate with me. Is it too much to ask for the same courtesy? Play the guessing game with me Koreans, that’s all I’m saying.
I know, that all just sounded super ethnocentric, ignorant and above all, American. WHAT?! I’m in KOREA and no one speaks any ENGLISH?! How inconvenient! It’s not that I don’t know that this is Korea and that there’s this tense, imperialistic aspect to the reason they’re even learning the English language and how it’s kind of taking over the world. This is a hard balance in reality, but I wish I could let my students know that even though English currently happens to be an economically valuable language, it definitely isn’t a better language, it’s just different. I wish I could control my classroom well enough to not have to punish them for speaking Korean, but I’m still struggling so much just learning how to be a better teacher.
Additionally, it’s not like I’m here teaching English as if it’s the best thing in the world and scorning the Korean language. I go to Korean class twice a week and I’ve got my flashcards and unlike when I learned Italian, I’m not as shy to practice using Korean with Koreans. Because it’s so obvious I’m not Korean, I’m not as anxious about looking stupid or making mistakes in front of native speakers. It’s just that learning Korean is TOUGH and it is going to be a slow road. As if I wasn’t exhausted enough after teaching, there just doesn’t seem to be enough time in the day to devote energy to studying. At this point, I’ve at least learned the equivalent of Korean phonics, the letters and their associating sounds, which means I’m no farther along than Korean toddlers. There’s just so much to learn and not enough time.
Don’t even get me started on the linguistic conundrum that is Korean grammar. What do you mean no one really uses pronouns? What in the heck is an object marking particle and how in the heck and I supposed to remember which one goes with words that end in vowels and which goes with consonants?? Why is there no phrase for good morning??! When learning Korean, mental gymnastics are necessary and flexibility is required. I have problems wanting to know every detail about why things are the way they are with grammar. I like rules and patterns and I like to know all about all of them, which is exactly why I should have spoken a Romance language as my first language.
The thing to remember through it all as I consistently make a fool of myself while completely misusing my modicum of Korean is how human and universal an experience it is to be humbled while learning a foreign language. Have mercy on me, learner of new languages.