Benefits of learning Korean while living in Korea
Many English-speaking foreigners I come into contact with in South Korea speak very little to no Korean yet a lot of them have been living in the country sometimes for years. The longest I’ve known someone to live here and not know more than about 5 phrases is about 8 years. Now as a fellow English speaker, I know that there we can definitely get by with little problem if we know little Korean, however I’d be lying through my teeth if I said knowing a fair amount doesn’t make my life much easier. So, here are some benefits of learning Korean while living in Korea:
1. You can retain some of your dignity.
I can’t tell you how many people I know who resort to using hand motions and acting things out in order to say very simple things. For example if you’re at a restaurant and you want them to remove something from the dish (like onions), all you have to do is say “양파 빼 주세요” but I’ve seen fully grown adults turn into air traffic controllers trying to accomplish such a simple task.
2. Accomplishing daily tasks will be easier.
I see this over and over again on Facebook groups that I am apart of. A will need to go to a pharmacy for some simple medicine, or to a doctor over a minor illness or to get their hair cut or buy clothes/products etc. However, because they live in not Seoul, they find it very had to accomplish such simple tasks because they don’t know simple phrases like “It hurts here” or “Do you sell deodorant?” or “Please give me medicine for a cough” so they must go to the internet to find the answer through a more experienced foreigner who has been here longer. I’ve also watched people not be able to figure out how to get from point A to B simply because they couldn’t go up to a bus driver and ask “Does this bus go to X?” which again, is not a very difficult phrase.
3. You will know what your co-workers are saying about you.
You would be surprised at how freely Koreans will speak about you when they think you don’t understand them. I’m ridiculously good at playing the ignorant foreigner card around Koreans when they are talking about my height, hair, debating my nationality etc. People all over the world are more comfortable when they think they can’t be heard/understood. Everyone knows that Korea is a very face-saving society and often people will talk indirectly or covertly and contrary to what many foreigners think, they will sometimes do it in front of you, but trust me, nothing is more hilarious than the moment a Korean is saying something rude and they realize you understood them.
4. You will know what your students are saying.
Kids are kids. At some point they are bound to say something smart especially if they think the foreign teacher can’t understand. My students (who are far from bad) would sometimes do this. For a long time I would sit and pretend not to understand them, then I started replying to them in English. At first they were a little suspicious because they thought “No way she understands Korean” and then after a while they realized I did. Guess what happened? Smartassness was greatly reduced. Whenever one would think about leaning over to complain about the task just given to them they would stop and say “Nothing teacher” because they knew I would understand them. You can also get them for using 반말 in regards to speaking about you. This isn’t a huge deal to me, but my boss will go crazy if they use 반말 to speak to me so when one of them is being especially difficult I call them out on it and they shut it up. On a more positive side, it can help you to connect with kids who have much lower English levels and want to talk to you but can’t in English. Many of my students will start out speaking English, then throw in a phrase or two in Korean because their English isn’t good enough yet. However, I’ve never spoken Korean with them.
5. You can deal with Koreans being rude to you.
At some point in Korea, you are going to encounter some Korean being rude to you in some capacity. I’ve heard of people being bothered during daylight hours by Koreans on the street. One girl had a man come up to her in broad daylight and try to take her hand and some Korean man had to stop him. I also know a girl who had a taxi driver try to kiss her in the middle of the day when she was in a cab. I read a story about a male teacher who would be harassed by the same mentally challenged kid everyday on his way to work. People will have problems with someone trying to rip them off because they are not Korean etc. I was out buying winter gloves once with a Korean friend and I went up a grabbed some gloves and said “How much are these?” but could see the price on it. Wouldn’t you know this man tried to peel the sticker off in front of me (and my friend) and say they were 5,000 won more expensive? I ended up getting them for the sticker price but that tickled me pink.
6. You can hang up your “Is there an English-speaking….” belt.
I see this phrase everywhere. People expect everything in Korea to have an English-speaking version for it. I’m American, and there ain’t a Korean-speaking version of anything in most of the US. You can probably find a lot of stuff for Chinese but Korean? Nope. I can’t for the life of me understand why some many English speakers expect their to be an English version of stuff in Korea. Also, did you know that if a Korean speaks English, they can charge higher prices for the same services to foreigners than a Korean just for knowing English? Now, this isn’t all bad. I can understand wanting an English speaking doctor for more serious things, but you do not need an English speaking doctor if you have a head cold. A Korean one will suffice. This is often taken so far that people will avoid using simple conveniences because they aren’t in English. For example, the Korail phone app. Of all the teachers I know, not one has this application. It’s basically a way to buy and refund all of your Korail train tickets. You can purchase them on the phone app from anywhere and hop right on. I got it when I first came and couldn’t read it at all, but it has pictures that are self-explanatory and I use it, a lot.
7. You’ll get all kinds of praise for it.
And maybe build some relationships. Since learning some Korean and speaking it when I’m out and about, I’ve found that Koreans really enjoy hearing it. They often assume I can’t speak any, and are very plesantly surprised when they realize I can. Just like how they are so excited when you can eat Korean food well or use chopsticks well. Someone once told me that they hated when Koreans clapped and complimented their use of Korean because if felt condescending to them (and I’ve experienced the same) but I’ve also improved relationships with people in the two around me. They will greet me, try to help me out and often times give me a “service” as good faith. If you live in Korea, you know that Koreans can be very kind, but I’ve found the level of kindness is increased when they that you’ve taken an interest in learning something about them.
8. You can learn another language.
How can this be a negative thing? I’ve heard people say “Korean isn’t really that useful outside of Korea” and that’s fine and dandy, but you’ve been here for 6 years and you still think there is no point in learning some of it? Also, how can you gauge how useful something is if you’ve never attempted it? If you have the time, why not learn a language? 30 minutes of Korean a day for a few years and you would at least be on the intermediate level. What is the downside of learning another language? If you have a bit of time to do it, why not? Many of my Korean students often complain about having to learn English. I remind that learning a language is a skill that can only add benefit to your life. It can not reflect on you negatively and who knows, it might open your eyes to somethings you didn’t already know.
So that’s my list. I’d like to hear other peoples opinions on learning Korean while living in Korea. Do you think it is beneficial or not worth it? Why?