Thursday, January 24, 2013

Can You Get by in Korea Without Speaking Korean?

There are some questions that the Korean receives that he is fundamentally unequipped to answer. This is one of them -- can one get by in Korea without speaking Korean? The Korean is unable to answer this question for a simple reason: there has never been a point in his life where he was unable to speak Korean in Korea. Any attempt by the Korean to answer this question would only be a guesswork.
Fortunately, there are others on the Internet who are able to provide thoughtful answers to this question. So here is a good one from the always-entertaining Eat Your Kimchi:
The point is, we think the whole reason why someone should learn the language in a country is for communication.  . . .  In our case, we have basic communication down. We can order anything we need at restaurants, ask for everything we need at supermarkets and shops, tell taxis where to go, ask for directions, all that. But we can’t have deeeeep discussions. We can’t talk politics or religion. We can’t tell you what Spudgy did to that teddy bear in the park (you don’t want to know what he did to that teddy bear in the park). We’re not fluent or 100% conversational, but we’re perfectly functional to the point that our local shops think that we ARE fluent speakers. It also helps that we can understand Korean, so even though our responses are basic, we’re still communicating.
So, the question we often face is why don’t we learn MORE Korean. We live in Korea, we plan on living here more, so why not become super fluent? Well, there are a few factors for us to consider. From a very honest personal standpoint, we don’t need to.  . . .  we’re already married and we don’t go out that much, because we spend so much time editing and filming. We’re with each other all the time, talking to each other all the time. More importantly, our Korean friends speak English as well, and want us to speak English with them all the time, because this is their chance to practice it when they otherwise don’t have many opportunities to do so. So from our personal perspective, learning Korean won’t really do that much for us.
Not Speaking Korean in Korea [Eat Your Kimchi]

Admittedly, the Korean's perspective is somewhat different. As the readers know, I immigrated to U.S. and learned English at a relatively late age, and learned English to the level of having above-average language skills, even compared to native speakers. (Sorry to boast, but it was necessary for the context.) 

There is, of course, difference in purposes held the Korean on one hand, and held by Simon and Martina on the other, and the difference probably drives the different life choices we made under similar circumstances. The Korean had a clear goal in making a life in the United States like any other American. I cannot know what the future plan of Simon and Martina are, but I would imagine it would differ a bit from the one I had for myself when I moved to the U.S. In other words, one could say that the bar for "adequate" level of foreign language was simply higher for the Korean.

But, in my opinion, the bigger difference between our approaches is the purposes of our language learning. EYK thinks communication is the point of language learning -- a position from which it follows that the adequate level of language learning is at the point where one can make adequate level of communication. This is a perfectly valid position, and makes a great deal of sense.

Yet the Korean has a different purpose for language learning. For me, the purpose of language learning is not communication; it is for understanding the world around me. For me, it is not enough that I have enough language skills to order food at restaurants, make small talks or do my job. I need to have enough language skills to understand the major events and issues of the society to which I belong, and understand how those events might affect me. I need to have enough language skills to speak with people who are more knowledgeable than I am in a given issue, and read what those people wrote about such an issue. Simply put, I need enough language skills to know what is going on around me.

EYK did allude to this "language bubble," as they termed the state of being unable to understand most of what is going on around them. But the Korean simply does not feel the "calm and peace" that EYK feels in the language bubble. This is likely because of fundamental difference in temperament -- after all, whenever I enter any physical space (be it someone's room, a subway car, a busy street, etc.,) the first thing I always do is to read every single printed word there is to read. This does not mean that the Korean gets annoyed or frustrated when he travels abroad to a country whose language he does not speak. But it does mean that, if I don't understand the language around me, my surroundings lose a little bit of reality for me, as if they are images from a television or artificial structures in a theme park. The Korean can tolerate that for a week or two, but not for a month or a year. 

Lest there is any misunderstanding -- this post is not to suggest this or that about Simon and Martina. The Korean already made it clear that the difference in our perspectives is likely due to our life circumstances and our temperaments. It is, simply, something to consider.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. The language being acquired also matters. English has such a strong gravitational pull that I think those who don't speak it as their first language (like The Korean) seem more determined to learn it. By contrast, unilingual English speakers know that they can "get by" without being fully literate in another language. Simon and Martina even mentioned that their Korean friends want to speak in English and they themselves came to Korea as English teachers. Everything is sorta rigged in a way that English speakers in particular tend not to be fluent in another language.

  2. After-hours on business trip, it was good fun being in Seoul not knowing a word of Korean except "gamsa hamedah" and "Cass".
    My colleagues and I would wonder around the Gangnam gu before settling under a blue tarp in a food stall owned by a woman who may have been the waitress of Noah's arc who would serve up her best food and a huge bottle of Cass for about $15. What more could you want?
    I got around the Seoul Metro by pointing to my destination on a tourist map and paying the amount indicated by the station attendant. You will need your train ticket to exit your destination (jumping over a turnstile is not a good look). Otherwise there are fewer places easier to get around in while knowing zero language than Seoul.
    The trains come equipped with electronic maps that show you where you are and where you are going. The train stations are equipped with maps and numbered exits.
    In Melbourne, we are grateful that our trains don't run on steam.
    A colleague of mine somehow got lost. A Korean fellow rang an English speaking friend on a mobile phone and between the two of them straightened my colleague out.
    I was looking for a office supply store at the COEX mall but could not orient myself as there are was no "You are here" arrow on the map. A Korean speaking immaculate English (perhaps TK on a visit?) pointed me the right way.
    Bottom line: as a tourist who is not of Asian appearance at least, you are probably better off not.

  3. A couple of thoughts. First, I suspect that EYK is probably downplaying the amount of Korean that they speak. For them to have been in Korea for as long as they have in the business that they're in, I imagine that they've probably picked up more than they give themselves credit for. At very least, they probably have an advanced vocabulary in terms of music, the entertainment industry and the business language around it.

    I also agree with what the Korean says regarding life circumstances. When one gets to a certain point in learning a language, it becomes much more important for the speaker to understand the historical and cultural nuances that drive the language. Assuming they even have sufficient prerequisite knowledge to talk on complex subjects, it requires a significant effort to sit down and study not just the specific subject matter but possibly the more fundamental subjects (basic math or historical terms and concepts) that underlie it as well. For subjects on the more liberal arts side, they may even have to "unlearn" some of their own Canadian ideas and relearn it from a Korean context to understand what's going on. I'm not saying it can't be done, but I want to highlight just what an effort it is.

    So tying back to life circumstances, the Korean had the advantage of coming to the United States at an age where he could dedicate the full time of his life to study. He was in an environment where he had access to the resources to deeply study these various subjects (ie. he was in school). In EYK's case, they are married, working professionals who are working full time to survive. While they certainly could engage in studies during their few free moments, I imagine that they can't bring the same vigor and focus to study these more complex topics, assuming they had the interest in learning how to describe the horrors that their dog inflicted on that bear in the park or argue with an ajusshi about the merits and flaws of Madame Park.

  4. Can you get by in Korea without speaking Korean? Yes, so long as you stick around Seoul. Busan gets to be a bit harder, as does Jeju-do, Daegu, Daejeon... There's English around, but you'll have to make more of an effort to find it. As for smaller cities, forget it - reading the hangeul is not only necessary, but speaking at least basic Korean is required.

    The question becomes this: what do you want to do in Korea? The language level you'll feel comfortable with will vary according to that answer. Simply getting around requires little, chatting / flirting requires some more, and conversing requires even more.

    I'd be remiss not to mention a recent post about things you'll appreciate more when you learn Korean: That, and my most recent book about basic Korean -

  5. With an income, you can “get by” anywhere without the local language, if getting by means staying alive. After survival level, it comes down fulfilling your social needs, fulfilling your intellectual needs (if you have any), vocational pressure, intrinsic interest in language learning, future plans and the encouragement of peers and natives.

    That mix is obviously going to vary for individuals, and their purpose for being in the ROK. Apart perhaps from being able to read basic Hangeul, for a tourist learning Korean doesn’t make much sense. Where else can you use it? If you are married to a Korean, then it does make sense, but not many men with Korean wives cut it (maybe a power relationship factor there). An academic researching, say, East Asian history obviously has a special motivation for learning to read Korean. For a non-Korean on a work visa (say, an English teacher), the choices become a bit ambiguous. It’s not like immigrating. You are there at the whim of some government department and an employer who can turf you out any time, and perhaps you have a limited stay plan anyway. Effective language learning is very a big time investment after all. This means that some foreigners in Korea do make the effort to learn more than basic Korean. It is a tiny minority who have significant success. That is partly their fault and it is partly the nature of Korean society.

    In some cultures, even in casual encounters, ordinary people coax you into using and sharing their mother tongue, however imperfectly. In those places, not surprisingly, the exchange flows both ways and people are more relaxed about learning each other’s language. Perhaps some foreigners in Korea have been lucky in this way with the locals they have met. Many others have not. Sometimes the Korean style seems analogous to a man throwing money at a prostitute and demanding “give me love!”. Learning and loving just don’t work well that way. Both really need mutual patience and a genuine two way exchange. As a twist on this, it is not uncommon for some Korean educational employers to actively discourage the learning or use of Korean by their foreign teachers. Hopefully the slow internationalization of the ROK will change the balance in this equation over time.

  6. Functionality is only one reason to study a language. To me, it is a way of showing respect for the people I am visiting. My attempts at speaking Icelandic, for example, comical though they were, produced pleased surprise more often than not.

  7. I wished Koreans treated their language like many French and Germans (at least supposedly) treat theirs.

  8. Beyond a broader understanding of what's going on around you or merely being able to "get by," I think that learning a language can give you a much deeper understanding of a country's culture.

    In the same way that so much of Korean cuisine reflects the country's recent poverty (and even more recent riches), I think that a country's language can tell you a lot about a people's psyche. The way things are phrased, proverbs and idiomatic expressions and the way that people speak to others all illuminate aspects of a culture in ways better than any book on the topic can.

    So can you get by in a country without learning a language? Certainly, especially if you speak English. But why would you turn yourself into a functional infant, barely able to communicate with those around you? You (a generic you, not anyone specifically) are ostensibly going to broaden your worldview and learn about other people. So why deny yourself one of the best ways to really learn?

  9. Just to play devil's advocate, but not without some bitter earnestness, language is for testing and networking. I've taken my fair share of tests - DLAB, DLPT, and all the other college entrance and DoD-related exams. One can't get a job or go to school without being able to manipulate words and the concepts articulated through them. Communication implies that its the information that counts. It's the relationships that matter. Language marks the boundaries of communities - are you in or out? No, I think the internet with its balkanized clans has put paid to that fantasy!

  10. In part, this comes down to what you plan to do in Korea.
    To travel? Yeah, you can get by.
    To work in a very very specific subset of jobs available in Korea (the subset which most english expat Korea bloggers happen to have -- English teacher, some types of editor, and English teacher, or various positions associated with and paid by the US military), you might be able to bluff through.
    To work any other kind of job... you need to start learning Korean. And any job where you're working with Koreans (all of them, unless you live on an army base), you'll do better and be better received, if you start learning how to express yourself.

    If Simon and Martina, or any of the other commenters here, were trying to make their way in a desk job with a big Korean company, they'd be working on their Korean, and the westerners I know whose Korean is the best, are the ones who have worked daily, side-by-side with Koreans.

    The other thing that working to learn the language does, as Unknown mentioned above, is show a sign of respect to the host culture where one's living, and demonstrate a longer-term commitment to the place... which plays very well with the locals, even when your Korean is loaded with errors. YOu don't really get the "Lern English. This is Murica" in Korea -- you get free stuff, or at least big smiles, and the chance your sweetheart's father will approve of you skyrockets.

  11. As an English teacher, you can get by just fine in Korea with about a 50 word vocabulary learned from a travel book.

    But taking a few weekend language classes can greatly improve your general experience here. It's also great for dating, impressing your significant other's family, and finding tutoring work. TOPIK scores are also necessary for non-spousal residency visas (which increase your employment options). Being a Korean language student will also help you empathize with your own students and improve your teaching methods.

  12. I am in the process of learning basic Korean in anticipation of a visit next Spring. Right now I think I could get along just fine with what I've learned. The problem is that I will be traveling with a native speaker and very likely interacting with her family. Even though I have another year in which to study (in my spare time of course) I know that I will never have a very detailed conversation with anyone in Korean. I most certainly have developed an even greater respect for people who are bi-lingual. My Korean and Spanish speaking friends seem to toggle back and forth with such ease, it's impressive. My Korean friend does admit to not having a "mastery" of the English language but she fakes it quite well. I suspect that hers is a case of good old Asian style modesty since she has lived and worked in the US for more than 20 years. She laughs at my jokes and that means she understands. I have other friends who's first language is different and there is a language barrier for both of us. However, it isn't a complete barrier to friendship I've found. People have much more similarities than we do differences regardless of culture. If you start by discovering the similarities it makes learning the differences less frightening.

  13. I live and work in Korea as an English teacher, and when people ask me if one needs to be able to speak Korean to get by in Korea, I say, "You don't have to be able to speak Korean, but I guess you don't have to walk around with your eyes open either."

    If you can speak Korean well enough to have an everyday conversation, your life will of course be much easier in Korea: even as a native English teacher who is basically not expected to learn Korean and who is under virtually no pressure whatsoever to do so.

    For example, I experienced one occasion at the school where I work when most of the students had gone on a field trip to a local museum. I was at the school, however, and one of the teachers in the main office told another subordinate teacher to take me over to the museum where the students were on their field trip. This particular teacher who was told to take me to the museum speaks virtually no English, and so as we were walking around in the museum, we were conversing in Korean, as there was no other way for us to communicate. Through the course of the conversation, I eventually found out that although this teacher had been told to and was 'willing' to show me around as much as I liked, this teacher also had some work that she wanted to finish as well as a lunch appointment with another colleague. I apologized and was able to tell her that it was more than fine if we left right away, since I hadn't known any of that and honestly hadn't been very interested in going to the museum anyway.

    Now, if I hadn't been able to communicate with her in Korean, I wouldn't have been able to find out the real situation, and the whole episode may have led to that teacher developing resentment toward me (these are people whom I have to see everyday that I come to work; I try not to piss them off).

    My basic point of view is that if you're going to live in a country for an extended period, it's pretty foolish to expect to be able to do so without having an ability to function inside of the local language, even if you're an English speaker. Truly, English is the de-facto international language of science and commerce, and so English speakers are not under the same kind of economic pressure to learn another language as most other people around the world (and English speakers therefore become out-of-touch with the reality experienced by most people worldwide). However, if I had to muddle through life in Korea as a 'functional infant' (as an earlier comment said) or had to bug an English speaking friend every time I needed to talk to someone at the bank or talk to my landlord or something, it would be more or less impossible for me to maintain a healthy level of self esteem while I live in Korea, and therefore psychologically impossible for me to live in Korea (even if I could 'get by' in every other way).

  14. Hi, I'm passing along this site to anyone who lives / works / is apart of the Korean expat community. A fellow English teacher was severely injured while volunteering at an orphanage in India on holiday. She was hit my a motorcycle and complications have led to brain surgery (2 nights ago). I don't know her personally but I am asking that people help by reposting her fundraiser on their blogs. Please pass this along as I know if it was us in her shoes we would hope for the same. Thank you so much!!

  15. Should you not learn Korean, just because you can get by? A big *NO*
    -> Language is not just for communication. It's a form of intimacy. It's a form of respect. It's a form of taking your understanding to the maximum.

    If Koreans go out of their way to learn YOUR language and speak in YOUR mother tongue (English), then to build proper relationships with them is to do the same in return. I can't believe the unskilled English-speaking foreigners who spend so much time in Korea and still refuse to learn the language. Clearly free-loaders. That's fine. Free-loading is awesome. But if you really want to be intimate with Koreans and take it to the next level, you gotta get with their inner tongue.

    People's native tongue is like a soft spot. When you can speak in their language well, it touches them on the inside. Even when the grammar is terrible... It's like, cute.

    Koreans will respect you a lot more when you respect them by taking time to learn the language.

    Get by without Korean? A big *YES*
    -> Language just isn't important for living here. Tons of my American friends don't know crap. We don't live in Seoul either. Usually you're employed by someone who speaks English and figures stuff out for you. If you need to buy something, take a taxi somewhere, you don't need words. You just hand them cash, point in directions. You could be a mute, and still live in Korea fine.

    Imagine someone in America, who doesn't speak English very well. You'd probably disrespect him too. But why? Why would you think less of someone who speaks just "functional" English? Because, they don't speak Proficient. You immediately respect someone who carries the title of "Doctor," just as you immediately respect someone who speaks your language well.

    If all someone wants in Korea is money, sure. Don't even learn to say hi. There are plenty of English speaking friends you can make, so Korean is not needed. But if someone wants to understand Korea and understand Koreans, and be an accomplished, fulfilling person in Korea, the language is, all the way to the maximum of proficiency in formality and informality, absolutely essential.

  16. My opinion about the topic is...

    It depends on your purpose.
    Technically it is possible to enter Korea without knowing a "k" of Korean language and it is possible to even live here without any of the Korean language knowledge. But you will see it for yourself how frustrating it can be to constantly feel "like an alien" and you simply come to the point when you FEEL the NEED to learn Korean, in an essencial way, just like the need for food, sleep and bathroom.

    Although there are parts of the city whith many international citizens as well as the well trained English speaking Korean service, don't you want some more freedom? Learning Korean makes you indipendent, free to go wherever you want and to live a life without uncomfortable and shy boundaries. It gives you self-confidence and the chance to trully enjoy Korea. And you receive a lot of compliments too for "oh, how well you speak Korean!!!". ^_- Well, it opens many doors.

    Anyway, if the purpose of your stay is a short touristic visit, Korean language is helpful, but not neccessary, I'd dare saying. But if you wanna stay here long term, then isn't it the elementary proper etiquette to learn the language?

    And btw, learning Korean is not even as hard as some people say, it took me less than a year to start using it normally, at an everyday base. So no need to be afraid or lazy. The only obstacle might be of a financial nature, because language courses are expensive.

  17. I suspect most people who say they can speak Korean are at a similar level to the eatyourkimchi bloggers in that they can function in everyday interactions and simple conversations on a limited range of topics. To get to the level TK is talking about, where you are absorbing all the information around you from posters and notices, newspapers, and news and film on TV, not to mention be able to have deep conversations with friends, requires dedicated effort and learning reams and reams of vocabulary.

    OTOH, I'm sure there are some people out there who genuinely are at that high level and to them I can only say I respect you...and I hate you ;).

    1. I wish I could answer you that in Korean, but since you'd hate me, I thought I better wouldn't. ^_-

      I don't think most of people who say so are low levels. At least not when it comes to international students. I might have said you could live here without any knowledge of the language, but I've forgot to mention that the situation is different when you're studying here. Because even though my school (HUFS, 외대) is famous for its "internationallity" and has a reputation as such, I can't immagine how it would be possible to study here without a high level of Korean language. The official guides in English contain information that is scarce compared to the complete original Korean guides, besides that, the most important things about the school system are in Korean language, the majority of classes is conducted in Korean too and not to mention that right at the very start, Korean profficency test of level 4 or higher is a required document when applying to any university here.

      Completed level 4, that is still a long way from perfection, but a lot higher than merely "survival Korean". I'm telling you this out of experience, not only mine, but of my colleagues too. And as a university student majoring in linguistics! ^_^

      And yes, I do absorb the posters around me, advertisement and TV, and I know enough to laugh at shows such a Gag Concert. I'm reading textbooks and novels as well as plenty of comicbooks in Korean everyday and I've started writing some simple poetry and I do a lot of translating. And I'm not talking about "litteraly translating".

      Sometimes it comes more natural to me to think in Korean too. Although, I personally think in all of the languages I speak (Croatian, Italian, English, Korean), randomly. Depends which comes first. But whichever language comes, it really does come natural.

      Feel free to respect me and hate me as much as you want, sugar. ^_-

  18. This comment has been removed by the author.

  19. I can't hate anyone who calls me sugar.

    But probably standards of Korean among 외국인 are improving with all the exchange students, the increasing prestige of the language - and the higher calibre of people going there to teach ESL these days.

  20. Different people want to learn languages for different reasons. I really like the way Korean language sounds, but I don't want to learn it unless I find a very good teacher. It is very hard to find a good Korean teacher because I am a language teacher myself and I know how to teach a foreign language and how NOT TO teach a foreign language. So far I was not able to find a good Korean teacher. Maybe they just do not exist. So in the meantime I am learning it my favorite way - by watching dramas. I can spend all night watching my favorite drama.

    The reason why Simon and Martina do not speak Korean well is because they did not have good teachers. I don't blame them - they are probably not that great at teaching English either.

    I watched their videos, about ten of them or more. At first I found them interesting, but then their videos became boring and predictable. Plus, let's face it - Simon is not exactly Lee Min Ho. He is not even close to that. And Martina does not look like a girl from my favorite drama either.

    Speaking of Lee Min Ho - I wonder why his English is so bad. Again, he probably never had a good English teacher. Hey, I can volunteer - he will speak in no time. Or maybe I won't be able to teach him because he is just so darn adorable.

    Anyway, so far I have watched over 50 dramas (that's equals to 1,000 hours of Korean). I can understand about 50% of what they say, I just don't understand many technical terms and when they speak very fast. But who cares. I am still in love with Korean language and I hope it stays that way. (I don't really like English that much).

    I have an idea - to make a special drama for people who want to learn Korean. It should be written in very easy language, with repetitive high frequency vocabulary structures and have both English and Korean subtitles. And Lee Min Ho should be in the main lead role. ❤❤❤

    1. I would like if we had a subtitle option that would put the sentences in korean sentence order instead of english order. that would help me as Im watching to study. Also if you're a teacher yourself then check out and do self study in korean.

  21. 아이구... 이 경우는 복잡해요. 외국사람들이 보통 일년도안 한국에서 살았는데요.. 왜 한국말을 배워야됍니까? 좋은 칠문이에요.
    쩟번제는 쓰기 연습은 빌료없다고 생각 해요. 저는 그냥 말해요. 발음와 스펠링, 문법 잘 못 해서도 괜찮아요. 한국의 생활에서는 중요한것은 안이에요.
    한국에서는 한국말료 자연스럽게 말하고 싶으면 얼려워요. 왜냐하면 한국 사람들이 자주 외국사람이랑 한국말로 말해요. 편의점, 길에서도 한국말로 말할떼 영어로 대답해요. 그래서 한국어 연습하는걸 외국사람한테 힘들어요.
    시골와 큰 도시 (서울처럼) 살으면 경험은 달아요.
    심각한 관심은 있으면 러시아나 프란스 사람 할 적 하세요...

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  22. 저는 2년반 동안 한국에서 살고 있습니다. 산실은 여기에서 오래 동안 살고 싶고 한국말 엄청 배우고 싶습니다. 진짜요..... 근데 저는 백인처럼 보였으니까 보통 한국인은 100%로 한국말 하는 기회를 못 드립니다. 어떤 나라의 문화를 배우고 싶으면 그나라의 사람들은 당신에게 보통 대해해 줘야 합니다. 근데 모든 한국인은 영어를 좀 알고 미국 문화도 좀 알아서 한국어를 배우기가 너무 어렵다. 항상 영어로 도와 주셔서요. ㅜㅜ


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