Korean Language 101

Hangul is the writing system of Korea, created and introduced by King Sejong the Great in 1443. Today, the 9th of October, is a national holiday that celebrates the first publication of the Hunminjeong’eum, the document introducing the language to the public. Hangul’s most important purpose was to reduce the illiteracy of the Koreans with a lower education. They struggled with the Chinese writing system, as the spoken Korean and Chinese were already very different, and the large number of characters didn’t help either. So the newly created alphabet consists of only 24 letters, benefiting everyone who wants to learn to read, including me.

I had the intention learn the alphabet before I went on my exchange, and I got the hang of it really quickly. Unfortunately, it was only March back then, and as fast as I learned it, I forgot it again. So when I arrived in Korea, I was a total novice again.

Arriving at the airport, I had to do a quarantine for 14 days. The whole process was described in detail, but the majority of the officials did not speak English. This resulted in a lot of searching, asking and walking from counter to counter, just to get a PCR test done and getting to my quarantine place. It was pretty obvious that the level of English, although Korea is a very global and modern country, is not comparable to Europe. Still in quarantine, I added a Korean class to my study plan.

The first days outside taught me a lesson in how important hands and feet were going to be for communication. Choosing a restaurant was sometimes influenced by the availability of pictures of the dishes, so we could point on them to order. And translation apps for the phone became a must-have to even have an idea for what you ordered in case there were no pictures.

Now with the first lessons in the Korean class, I was already feeling more confident to go into a restaurant. I could at least spell out the dishes written on the menu and tell them how many of each I wanted. And if they didn’t understand my pronunciation, there were still my fingers to help. These new skills and my newly found confidence made it possible for me to go to markets or small, local restaurants, which had been intimidating before. When trying to order in Korean, you will often get a smile from the staff in the restaurant. When this happened, I hoped it was not only because my pronunciation was off, but because they were happy to hear me trying. 

And this positive feedback was not limited to encounters in restaurants, but also in small exchanges in the train, at the shop or in the bar. If they realized you spoke some Korean words, they would be very surprised that you are learning the language, but in a very positive and encouraging way.

But after knowing these basics, my interest in learning Korean declined. I did the exchange during the pandemic. In restaurants, you were limited to 4 people, university was completely online. With whom was I going to talk about the weather and what I did last weekend? I had no motivation to keep learning a language I wouldn’t use anytime soon again. I was able to order at a restaurant, and this was my goal from the beginning on. But to go further for a four month long stay suddenly seemed like a waste of time. 

Tim Landolt

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: