Communicating in Korea

Seoul has become a very international city and a popular destination for studying, so I was surprised to realize that very few Koreans speak English. Outside of university and during my travels through Korea, I have been constantly confronted with situations where I couldn’t communicate with very basic English and had to use my hands or translating apps instead. 

By now I have acquired some very basic Korean skills and might even understand the context by picking up some words. Another skill I have acquired during my quarantine is reading Hangul. It turned out to be very helpful to know at which subway station I have to get off or to understand some Anglicized words at the coffee shop. Learning the language not only helped me to communicate with Koreans, but I also gained a better understanding of Korean culture. Many cultural practices are reflected in the language. For example, the way younger people talk to older peers changes, even if they’re only one year apart. It is considered disrespectful to call an older friend by their first name, you would use the world “brother” or “sister” instead. Another thing I noticed is how the tone changes when Koreans switch from English to Korean. Especially men use a very commanding tone whenever they talk to the waiter or the taxi driver. 

Compared to my first weeks in Korea, I noticed a big improvement in the way I communicate with locals. At first, I was only talking in full English sentences even though I knew they would not understand everything I said. Now I have adopted a very straightforward language that includes signs and simple Korean words. I have become more courageous to ask for help and am more confident in using a language I only know the basics of. 

Even when I was stuck with more complicated situations, I always received some help. A few weeks ago, the machine in the self-service ice cream shop next to our goshi was broken and was only set in Korean. As in many other stores, there was no employee who could help us with the machine. We paid for the ice cream, but it didn’t print a receipt. We kept trying to buy the ice-cream and ended up paying a lot more for it than we had to. The owner on the phone didn’t speak English, so my friend and I asked a man if he could help us to explain our problem to the owner. He translated everything in Korean and waited with us for the owner to come to the store. In the end we got the money back and the owner even gave us an ice cream for free. 

The most important lesson I’ve learned so far is that even though I cannot communicate by only using words, there is always a way I can connect with people or manage to be understood. Despite the language barrier between me and the locals, Koreans are always willing to help and try their best to express themselves with little English knowledge. Universal signs like a smile and even a respectful bow have helped me in many situations.

Chiara Heiss

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