On Language Barriers

If you are a foreigner considering coming to study in Korea, you might be worried about encountering cultural and language barriers. What if nobody speaks English? What if you don’t understand what anyone is saying and can’t make any friends? What if you really need some help but are unable to express yourself? I have gathered my experiences with language barriers in my time here in Seoul, which will hopefully inform and ease any concerns you might have regarding language.

Korea is ethnically very homogenous as a country. According to the lonely planet, a whopping 98% of the population consisted of Koreans in 2012. Of those remaining 2% (maybe getting closer to 3% these days), around 1,5% were Chinese of Korean ethnicity, leaving only 0.5% of the population for other ethnicities. Knowing these numbers, it is easy to see why many Koreans might not often get a chance to practice their language skills, or why they might not even want to bother learning.

That being said, Korean students do study English at school. I haven’t had any problems in my classes or conversing with most of the people on Hanyang campus. Even though almost everyone likes to tell me in the beginning that his or her English is not very good, that is not usually the truth at all. I think that people are just either really humble of their skills, or too shy to speak out in the beginning. Some people have said that they get intimidated or don’t understand if a foreigner speaks very fast, or uses slang words. So foreigners, especially if you are a native English speaker, try slowing down a bit okay? I promise that people will be much more willing to talk with you, and less likely to misunderstand what you are saying.

While younger people usually know at least some English, much of the older generation doesn’t speak it at all. Also, the further away you get from larger cities, the less likely it is that you will meet someone who can understand what you are saying since smaller towns and villages get very little exposure to other cultures. When they encounter foreigners, old people tend to just talk to you in Korean, whether you understand or not. Don’t get discouraged though, it is all part of the cultural experience to have a few miscommunications! Before and even after you start learning the basics of Korean, body language is your best friend. Pointing at things, smiling and using hand gestures can help out in many social situations.

If you need to run some more complicated errands, it is still good to take a Korean speaker with you to translate. The buddy system for exchange students is quite helpful, and your mentor can help with practical things like going to the hospital or getting a Korean SIM-card. I have found the locals to be happy to help with any issues you might have regardless of whether the two of you share the same language. My advice is to not worry too much in advance, and don’t let the different language stop you from coming to Korea and having the best experience.


Article by Miia from the U.K.

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