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Not Speaking Korean in Korea

January 21, 2013


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So we know this video was about people who don’t speak Korean at all, but we’re going to use the blog post as a chance to talk about our feelings of how much Korean we speak and where we want to go from here. Basically, we’re really torn about where we should take our development of the Korean language from this point. It’s something we’ve talked about for a long time and maybe having some of your input would be beneficial:

Basically, our Korean now is at the point that we can get by in this country perfectly fine. When we leave our apartment and interact with the world, we don’t speak English unless someone speaks English to us. Oftentimes it’s a Korean person who will speak English to us, but we insist on speaking Korean back so they don’t feel uncomfortable and forced into speaking English. We want to keep on practicing our usage of it in the real world. We appreciate people’s consideration for speaking English to us, for sure, but the irony is we’re trying to practice our Korean while they’re finally getting to use English after being forced to study it in school. It’s almost like being a Canadian in that sense. We both grew up learning French since we were little kids, but it felt so awkward since there was no conversations taking place in French outside of Quebec. It often felt like, why am I learning to speak French? And then your teachers and parents would insist that it’s because it will help you get a better job, like with the government where everyone MUST be bilingual. So once you finally go to Montreal (or somewhere in Quebec) you’re so damn excited/horrified to finally use your 10+ years of French–only to be greeted by French-English speakers that can see your horrific French accent so decide to switch to English. NOOOOoooOOOoooOOOoooOOOoooOOooo! I failed you French language learning! Anyhoo, the long point is, we understand when our Korean friends don’t want to speak Korean with us because they really want to practice their 10+ years of English studying.

We’ve digressed here. The point is, we think the whole reason why someone should learn the language in a country is for communication. It’s so that you don’t go into a shop and expect everyone to speak your foreign language. It’s so that you can go to a restaurant and easily read and order what you want, and hold light friendly conversations. The more of a language you learn, the easier it is for you to communicate, and the more ideas you can get across to someone else. 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. Totally honestly, majority of the people that we know that have become or are trying to become fluent in Korean have a Korean love interest, or want to have one. NOT THAT THIS IS TRUE OF EVERYONE. Everybody has their own reason for learning Korean, but the reasons that we see most predominantly in people’s attempt to learn the language don’t apply to us. If learning a language is to communicate, we are not interested in communicating deeply, as one would in a significant relationship. The communication we want to do we can do perfectly fine.

Don’t get me wrong: if we were single and trying to get a significant Korean other, then we’d be all about learning Korean. But, 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.

There’s something special about being in a language bubble. Seriously: when we go back to Canada, we’re overwhelmed by everything around us. The first couple of days back our eyes dart from side to side to read all the signs. Every conversation that passes us by we think is directed at us, and we turn around. It’s amazing how overwhelmed we get. We get headaches from it, really. But coming back to Korea, even though Seoul’s such a bustling city, we feel a sense of calm and peace. We can appreciate it in our silent bubble, in our thoughts. We’re not drowned out by noise and advertising. It’s really a state of being that we’ve come to love.

I feel cheesy in saying this, but the movie “Lost in Translation” kinda captures a glorious experience of not being fluent in a language. To us, there’s nothing wrong with feeling lost. There’s something special in the experience of confusion. It’s hard to explain, but it’s enjoyable. We’ve become adequate in Korean while we’ve been here, but the couple of times we’ve been in Japan, we remembered just how great it is to be totally lost like we were when we first moved to Korea. Going to a counter, not knowing whether to say yes, hai, neh, or tak, oui, si: there’s a thrill in that. It’s not a thrill like hang-gliding, but it takes you out of your comfort zone, and – in doing so – makes you rethink you comfort zone, and appreciate the fact that there’s a whole world happening around you that you not only know next to nothing about but also doesn’t revolve around you and your experience, and that’s a very worthwhile experience to have.

Ok, that might have sounded weird. But those are some points that really keep us from wanting to learn any more Korean. There are a couple more things that get in our way as well, mainly, learning Korean is really bloody hard. Really really FREAKING really. We know people who have taken the intensive Korean study program for over a year. Intensive, as in, full-time course-load. Going to class and doing homework everyday. Not having any other job. Just…studying. And they got very proficient in Korean, but still not fluent. And it’s frustratingly difficult for them to get to the point of fluency. Not that it’s impossible, mind you, but – from our perspectives – they put in very much work into it and aren’t fluent.

So our question is this: how much time do we have to put into studying Korean until we’re fluent? We run a site that calls us into work everyday. We don’t have days off. We work from morning to night. When can we fit in an intensive language study program, really? How long will it take for us, giving up our few precious spare moments of time when we just want to shut off after working all day, where we want to just relax and not strain ourselves anymore—how long will it take for us to sacrifice those few moments for us to achieve fluency in Korean? Is it worth it for us to sacrifice those moments for years? Will what we gain from Korean fluency be worth the sacrifice?

This is a hard post to write. People will combat by saying “But you should be perfectly fluent or make the effort to do so out of respect for Korea!” But aren’t we doing a lot of that already? We made a website out of it. We’ve provided jobs for others out of it. Aren’t we already trying everyday to show the world, through our videos, how much fun we’re having here, how much we like the place, how you should come here too, how fun we find the music, how interesting we find the indie scene, how much we like the food? Aren’t we already paying our respects to Korea everyday?

Oh God, this post is getting too long. I’m sorry for rambling for so long. This is just something we feel really guilty about, and it’s something we grapple with every week. We come home after a late night, and think to ourselves that this is when we should study Korean so that we could stop feeling guilty, but we really just want to say “guilt be damned! Let us rest!” Let us know your thoughts. Is there something we’re missing out on here? This post is highly personal, we know, and it doesn’t apply to everybody. There are paragraphs we wrote and paragraphs we deleted, but there’s so much more we can say about this. People learn languages for different reasons, we know, than just the ones we listed above, and I’m sure there are good reasons to learn the language, and – no – we’re not telling you to not learn Korean. Learn Korean if you want to. Don’t learn it if you don’t want to. We, personally, are just torn as to what we want to do.



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Not Speaking Korean in Korea


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  1. I decided to study Korean because I am thinking of making a career out of it (like a translator maybe) and that’s really my main reason for studying this language… But you guys already have a job that takes up most of your time and if you feel comfortable with your level of Korean, I say you shouldn’t push yourselves to study more.

    7 years ago
  2. Funny what you said about foreigners living in a bubble and not knowing the language at all…

    I live in São Paulo – Brazil and 2 years ago Hyundai suffered a huge boom and brought a lot of Korean employees higher in the company’s hierarchy to work here. My Korean tutor came with her husband and two children and she’s one of those people who live in that kind of bubble, only in the opposite situation from you guys. She only speaks Korean and barely speaks English (with a horrible accent, I must add) and no Portuguese at all. She has no intention in learning it also, since they’re moving back to Korea in 2 or 3 years. Most of the people Hyundai brought has no interest in learning Portuguese, only one girl my age did – she was the only child who went to Brazilian school here and now enrolled on a Brazilian college =)

    Some of them are taking their time to improve their English, mainly the wives since they didn’t get jobs here. The main problem is that people hardly speak English around here. You see, my tutor loves going to the shopping mall but she has problems whenever she needs to ask things. She can only eat at franchises like Starbucks where food names are all in English. When she runs into a problem she texts or emails me asking help with Portuguese, from talking to their gardener to renting houses… They can’t even communicate with people who live or work at they condominium… I wonder how they can live that, it must be awful (>_<)

    LOL, sorry for the long comment… ^_^''''

    7 years ago
  3. Aw guys~! Your cheese lady story <3 That's so cute!

    7 years ago
  4. Well, I personnaly think the best thing is to learn what you need and want to learn. For example, if you don’t really want to participate in an elaborate discussion on politics, you don’t really need to learn all of that vocabulary. Of course, if you ARE interested in it… then it becomes worth it to put in the time in effort to learn. It will also be easier to find motivation if you have an interest in it.

    In other words, I wouldn’t try pushing the language learning further than what you feel confortable with. I would personnaly love to be fluent enough to understand the music I’m listening to and the dramas I watch. I would also like to go to Korea soon to try and live there for a year… So, I guess my learning will be about those basic things you need to know to get around, but also to have light conversations with people.

    By the way, I found your paragraph concerning your French learning quite funny. Being from Quebec myself, I guess I can understand the trouble you had learning French… especially if you don’t need to use it. And I guess that it is true that we quickly switch to English when we realize people can’t communicate so well in French.

    7 years ago
  5. I say. don’t take it too seriously. learn it in a fun way. when you sit back and relax or take a day off instead of doing hardcore study grasp the grammar then just start putting together sentences that explain how you feel after that day. talk about what you did and what you want to do tomorrow. Learn together. Make it a game as oppose to a task. I know it sounds crazy but once you have grasped enough of the grammar you will be putting sentences together likes it’s nothing after you look up the base words you want to use. Just keep study materials close by. And you never know, you might find yourself wanting to learn in your spare time. ^_^ Just make it a game. or , heck , make a game! make a game you two can play together and have fun with like you used to for your students learning english. Have your Korean friends help you put one together. Don’t make it a task that takes precious time from your rest. Make it a game you play in your spare time.

    7 years ago
  6. I can relate to that situation! I am an Indian, and in India each state has a different language. The official language is Hindi and I don’t know a word of it (My mother tongue is a regional language). I live in Qatar (Middle East) and was born and raised here. I am fluent in English but I speak very little Arabic. So it’s a bit hard for me to communicate with locals (Qataris) here since not everyone knows English. But I don’t think it’s necessary to study the language to be able to get through. I think it’s okay if you know the basics.
    PS: Don’t worry too much and do what YOU want to do!

    7 years ago
  7. I was wondering if you know “Can you take tours the entertainment companies in Korea? do they offer that?”

    7 years ago
  8. The Korean language IS really difficult to learn! i plan on a trip to Seoul this year and downloaded an app that would teach common phrases, i think I can only manage to say ‘hello’ at this point! I mean, a word in another language is a phrase in Korean! So what I’m saying is that for you guys to be fluent enough to interact and get by in Korea shows dedication and love for the country!
    i think the ‘problem’ comes when (I am a BBC-British born Chinese ) BBCs go back to Hong Kong or China and don’t speak Cantonese or Chinese and only use English. People get shocked and maybe even annoyed (mainly the elderly) in that sense, that may seem a little disrespectful.

    I am a new fan to your channel and I must say I’ve been having eatyourkimchi-thons for the past few days! I can see your dedication and love with living in Korea, I can only imagine how scary it is moving to a country with a completely different language and culture. I really admire you guys for doing that! Keep it up and we never just stop learning, I’m sure you still learn something new everyday. Don’t stress yourselves out by thinking you should study more!

    7 years ago
  9. I really enjoyed this post and I think you two hit in on the head. Each person’s situation is different and we should not group or set the same rules for everyone. In your case, you know enough Korean to get by and be -happy- and that is indeed good enough. =)

    In terms of everyone being different and having various reasons or motivations for learning another language–well here is mine. My husband is Thai so I want to learn Thai too. Currently I’m at the level where I can read, write, I know the 5 tones and I have a fairly random vocabulary. We live in the U.S., so no it is not even necessary for me to learn Thai. My motivation, nevertheless, is my desire to communicate among him and his/our mutual Thai friends here. When they or we visit another Thai person, of course they’re going to speak in Thai because it’s their mother tongue, it’s easiest for them to communicate. I would love to be able to join in on the conversation. At the moment I can only slightly grasp what they may be talking about, but I can’t contribute to the conversation.

    I also wish to be able to talk easily with my husband’s father when he visits. Sure he speaks a little English, but it is still a challenge. On top of that, when we finally visit Thailand, I really want to be able to interact relatively easily for both our enjoyment. Not that my hubby minds translating for me, but I’d want to give a break. =)

    I know I could ramble on more about this, but I will leave it as such. Again, thank you Simon and Martina for this insightful post. =)

    7 years ago
  10. Im learning korean now well learned alittle while im in college I got a d and I need a c in order to go on to korean 2 can you tell me what you guys did to learn it because even though I got a d I still remember alittle bit like hi, yes, no basic stuff I cant read it very well but my tutor that taught us(me and my class mates that I became friends with) said I was good at pronouncation but I need to work on remembering what they mean so can you guys help me

    7 years ago
  11. I agree with you 100%. It is difficult to learn another language and you really don’t need to learn more to function in Korea. I say you’ve got the right idea. You two are doing so much to promote tourism in Korea and living in Korea.

    7 years ago
  12. Honestly I think it’s a personal choice and no one should make you feel bad if you do not wish to continue. I mean you can get by in Korea just fine. No one is telling you that they can’t understand you or that you should be better so they can talk to you. And you do work hard and I know how it can be to be tired after a long day at work. Don’t push yourself to do it because other people you don’t know in real life will look down on you.

    However I do think that if you really wanted to talk to friends in Korean more to become more fluent with conversations then I think that they should be understanding enough to switch languages with you every now and then. I understand how excited they must be to practice their English in a real setting and yes you guys do get to use it when going out and ordering food or what have you, but it sounds like you may want to be able to speak it with friends as well. They should be understanding enough to not only speak in English with you guys all the time so you can learn more as well. They after all had the 10+ years in English classes where, correct me if I’m wrong, you had none. I hope you can see the point I’m making here. This of course is only if you want to become 100% conversational. See if your friends mind letting you practice every now and again.

    7 years ago
  13. Kind of related to this- one of my father’s best friends and long-time business partner is Italian. They communicate in English, which neither of them are totally fluent in. While everyday interactions are no problem, my dad laments that he can’t talk about deep, real issues with his friend.
    On the other hand, thanks to my parents, I was able to acquire English to the extent that I can enjoy works of literature, enjoy English humor and such. I think that’s what allowed me to enjoy American and Canadian culture to the fullest, as well as keep, and make, friends outside my nationality. (I lived in Canada for a short while)
    Point being, I think learning a language extensively contributes to a deeper understanding of that culture. This sounds way too boring for your fun site, but I think language should be regarded as more than just a means of communication.

    Thanks for reading. I sincerely enjoy your site!
    p.s. I see your studio every time I go to Hongdae and it makes me lol.

    7 years ago