Language can be one of the more daunting parts of teaching English in South Korea. If you are in or around Seoul, you may find some signs in English and some Korean English-speakers, not to mention a large community of English-speaking expats, but if you are outside the capital city, English usage can be quite sparse.
Most teaching jobs in EPIK or hagwons do not require any knowledge of Korean language, especially programs that favor immersion-style learning. Many expats live successfully in South Korea for many years without ever learning any Korean. It is possible, but a cursory understanding can get you far in your day-to-day life.
How You Can Learn Korean!
The good news is that Korean is probably the easiest to learn of the East Asian languages because it is phonetic (a finite number of symbols represent certain sounds). I found it worthwhile to learn the basics of the Korean alphabet. If you can sound things out, you’ll find it easier to follow the names of people and places. And, you’ll able to figure out some words that were adopted from English (for example the word for computer is written and pronounced com-pyoo-taw).
You may notice that many people want to be your friend suddenly. This is because South Koreans are generally very eager to learn and practice their English. Language exchange partners are a common arrangement if you do have an interest in learning a bit of the Korean language, or if you’d just like to get to know some friendly Korean people.
About the Korean Language
There are many things that commonly get lost in translation:
1) South Koreans will frequently ask how old you are when you’ve only just met
They are not trying to be rude. In the rules of Korean grammar, the verb tense two people use when they talk to one another depends on how much older or younger they are compared to each other. It’s considered normal to have this understanding of relative ages from the start, even if you will not be communicating in Korean.
2) Koreans of both genders may tell you outright that you are beautiful/handsome.
To many westerners, this is off-putting or embarrassing, but they don’t mean to make you uncomfortable, it’s just a subject that South Koreans are rather forward about.
3) In connection with point 2, you maybe told that you have a small face, big nose, or big eyes.
Consider it as an attractive trait. Though it sounds strange, these are compliments.
4) The Korean alphabet has little distinction between L and R, no F, V, short I sound, or Z whatsoever.
This results in sentences like “Teacher, your pashion is lusty” (what the student meant was, “Teacher, your fashion is rusty,” talking about a very very old sweatshirt) or “Team, ret’s eat some pea-jah” (translation: “Tim, let’s eat some pizza”)
5) In connection with point 4, cut Koreans some slack!
Their alphabet has several vowels or letter combinations that do not exist in English and I’m sure English speakers sound just as funny trying to pronounce names like Hwa Eui-Hyun.
6) Konglish refers to a mixture of English words that mean something else in a Korean context.
Some of the common ones:
– “cunning” means cheating or copying
– “fighting!” is an encouraging cheer like “keep your head up!” or “let’s go!”
– “cider” refers to sprite or 7up
– “so-so” is overused and in strange ways like “I am very so-so” but basically means “ok” or “boring”
– “sick” is often used as in “my leg is sick” meaning hurt or broken
– “same-same” means “this is the same as that”
– “handphone” is a mobile or cell phone
Learning Korean Will Make Your Life Much Easier!
Having the right TESOL certification will help you earn much respect from employers and students, yet many Koreans will appreciate a lot more the gesture of learning their language. I found that most people were extremely patient and helpful when I was first learning. Not to mention extremely impressed and amused when I managed to produce anything intelligible at all. Learning some Korean became extremely helpful for building a strong relationship with my EPIK co-teacher.
And when all else fails, charades and Pictionary are fairly universal. When I first got to South Korea, the point-and-smile method was very effective for me at restaurants and in finding directions, and the marker and whiteboard were extremely useful when giving directions to my first very low-level ESL classes. The key is to stay as patient and friendly as possible, and a great many people will reciprocate.