Language Issues for Immigrants to Korea

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It must be said that some people have the gift of language, either because of some intellectual propensity, or simply because they can more easily take the regular time necessary to overcome the inherent conceptual resistance involved in learning a new form of thinking and speech. For most of us, however, taking the time is a major challenge, and the natural ability is simply not up to the task of learning without the steady schedule commitment.

A few foreigners who have lived in Korea long term have picked up the language passably, but the truth is that most have not truly done so, even after 5 or ten years. Why not? Why have most not taken the time to do it? We fall under criticism, and sometimes under angry attack for the failure, and I myself, as one of the miserable culprits, feel the need to speak in defense of myself at least. I hope others in the sheepish position that I find myself in can relate to the following points.

Global Language

First of all, it is a both a blessing and a curse to have one’s indigenous language be the current global standard. Some of my counterparts have made the observation that although some Korean people get a bit miffed at us when we don’t speak Korean, at the same time, most Koreans have been studying English for 30 years and are still not functional. Without reference to the exceptional cases, most people who have really learned a language fluently have done so by being thrown into a situation where they are forced to use it. So Koreans are in a similar situation with us lame foreigners in that regard. Being able to default to an easier means of communication (in their case, Korean) allows the path of least resistance law to take hold, and we all have an out (in our case, English).

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Even though most Koreans are not comfortable with English, they know enough to be understood by us, and to make themselves understood using English. This makes the motive for us to learn Korean less pressing, and allows us to postpone the strict effort till the next year, and the next, and the next…

This having been said, I took an energetic crack at Korean when I first moved here and learned more than 500 words that I thought would help me. Then I found out that the written words and the spoken words were different. My bubble didn’t pop, but it lost some air.

Ambiguity Intolerance

So I tried taking a class with foreign wives, and found that classes being taught to East Asian students were being handled with a level of ambiguity that a structurally educated Western mind had a hard time assimilating. Of course, having never been through rigorous schooling, most of the East Asian students in that class would not easily have been able to adjust to a Western educational approach either.

Strict Memorization

But the strict memorization methods of Korean teaching are hard for me to follow also, as I want to understand the language rules and learn that way instead of have huge lists of vocabulary pushed at me at a pace that almost crushes my small brain. That is the Korean way, and they are shockingly adept at memorization, but it too doesn’t mesh well with the way I have always learned from youth on up in America. It is hard to adjust.

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A Humbling Experience

A final difficulty stems I think from the way that Koreans themselves have learned English. They are often afraid to speak less than perfect English and sometimes miss communication opportunities because they know their expressions won’t be grammatically perfect. I believe that this hypersensitivity to grammar error crosses over and contributes to the way most Koreans respond when I try to speak my broken Korean. Rather than focusing to understand what I am trying to say, it usually turns into a lecture on how bad, or jokes about how funny my clunky attempts are. I can laugh at myself, but not all the time. That type of response lets more air out of the bubble.

My wife tells me I am not humble enough, which I suppose is a more simple way to express all of the above. Learning a language is always going to be a humbling experience.

– By Jeff Rogers

2 comments

  • You sound like you are making excuses. Just be steady and keep a good attitude. No offense, but it doesn’t sound like you have done either.

    • I sit here, humbly receptive to your frank assessment, Lawrence, and nodding inside. Actually, I have made a new commitment to try an hour per day until I get over the hump. That is what the Mormon missionaries assigned here do, and it seems to work well for them.

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