I truly believe that it’s important to learn the local language when you teach English abroad. Even just a little bit can make life a lot easier for you. But I won’t go into all of the reasons why you should learn the language today (I’ve already done that here). Instead, I want to show you why learning Korean doesn’t have to make you feel afraid and defeated.
A lot of people put off learning Korean because it’s so different from English. Actually people get scared of a lot of languages (particularly Asian languages) because of how different they are, so they say it’s too difficult to learn and don’t bother trying. Well here’s the thing: I teach 3 year old babies who can speak Korean. That means you can do it to, it is just going to take a bit longer to get to the same skill level compared to if you were learning Spanish or German. That’s because Korean is linguistically distant from English, unlike Spanish or German, but it’s still not impossible to learn. And here’s why…
The writing system is very logical and easy to learn
One of the reasons a lot of people put off learning Korean (or Chinese or Japanese or any language that doesn’t use a Latin based alphabet) is the writing system. Korean is written using Hangul, a writing system that was created by a Korean king in the 15th century. Hangul was specifically designed to phonetically write the sounds of the Korean language so that even commoners could learn to read and write, instead of only the educated elite since the other method of writing that existed was modified Chinese characters. So with Hangul, you have the advantage of an alphabet that was created specifically to be easy to learn.
The language is very phonetic
One nice thing about Korean is that the writing system is phonetic. That means each letter makes only one or two sounds that follow fairly regular rules. That makes learning Korean using Hangul instead of the romanization an incredibly realistic idea.
I will give you a friendly heads up though: there are a few pronunciation rules that can throw you for a loop until they get properly explained to you. Koreans, like every other culture really, have colloqueal ways of saying words or certain sounds that aren’t always explained in Korean text books that are written in English. I was always incredibly frustrated by what I now know are called “sound shifts” until I stumbled across this article on the subject, where this blogger happened to have purchased a Korean learning textbook that was written in Japanese that explained how the sounds of the letters can change within a word to make it easier to say. Talk to Me in Korean also does a fantastic job of explaining in their podcast lessons how real Koreans pronounce words, which I have personally found extremely helpful.
The main thing I am trying to get at here is that Korean is phonetic, with some easy to understand rules for when the sounds shift in seemingly weird ways. You just have to have the right resources in order to not get frustrated.
You don’t have to try to be “fluent” to make your life easier
Here’s my final reason why Korean doesn’t have to be scary: no one is expecting you to reach native like fluency. “Fluent” is an abstract idea that can be defined in a lot of different ways. Benny Lewis at Fluent in 3 Months talks a lot about the definition of fluent, and I agree with his points in his article on tossing out elite standards for fluency.
So many expats go their entire time in Korea without learning any of the language. They teach English all day, hang out with exclusively foreigner friends, and go to all of the foreigner bars and restaurants to eat (or go to the Korean places where they know the staff speaks English). Your life in Korea will be made so much easier if you can read the writing on the signs of restaurants and stores and if you can speak even a little bit to the shopkeepers and locals. So don’t let a silly idea like “I need to become fluent or what’s the point?” keep you from learning enough to help you make some fantastic experiences during your time in Korea.
Well there you have it, my attempt to pull back the curtain on Korean and make it a little less scary for you. I’m still a beginner in the language myself, but hopefully we can start on this journey together. Are you excited to get learning? Let me know in the comments below!