Having not travelled much in the past, and never to a country whose language I couldn’t speak, I’d never really experienced the true effects of a language barrier before I arrived in Korea.
Stepping off that plane and knowing only a couple of words in Korean was intimidating to say the least. On top of that, I had no idea if I was pronouncing them correctly and had absolutely no confidence to test them out with locals upon my arrival.
I’ll admit that my Korean hasn’t expanded much since I got here. Obviously, if I’m still surviving with very little Korean skills, then it is possible to do this. It happens all the time. People arrive in countries around the world everyday without knowing how to speak the local language, and somehow manage to get by.
In all honesty, though, a big part of the reason why I’ve been able to get by is because my Korean co-workers can all speak English and so can many of the friends I’ve made here. There are also a flock of other English-speaking foreigners roaming around Busan.
While this certainly does make my life in Korea easier—even comfortable—I also view it as a detriment. The problem is that I’m not in a situation where I absolutely can’t get by without learning more than just the bare minimum of Korean.
While this may be a draw for many people, I’m starting to realize that it’s almost a curse to me. Not everyone is interested in learning a new language or trying to fully integrate into a new culture and country and that’s fine. But I believe that learning Korean (or any country’s language, for that matter) is the best way to discover the real Korea. I moved here to experience another culture, to learn a new language, and to challenge myself by gaining new and different experiences. Finally, I’ve acknowledged that living in an English bubble for my whole year here isn’t going to help me accomplish this at all.
There are other reasons why I want to try to learn some Korean as well. These last couple months have made me realize how lonely and isolating it can be at times to not be able to communicate in Korean. I definitely notice this most at work, when my co-workers are all having an animated conversation and I have absolutely no idea what’s going on or what they are talking about. I have no way of contributing something useful (or even useless, for that matter!) to the conversation. Unless they translate for me, the only thing I have a shot at understanding is their facial expressions and body language, and even these can be mistaken sometimes.
Not surprisingly, I think a language barrier is most often negatively viewed. Before coming to Korea, the thought of not being able to communicate or express myself terrified me at times. However, actually experiencing it has made me realize that it can also have its benefits.
Being in Korea has taught me that there is much more to communication than language. Sometimes flashing a warm smile and bowing to the shopkeeper I pass on my way home from work every day and having her return the gesture, means more than anything I could express if I tried to speak Korean to her (given my current Korean level, anyway).
Hand gestures and drawings can also go a long way at times. I’ve become much better at interpreting art since starting my contract in Korea! Almost every day, I take part in at least one Pictionary session, where one of my students eventually resorts to scribbling a picture on the board in class to help them express themselves in English. To their credit, though, this is usually after they’ve tried countless times to make me understand first. “Noooooo! Teacher! I will draw!”
As strange as it may sound, being oblivious to what’s being said around you can sometimes be a blessing. Personally, I find that it allows me to have time to myself to just sit and think, or people watch. Without the possibility of listening in on someone else’s conversation on my subway or bus ride home, I am truly alone in a way. People around me are talking, possibly even about me, but it doesn’t affect me in any way. I have no reason to feel hurt or self-conscious as a result of their words. I’m free.
I’ve decided to make the most of this freedom, because one day, I might actually be able to eavesdrop on conversations with some success. When that happens, it’s back to reality!Add this article to your reading list