"How long are you staying?" my friend asks. We shuffle forward in line at the bakery and place our orders: two mini-eliopita and a tea for me, iced coffee and a fruit tart for her. Once we pay and sit down, I answer as honestly as I can.
"I don't want to say any definite answer since I still haven't spent a week there--let alone a year," I respond, holding out an eliopita for her to try, "but I think my minimum ideal would be two-years."
She breaks her tart between her fingers and picks at an strawberry that escaped. "Damn that's a long time." Then, "Do you speak any Korean?"
I wince. "A little. Not enough. I should practice more, actually."
Most guides don't really mention this other than to say that learning Korean isn't a requirement for EPIK. Of course, they say, it's nice to learn, but it won't affect your chances of teaching abroad. In fact, most guides kind of gloss over at least learning Hangul. Hangul seems to be the consensus, and that's why I want to talk about my decision to learn Korean.
A little disclaimer: I've yet to land in Korea myself.
Another disclaimer: I'm pretty shit at learning languages.
So far this question about knowing Korean is the second most popular question I've gotten from friends and family regarding my move. It's behind only "Where in Korea?" in which they expect me to answer with Seoul as my destination, then ask me to say something in Korean. I usually flounder at this point and share an incredibly self-aware thought: "I don't really know Korean. 한국어 별로 몰라요."
Because it's true. A lot of my Korean has been the result of self-study, which means the conversational skills of listening and speaking have suffered tremendously. At least I've gotten "Can you speak slowly, please?" down-pat (천천히 말해 주세요--slight difference in nuance.)
The reason I find myself anxious to learn Korean stems from the fact that I don't want to be That American, of course, but also because I know there's a difference between "getting by" and "thriving." I can get by with some English-Korean dictionary in the supermarket, but what's the harm in learning words from my typical grocery list? How hard is it for me, realistically, to learn "설탕 있어요?" I can get by scouring for videos on YouTube when it's time to do laundry, get by with a couple directions from the internet, get by in foreigner clubs and miming my way in restaurants.
I can get by without learning Korean--we've all heard of the 5 or 6 year expats who pride themselves on muttering a quick, butchered 안녕하세요--but would that really make the most of my time in Korea?
I don't hold any illusions over whether locals would bother with me, having heard that most native Koreans don't do small-talk, but I want to be able to walk into a coffee shop and make my order in simple Korean. I want to meet up with my friend from Daejeon and speak with her in Korean the way, in NY, she spoke with me in English, making an effort. I know how lonely being a foreigner can feel when I travel to Cyprus--where I speak Greek!--let alone what that might feel like if I can't even navigate a pharmacy for some pain killers, a clothing store for my shirt size, a crowded concert for my seat. These are thoughts that admittedly make me anxious. I've gotten through three levels of Talk to Me in Korean, unit 1 for HowtoStudyKorean, and took a 102 elementary Korean course at my local college. I should be at a higher level than where I'm at, but baby steps. I'm not looking for any medals or to finish a race; I just want to study, learn, and understand.
So that's the whole of it: you can get by without knowing Korean...but is that all you want to do? Get by?
Below are a few beginning resources and notes for Korean, from Hangul to vocabulary, websites for grammar, for help. If you're like me and preparing to teach abroad in Korea, give these a once-over (or twice-over, or thrice-over).
So go ahead. Study.
Get over the idea of getting by.
Okay, again, as someone who is shit at languages I somehow tend to love them a lot, and this chart is SO COOL. It's pretty comprehensive in explaining pronunciation and building syllable blocks. Of course, some of the examples listed give simplified rules for beginners. Not a sponsorship, but you can find a link to the poster here.
All in all, learning Hangul can take you anywhere from twenty minutes to an hour. It has been lauded as one of the most efficient writing systems in the world, and the shape of each letter is really intuitive. If you're looking for another resource that will help with memorizing Hangul and pronunciation, I suggest checking out the following links:
How to Study Korean
Learn Korean with GO! Billy Korean
Korean Hangul in 20 Minutes
Let's Learn Hangul Website
When I was younger I always wanted to learn Korean because of Taekwondo and now my motivation has simply grown--but of course I get placed in Busan! We'll see how I fare with the dialect; though if my dad has managed Cypriot, I can do this, too. :) Part of me is considering signing up for a TOPIK exam to make sure I stay on track. It's harder than you think to immerse yourself in a language--even when you live abroad. I know I'll need to make an effort to join language exchanges and to participate in Korea's free KIIP program.
For those of you planning to teach in Korea, what's your language-learning game-plan?
Pedagogy and Reflection
We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience