All this occurred to me today, and I kicked myself in the pants a bit for having made such a horrendous error in publication. Then, as I was doing my Korean homework tonight, it dawned on me that what I wrote before was actually relevant for people interested in Korea. My only failing was to have extrapolated it out to make that readily apparent. So, having apologized to my pants for the unwarranted assault, I begin...
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I talked about how knowing Korean made all the difference in the world in having a wonderful weekend with my host family, something I was really not able to accomplish at all over the course of an entire year living with them. Maybe that has more to do with fish and visitors smelling after three days and less to do with my current language abilities, but since I stayed for four days, I think it must be the latter.
The sad thing is had I come with any program but the program I'm with, I likely wouldn't have learned enough Korean to ask my host family if they would mind me staying at their place over the busiest time of the Korean year because the sad reality is that most foreigners who come here don't learn Korean. The orientation I received was six weeks of intense teaching, culture, and language workshops. Most programs here tell you how to teach a set curriculum in a matter of days and don't bother much with the culture or the language.
This is largely Korea's fault, and I actually think that the powers that be in government, business, and education would actually take that as a compliment. From elementary school up, English is compulsory here even if the student in question is at a vocational school. This has aided South Korea in its development of business ties with other nations around the globe and thus has increased South Korea's economic strength. In a country where your economy is almost entirely dependent on exports, global business relationships are key, and when that's the case, speaking the language the world speaks is key too.
And then there's tourism which in 2008 raked in $9 billion from 6.89 million people while everything else was in recession. English helps there too.
The only problem is that because Korea has gotten so good at speaking English, most people living here don't end up learning Korean. Whereas in the United States, it is positively essential to learn English just to get out of a building, in Korea everyone speaks your language so why bother? (Incidentally, Korea uses a picture for their exits signs, instead of the word "Exit".)
Here's the few words you need to know in case someone starts talking to you in Korean in Korea:
"I don't speak Korean."
You don't even have to say that in Korean. Just say it in English. Chances are, the person will either leave you alone or switch to English. (So I'm clear, I'm not actually advocating this attitude. If you do this, you're going to be seen as pretty rude.)
In fact, because many foreigners come here to teach English and because the people they end up spending time with speak English (whether foreign or Korean), foreigners often end up in a kind of English bubble. This can become frustrating, especially for those who are from English speaking countries because it's like being on vacation all the time. You may eat the food, see the sights, and learn about the culture first hand, but you're never quite integrated into the culture either. You're always held at arm's length. For some this is ideal. For others it is frustrating because I imagine when most people are on a contract for one or more years they actually want to make a kind of home wherever they are. Being on vacation for a week is one thing. Feeling like you're on vacation for years while you are working is another thing entirely.
Of course, the best way to solve this problem would be for foreigners to bite the bullet and try to learn the language for themselves. That way, they could actually make friends and feel like a part of the society they are living in as I have been fortunate enough to do.
But here again there are problems inherent in the system. For one thing, language classes are not readily available in most cities and even when they are you'll be lucky if they go past "giving directions". (I've often wondered why this is so heavily stressed in Korean language classrooms when the chances of anyone asking a foreigner for directions in Korean are slim to none.) The best language classes are of course in Seoul, but since Seoul is also Korea's most educated city, no foreigner really has much of an opportunity to speak Korean there. So, there is a bit of a conundrum here. If you want to practice Korean, you need to live in the countryside where there are no classes to learn it; if you want to learn Korean, you need to live in the city where there is no reason to learn it.
For another thing, English is many foreigners' main occupation here, and those who do teach English are often required to use only English in the classroom and even with their fellow teachers. When you spend eight hours of your day at work speaking English and however much extra time correcting English, it's hard to learn Korean for those few free hours you have to rest before it's time for sleep.
Additionally, there are language exchanges available wherein two people have a conversation in English for about 30 minutes and then in Korean for about 30 minutes, but these almost invariably unbalanced in favor of the Korean speaker. The two participants, eager to just have their conversation, will thus end up speaking for an hour in English to the gratification of the Korean speaker and the frustration of the English speaker.
All this means that the onus is on the foreigner to really stay disciplined about learning Korean, a language he will likely never really have to use while here.
Things are getting better here though. I have no hard evidence of this, but my general impression is that foreigners who are able to acquire some Korean live happier, healthier, more stable lives here and are more likely to stay for longer periods. Given the turnover rates at private language academies and public schools, it behooves the government and businesses to improve the retention of their employees so they aren't constantly retraining and so that students have consistent and experienced teachers. I know that, at least in Kangwon-do, most English teachers are required to take remedial Korean classes, and I'm sure that this practice will spread as time goes on.
Still, even those classes are remedial. They teach how to say "Hello," "Goodbye," and "How much is this?" For those seeking a meaningful experience in Korea through language, the road ahead is a hard one.
그렇지만 열심히 연습하면서 할 수가 있다.
"But if you practice hard you can do it."