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One Day Me Korean Speak?

April 23, 2012

A quick check of the calendar confirms that I have lived here in Seoul for over a year. How did that happen? If I could go back and tell my charming, sweet, overly optimistic self of a year ago anything it would be, “Set some realistic language expectations, lady”.

I fully expected that by this point, a year in, I would be able to communicate far more effectively than I can currently manage. Lest you think I’m being falsely humble, I will now list for you all of the things I know how to say in Korean:


Thank you










Soy Milk





Please bring me …

Excuse me






Can you give me a better price?

I can also say with varying degrees of success:

I do not speak Korean.

Does anybody here speak English?

I think the longest sentence I could construct with this limited vocabulary is, “Excuse me, could you bring me an American vegetarian baby?” Which would really be just an odd way of asking for my kid.

It’s embarrassing. Yet,when I share my embarrassment with other expats I’ve encountered they all tell me not to bother. Korean is apparently a supremely difficult language to learn. My husband works with a Korean American who grew up speaking Korean with his parents and told my husband that even he struggles and there was no way my husband was ever going to learn unless he ditched his American wife and married a Korean. And even then, success was not guaranteed.

I’m not a linguist (clearly) and am not qualified to give much insight into the intricacies of the Korean language, but I can share a few things that make learning it an extremely daunting task. (As an aside, the alphabet, Hangul, which would seem like a barrier to an English speaker, is actually incredibly easy to learn. I can read Hangul just fine. So there goes that excuse.)

For one, there are many different words for the same thing, depending on who you are speaking to. Confucian principles dictate filial piety and as such one’s elders are treated and spoken to differently. The difference in the words is nothing similar to Spanish, for example, where the ending of a word changes based on gender. No, these are completely different words. For example, if you are speaking to your friend you may use the word “bab” for meal. But if you are speaking to your uncle, you would use the word “jin-ji”. The polite way of speaking is always used to show deference to those who are older or of a higher status.

A related difficulty is that there are seven (yes, seven!) different speech levels depending on your audience. Each level indicates a different level of formality.

There are two sets of numbers. One Korean and one Chinese. They are both employed regularly, depending on what you are counting or enumerating, but they can never be used together.

Subject and object are often completely left out of a sentence. The context implies these two things. This is wonderfully speedy if you are a native speaker, but wholly confusing if you are a beginner.

Sentences change meaning depending on the intonation. So the exact same sentence could mean, “I’m going to chop down that tree”, or it could mean, “Why don’t you chop down that tree?”. Another example, if one says the word for sit, “anja”, depending on the tone one could mean “I’m going to sit”, “let’s sit”, “have a seat”, etc. Imagine my confusion on the subway when older ladies start gesturing at or near me and saying “Anja, anja”, as they invariably do. I panic and break into a sweat. Do they want me to sit? Are they going to sit? Do they want me to sit next to them? Older Korean women are easily the most terrifying and in charge people on planet Earth. One does not want to disappoint them.

It is no wonder that the US State Department lists Korean among their category III (or super-hard) languages for English speakers to learn. The other three are Japanese, Chinese, and Arabic. I have a brilliant friend who has learned Chinese, is currently tackling Arabic, and who assured me that she had no plans to go anywhere near Korean.


Difficulties be damned, I have every intention of continuing my quest for some level of language acquisition. I refuse to be an ugly American and I have to believe that my sad little efforts are at least appreciated by the poor Korean souls who must listen to them. If all else fails, the little one will be able to translate for me eventually. Perhaps I should be focusing all of my efforts on getting 10 month old babies verbal.

In the meantime, can you give me a better price on a tofu baby?

One Comment leave one →


  1. Wanderlust « I Don't Know

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