The last few weeks I’ve been thinking about what it takes to speak Korean. Whether it’s in person, or on language forums or on blogs it seems it’s a very common complaint among Korean language learners. It is definitely one of the challenges of learning Korean, particularly in the early stages.

Although it’s always a struggle to speak the language you are learning, this challenge seems somewhat acute in Korean versus other languages like Turkish or Chinese where native speakers are rather eager to speak with you in their language. Perhaps one of the reasons for this is the general ambition among Koreans to learn English, but it’s also in large part because Korea is a very closed culture compared to other cultures. Knowledge and correct use of Korean is one of the primary keys to this castle and woe to him (or her) who tries to wrench those keys out of one of the gatekeepers!

It definitely gets easier the more fluent and comfortable you are in the language. Even so though, sometimes I still feel guilty for insisting on speaking Korean.

I was quite struck by something Greg Thomson wrote on this problem in connection with his growing participator approach. He writes:

But they feel insulted if I don’t use English!

Now one thing I don’t want to do in this guide is to foster guilt feelings unless they are constructive ones. For many years I’ve heard people talk defensively about the amount of English they use with host people, saying that the host people want it that way. “I mainly relate to educated people, and they feel put down if I don’t speak to them in English,” or “English is the language of business all over the world, and business people want you to use English with them.” I’ve challenged these claims in my own practices, whenever I encountered them in a situation where I was a growing participator. I’ve held many a conversation in which the other person persisted for a long time using English with me, and I persisted longer in using their language. And I don’t believe I have offended anyone so far. People aren’t thinking that much about their language choice. In some cases, it takes awhile before they have a good enough feel for my level of ability that they can adapt their speech to me and switch to using their own language. In other cases, their use of English is a gesture of kindness on their part, which I appreciated.

In the overseas context, I rarely feel that people are using English out of a desire to be part of my languacultural world. That is, it is not about their host identity, as defined earlier. Rather, using English, and improving in English, can significantly raise their prestige among their own people, and is thus about their home identity. (If my conversation partner is an immigrant to Canada, then matters are altogether different, and of course, I love to use English with them, and help nurture them into my world.)

The other side of the coin is that when I use their language, it is because I want to identify with them in their life, and be accepted as a participant in it, and not primarily to raise my status among my fellow expats. Reassessing the issue in this way, rather than the good old, “They want to practice their English and I want to practice their language,” has been a great help to me personally. As a conversation goes on, in which I am using the host language, and the host person is using my language (making me their host), I’m now comfortable with the whole situation: let him raise his status in his home world by his use of English, and let me identify with him in my host world and participate in it.

Similar posts:

Cracking the Korean Speaking Nut: What to do when someone continues to speak to you in English?
Cracking the Korean Speaking Nut: A languacultural critique
Cracking the Korean Speaking Nut: Blackfoot and Korean