I’ve been continuing to think about why we Korean language learners (and definitely some much more than others) face trouble with speaking Korean to other Koreans.

Reader choronghi shared a link to a post at Korean Champ with a couple different tips he’s used for overcoming this language speaking barrier. David Wills over at Triumph of the Wills offers complaints along a simliar vein but no real solution.  Prof. Arguelles wrote in the HTAL forum about his Korean study:

Of course having access to many native speakers helped, but I all too often felt as if I had to force people to speak their language with me, which was unpleasant.

Of course is not a Korean-only problem. Benny over at Fluent in Three Months has written about his weapons in this  battle of wits in the languages he studies (which doesn’t include Korean as of yet).

Looking over different posts by language learners on this subject, one of the most startling complaints was from Steven over at Nojoek Hill: My view from the top. Seventeen years after starting to learn Korean he writes.

It’s Downright Impossible Sometimes to Speak Korean with Koreans Who Want to Speak English

Another obstacle for many of us in learning Korean is the fact that we first came to Korea as English teachers. Becoming an English teacher in Korea can be a deal with the devil: easy short-term access to a job in exchange for permanently handicapping oneself in the learning of Korean. Once we reach Korea, start teaching English and establish friendships with Koreans wanting to learn English, it takes a tremendous amount of initiative to break out of that and find a Korean-speaking social group.

In fact, even those not coming to Korea to teach English still find that those in their circle either a) already speak excellent English and don’t want to chat in baby Korean with a foreigner or b) don’t speak excellent English and want to practice English.

This is not a small issue; it is one I still struggle with even after all these years. But I should point out that in many cases, I choose the easy way of seeking out an English-speaking option (sometimes by default; sometimes deliberately) and then feeling victimized for not getting to improve my Korean. In these cases, I have nobody to blame but myself.

I honestly found this somewhat perplexing, especially as on a cognitive level (in terms of tests and presumbly how much words and grammar he knows) Steven knows Korean very well. And yet he wrote (after almost two decades of studying Korean) that people often didn’t speak Korean to him.

He tells us about a conversation that he had recently. He writes about being cornered by a guy in the stairwell wanting English lessons. Although he (unfortunately) only gives a rough English transcript of the dialogue, it seems to give a bit of a clue to why he still (as of that post) had trouble speaking Korean to Koreans.

In the dialogue a guy in the stairwell asks for English lessons and Steven point blank refuses to. And then he gives his reasons for not wanting to speak Korean. He came to Korea, he worked hard to study Korean and he feels used if Koreans speak to him in English.

I can understand all his reasons. But it seems to me that although he is using Korean, he is using it with a western mindset. A western mindset that says you should mean what you say and say what you mean. A Western mindset that says you should directly tell the person ‘yes’ or ‘no’. In the west, if you say ‘no’ you generally show your respect by giving well thought out reasons.

But it’s different in Korea. Way different. I honestly can not imagine a Korean, even a very obnoxious Korean, responding as he did. In my experience (and my experience is admittedly limited) a Korean would probably more often than not agree and say ‘yes’ if someone ask for lessons and then just not do it or afterwards write the person a text saying that something had come up and he couldn’t teach them. A somewhat blunt Korean might refuse by saying something like “Well, I don’t know. . .  I’m so busy these days. . . “.

In the dialogue the Korean man seems to be quite confused. And I don’t think its because Steven’s pronunciation or word-choice was necessarily confusing — it was because he wasn’t responding in culturally appropriate way.

The general trend these days is to study languages in a very cognitive way — learning vocabulary, Hanja, grammar, and memorising various expressions and phrases. For a western learner of Korean this fits very well into his worldview with language as very compartmentalised and separate from social and cultural aspects.

But it seems way to easy to focus on the cognitive aspect and then miss the very important socio-cultural aspect. For westerners this socio-cultural or languacultural aspect is specially important in Korean compared to other languages like French which share a large cultural heritage with English speakers. This missing of the socio-cultural aspect might be one reason why learners have a hard time finding Koreans to speak with them.

Benny has written about this when talking about his Egyptian foray. He writes about people-watching to figure out how people are dressed, their hair styles, the way they walk, the way they carry their cellphones and then copying what the local people do to blend in. Surprisingly (or maybe not so surprisingly)  he writes that even though he doesn’t look that Egyptian most Egyptians would talk to him in Arabic and not in English. And it’s the same way for Korean — if we want to speak Korean we have to do more than speak Korean, we have how to act (and think) it as well.

Similar posts:

Cracking the Korean Speaking Nut: Blackfoot and Korean
Cracking the Korean Speaking Nut: What to do when someone continues to speak to you in English?
Thoughts on Speaking Korean