Teach English in Korea: Speaking the Language
All Koreans Also Speak English: A Myth for English teachers who want to be lazy...
Before arriving in The Land of the Morning Calm, also known as Korea, many foreigners and prospective English teachers hear that learning Korean is not necessary, and that you can function pretty well in Korea without speaking a lick of Korean. They hear this from current and former English teachers who are trying to justify the reasons they never learned Korean during their stays here. Technically, if you're working at a school where you have a really good relationship with your Korean coworkers, and they are willing to go the extra mile to make your stay an enjoyable one, this is true. Perhaps, if you are only in Korea for a quick buck, and don't intend to stray too far away from the familiar, speaking Korean is not that important to you -- assuming you've got those helpful coworkers.
If you've come to Korea for the Korean experience however, or if you don't have coworkers who are willing to help you out, especially outside of major cities like Seoul, I would argue that this is just not true. Unless you have a friend who can translate for you, not speaking any Korean can be a little trying at the best of times, and very frustrating at others. Never have I so perfected my charades-playing-abilities, since I have come to Korea, and I even speak a little Korean!
Now to be fair, although growing, the amount of Korean I currently speak really is quite small. Even speaking just a little Korean can really be helpful to you, when you are trying to live your life here in Korea, if only in creating good will in the people that you are talking to. Knowing simple phrases such as Hello, Goodbye, Thank You, My name is _____, Do you have ______? Where is _______? Can really help you out in a bind, even if you don't know how to say everything that you'd like to, and even if you're not quite able to understand the entirety of the final answer. I would suggest that in the very least, you pick up a good phrase book before you arrive. Become familiar with the various parts so you know where to look when you take it out to use it. Phrase books are at their most useful when you are pretty familiar with their layout, and you can find the information you need quickly. A good phrase book to try is Lonely Planet's Korean Phrasebook, it's under $10, well layed-out, and so helpful.
The Korean alphabet (Hangul) : Learn it = some good advice
Before delving into the Korean language however, and even if you don't intend to learn anything but the bare essentials, you absolutely must become familiar with the Korean alphabet, Hangul (한글). Although to the untrained eye Korean writing seems to be no different from Chinese or Japanese characters, Korean is actually written in a system of letters that each stands for its own sound. It is a phonetic alphabet, and has been called the writing language you can learn in a morning.
There are 24 different Hangul letters of which 14 are consonants and 10 are vowels. It was developed as a writing system by the great King Sejong in 1446, and was specifically designed so that even commoners could learn to read and write it. It is of course easier to learn if you have a language to associate each of the sounds with, but it is nonetheless pretty straight forward and can be of the most amazing help to you once you are in Korea. If you learn Hangul you will quickly discover that you will often find English words disguised as Korean by writing them in Hangul. Being able to read -- even if you don't understand everything you are reading -- is an advantage that will make your life much easier.
Learn the basics: Resources
There are a lot of different websites and books to get you started on learning Korean. In the area where I live, there were hardly any books available in the bookstores but I did find a few websites that were very helpful. My favourite was a series of ten minute clips available on YouTube called Let's Speak Korean. Here are a few of my other favourites. Although I'm sure that there are many great paying websites out there to teach you, these ones are all free.
- Learn-Korean.net : a free website that starts right from the basics and move up through multiple levels.
- eLanguageSchool.net : another free site which has some original content, and links you to a few other interesting websites.
- GenkiKorean.com : made by an English teacher in Korea that has some really interesting games to try out your Korean skills.
- MyLanguageExchange.com : which will help you find a native Korean speaker to practice Korean with, in return for helping them with their English.
se-pa-geh-tee... this English word is playing hide-and-seek with your brain...
Whether you decide to learn Korean or not, I really feel I must reiterate that learning Hangul can really make a difference in the time that you spend here. You'll pick up different Korean words along the way, but being able to read will really help you understand a greater part of the world around you, even if you don't understand everything that you're reading. It's a really interesting the first time you try to sound out a Korean word, only to find out that it had been an English word all along -- just incognito. It will be of immense help to you on public transportation and also in restaurants. And trust me, Korean restaurants are a place where you'll want all the help you can get!
Laura Berwick is an English teacher at a private English academy in Seoul, South Korea. For more information about her or her experiences in Korea please feel free to visit her blog.