Sunday, May 8, 2011

5.8.11 Hangungmal jeonhyeo motaeyo - "I can't speak Korean at all"

Yesterday, we got into a taxi and I told the driver where we wanted to go - Home Plus (it's kind of like WalMart, with somewhat higher quality products).  There was, as usual, a bit of confusion about our destination. When he figured out my terrible Korean accent he asked to confirm, "Homuh Ploosuh?" To which I responded "Yes... ... Hai...Yeh!" (I got to Korean on the 4th try...)

I have always prided myself on speaking well and being quick on my feet, but here I am just another waygookin who doesn't speak the language. Most of the time, all I can say is "jal moreugeseoyo" ("I don't understand"). In general, the people we interact with are very nice about it. Granted, most of them are business owners that we are giving money to, but we have encountered very little overt unkindness to us for being foreigners. The one glaring exception was the crossing guard who lost his shit on us last Friday for crossing as the walk signal was flashing, but in a city where traffic laws are basically ignored most of the time, he seemed more like a petty rulemonger than a xenophobe. 

In an earlier post on this blog, I listed some survival Korean phrases that I had studied before coming here. Now that I've been in Korea for a bit, here are my tips on a few other language skills you need.

First and foremost, learn the hangul alphabet. Even if you don't know what 99% of it means, it is still very helpful to be able to sound out signs and labels. For example, 김밥 means "gimbap" which is a delicious sushi-like dish available in convenience stores and many local restaurants. Other favorites include 비빔밥 ("bibimbap," rice and vegetables), 김치찌개 ("kimchi jjigae," kimchi stew), and 팥빙수 ("patbingsu," sweet red bean paste and fruit served on shaved ice). Being able to sound out these and other foods is a real asset. 

Secondly, learn to count in both the native Korean and Sino-Korean number systems. The old "hana, dul, set, net..." that you learned in Tae Kwon Do class will not do you much good in Korea, as they use the other system ("il, ee, sam, sa...") to count money. Don't think that you can skate by without learning both systems, however, because they are both required. For example, when telling time they use one set of numbers for the hours and the other for the minutes. Learn both, and you will be much less confused than we were about prices for everything (and we are still working on getting the numbers down). 

Lastly, add this phrase to your list; kuhnyang kugyong halkkeyo - I'm just looking. 
Koreans have a very different attitude about customer service. You don't even have to enter a store to be approached by the employees, and it is really handy to be able to thank them, and tell them that you are just window shopping. 

Learn these phrases and you'll feel awkward a bit less often.


  1. What a coincidence you post this now! I was wondering how you were doing as far as the language thing goes. I remember what a hard time you had with Spanish class back at UW. Is the immersion method easier? Are you taking classes? I know in Germany they offer community-run adult ed German classes in the evenings for new immigrants.

  2. There are similar programs here, but we haven't enrolled yet because we need to finish our theses first. I am planning on enrolling in a class in the summer session.

    It does help to be surrounded by the language all the time. I have found that the verbs still elude me, but I am picking up nouns (and expletives) quite quickly... ;)

  3. Ughhh...Korean does that weird thing with numbers too? It's so confusing. *whine* orz

  4. K - yes, and it's confusing as hell. I still have to look at the disply on the cash register to see the price everytime I buy something. :/

  5. So, what would you suggest then Linus, for people in America to buy to learn a bit of the language. I'm hoping to be going to Seoul next summer with UW.

  6. I have found that the videos of this guy are very good. He offers good tips on pronunciation and in his later videos he give a nice selection of useful phrases.