Seoul taxis are language institutes on wheelsTaxi drivers are truly an untapped resource for language practice. Without fail they will ask you the same set of questions: Where are you from? How old are you? How long have you been in Korea? Are you married? Hearing these inquiries over and over in Korean and piecing together the critical vocabulary, I received a free introductory Korean lesson from many an ajeossi behind the wheel. I never even had to crack a book. And the drivers have always taken the opportunity to try out their English on me.
Sometimes, however, the stress of the city can taint these linguistic exchanges, like when the driver who is supposed to be taking you to Sinchon deposits you on the wrong side of the river.
One morning not too long ago I hailed a cab, told the driver my destination and settled back to enjoy the passing scenery. The driver looked into the rearview mirror and decided to make small talk. He mumbled something in English that I did not quite get the first time, so I asked, “What?” And he repeated himself, speaking more emphatically this time: “It’s cold today.”
“Yes,” I agreed.
But apparently I had hurt his ego. “Don’t you speak English?” he asked me in a huff.
I responded with an annoyed laugh. But then it occured to me that I want to ask a similar question of Korean drivers every time I have to repeat myself four times in the Korean language:
“Hongdae-ro ga juseyo.”
For the love of Pete, I know my pronunciation is not that bad.
Whether I get to where I am trying to go or not, I always end up feeling the time I spend studying the language is futile. I imagine that when Koreans see a foreign face they make an unconscious decision not to understand what is being said.
I guess we all need to expand our listening palettes a little wider. We are making the effort to accommodate each other in different languages, after all. As a matter of fact, I have had more trouble communicating in Australia, a country where my own native language is supposedly spoken, than I have here.
by Kirsten Jerch