Language barrier resistant to time, effortIt is impossible for a foreigner living in Korea to avoid dealing with the Korean language. If you speak English, it’s a bit easier. But whatever your tongue, the language barrier remains tall and sturdy, looking particularly hostile to those intent on breaching it.
My own personal battle with Korean has taken up a good chunk of my two years on the peninsula. I’ve tried textbooks, classes, DVDs, a homestay, and even girlfriends. Yet a truly successful method has thus far managed to elude me.
Admittedly I may not be the best equipped for this task; my previous foray into second-language learning was nine years of force-fed French in the Canadian public school system. That “learning experience” left me last summer explaining to a friend from Quebec about my “raison de terre” ― or reason of the ground.
Of course, when meeting a Korean for the first time, speaking any Korean at all usually elicits a shower of praise. The better you are, the bigger the shower. But this is a honeymoon that can be very short lived, and often leaves some frustrated Koreans in its wake.
Working at something for so long and still gaffing the simplest of social interactions can be very demoralizing. Not long ago, I was asked in Korean for my business card. I, however, thought she was confirming that I had given her my card earlier in the day.
Assuming I had and just forgotten, I nodded politely and grinned stupidly. As the seconds ticked by, she started exchanging uncomfortable glances with her friend. After more increasingly painful staring and grinning on my part, her friend finally blurted out in English, “You will give her card, right?”
Flustered, I tried to pretend it’s completely normal to stand gawking like a hayseed at someone who’s just asked for your business card. The Koreans exchanged one more worried look as I handed over my card and got the hell out of there.
I don’t know how good I’ll ever get my Korean. Short of giving up on North America altogether and naturalizing myself as a citizen here, I’m beginning to feel that it’s hopeless.
One thing I’ve realized is that the gulf between basic communication and being taken seriously is akin to the vastness of outer space. Forget their indecisive southern counterparts, you’ll be more likely to see North Korean soldiers slogging through Iraqi sands as part of the Coalition of the Willing before I’m using my hangul to disarm anyone at the dinner table.
In the meantime, I’ve developed several excuses to explain away my deficiencies. And in the end, at least in my case, Korean is probably best left to the Koreans. After all, they did have a much bigger head start.
by Grant Surridge