Learning language at homeThese days, even pre-school children are taking English language courses overseas. With the number of Korean students learning English abroad continuing to rise, Koreans have already spent more than 1 trillion won ($900 million) outside Korea in the first half of the year.
Is going out of the country the only way to learn foreign languages?
More than 10,000 people visit Namdaemun market every day, including 6,000 to 7,000 Japanese tourists.
For shopkeepers there, knowing Japanese is more important than knowing English.
There, it is easy to spot a stout, middle-aged woman selling Korean snacks from a street cart who is fluent in Japanese, Chinese and even English.
Shopkeepers in places like Namdaemun and Itaewon learned their second languages in less formal ways. Instead of grammar and vocabulary textbooks, they are armed with tenacity and boldness.
The JoongAng Ilbo introduces a number of these self-taught foreign language students, many of whom honed their skills as part of their everyday job.
Questions about current events don’t faze vendors
With the help of a Japanese student, Fumi Hatanaka, the JoongAng Ilbo secretly tested eight vendors who taught themselves Japanese.
Questions about the recent crackdown on prostitution were posed to Lee Young-soo, who manages Fashion Sa. Mr. Lee was initially reluctant to respond, but eventually he offered his opinion freely.
“There is no country where there is no prostitution. Although it is not desirable, it is a necessary evil to promote tourism in Korea,” Mr. Lee answered in Japanese.
Ms. Hatanaka concluded that Mr. Lee explained his position persuasively. She was also impressed with sophisticated expressions he used.
Yun Byeong-mun, who co-owns a store called Daeseong Mulsan, has narrative skills of his own. When Ms. Hatanaka asked about the Korean pop culture boom in Japan recently, Mr. Yun asked, “Why are the Japanese so crazy about Korean celebrities?”
When Ms. Hatanaka responded, Mr. Yun asked, “Are they different from Japanese actors?” He continued, “It is positive since it improves Korea’s reputation in Japan and generates interest in Korea’s history.” Ms. Hatanaka concluded that his Japanese was flawless.
Park Gyeong-jeong, the owner of clothes retailer called Heukmasa, pretended that he was interested in the conversation topics, but he eventually steered the discussion to his merchandise.
“Economic slump, you know,” Ms. Hatanaka said.
“What’s that?” Mr. Park said.
“I mean, stagnant economy,” Ms. Hatanaka said. “Ah, in the winter, leather clothes are the best,” he said.
Ms. Hatanaka said Mr. Park was very practical. “Although I didn’t get the answer I wanted, he was so spontaneous that I felt awestruck,” she said.
“That kind of wit, rather than fluency, can attract more customers,” she added.
Learning English through life
Lee Dong-hyeok, 27, speaks quite decent “Police English,” but in the past, he sweated even to make a foreign criminal get on his knees.
“When I was in college, my English was horrible,” said Mr. Lee. “One time I took a foreign vegetarian to a galbi restaurant because I did not understand what vegetarian meant,” he said.
Now his English is fluent enough to question suspects. “Did I go abroad to learn English? I don’t even have a passport,” said Mr. Lee.
He started studying English after he finished his military service and went back to college. He started going to a nearby language institute and became friends with one of the teachers, the vegetarian.
“We watched movies and played basketball together and of course, talked in English,” said Mr. Lee.
In applying for a police officer’s job, he sought out the Yongsan Police Station, which is in charge of Itaewon and the U.S. military base, because he was quite confident of his English by then. But it wasn’t enough. One time, he recalled, “I didn’t know how to explain to a caller that we were not responsible for what he wanted. The caller eventually hung up.”
So Mr. Lee started learning English again, especially legal terms. He’s even learned some curse words, but hasn’t used them yet, he said.
Talk goes beyond business
Designer Lee Young-soo started selling leather clothes at his store, Fashion Sa, 15 years ago.
“In the beginning, I could only say, ‘irasshaimase (welcome), ‘moshi moshi (hello)’ or ‘yasui (cheap).’”
Now, he has many regular customers, some of whom are also friends.
They all want to talk about life, not just business. One time, a female customer asked what she should do as she was getting ready to break up with her boyfriend.
He developed these ties because of his fluent Japanese. Some customers even mistake him for a Japanese person. Mr. Lee can only speak the language because he learned it on the job.
At first, Mr. Lee did not even know how to write Japanese characters and punched the price on a calculator and showed it to customers, but he could not explain why the merchandise was good and how reasonable the prices were.
Then, he bought a textbook on the correct pronunciation of Japanese words, which he read over and over. When he had a social gathering, he memorized words related to drinking like “sake” for rice wine, “kudamono” for fruit and “jijimi” for pancake.
Mr. Lee practiced his ever-widening vocabulary on Japanese customers, even though the words were not directly related to the situation.
He said he can also speak different dialects in Japanese. Whether a customer is from Hokkaido to Kyushu, Mr. Lee said he knows how to respond to each customer in his or her home dialect.
On a recent day, with a customer from Hokkaido, Mr. Lee talked about the Korean TV drama “Winter Sonata (Huyuno Sonata),” which was a wild success in Japan.
“In the end, what’s more important than trying to speak correctly are a smile and active engagement,” Mr. Lee said.
Thirst for knowledge drives cabbie
One could call taxi driver Yun Wol-lo, 59, “hexalingual.” In his cab, you won’t hear the typical fast-beat music favored by taxi drivers. Instead, you might listen to English, French or Japanese tapes. Next to the driver’s seat lies “Pocketbook Russian,” “Pocketbook Spanish” and other language books.
Whenever the taxi has to stop at traffic signals, the driver’s eyes shift down at a small notebook near the gearshift. When you look closely, you see that the notebook is full of English and Japanese vocabulary words.
Mr. Yun speaks English, Spanish, French, Russian, Chinese and Japanese quite well. Not bad for a person who didn’t graduate from middle school.
When he was in his mid-40s, he started learning these languages all by himself. About 15 years ago, he suffered a shoulder injury and could not work for a while. He saw it as “a chance given by heaven” for him to try one thing he always wanted to do ― learning.
“Back then, (before I learned English), I used to pass up foreigners who were trying to catch a cab, because I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to communicate with them,” said Mr. Yun.
As he tried to read an English book for the first time since middle school, he found that he could remember only the alphabet. He tried attending language institutes, but it was too difficult to keep up with other students.
He sometimes thought, “Maybe I’m too old for this,” but then he realized that if he didn’t do this now, it would only get harder with age.
He bought English conversation tapes and textbooks at a book store and started listening to language tapes all day. When the tape overheated after playing so much, he would take it out to cool it down.
Whenever he had a foreign passenger, he would test himself. He would start with “Good afternoon,” and ask, “Where ...?” He listened carefully to the response in order to nail down the pronunciation.
It was difficult to understand those passengers at first. He would say, “Pardon, sir?” so he could “rewind” what they said.
Between the tapes and foreign passengers, he learned English during his 15-hour workday. After he finished working, he studied English for two or three hours a day.
“After doing that for three years, I started talking in English even in my sleep,” said Mr. Yun. “After gaining more confidence, I would deliberately drive around Itaewon, or Yongsan, to get foreign passengers.”
One time, an American passenger who got in his cab to catch a train to Munsan, a town in Gyeonggi province, enjoyed Mr. Yun’s conversation so much that he asked him to drive him all the way to Munsan instead of stopping at the train station.
As his confidence grew, Mr. Yun started teaching his colleagues English. A while after, he became famous among other drivers for his ability to teach “English for taxi drivers” very effectively.
He later became an honorary English lecturer for a taxi driver’s union. He even taught cab drivers at Incheon International Airport at the request of the company that owns the airport.
However, he was not satisfied. He started learning French and Spanish eight years ago and Russian, Japanese and Chinese two years ago.
“Age doesn’t matter when it comes to learning,” he said.
In the future, he wants to practice Arabic, so that he will be able to speak all the official languages in the United Nations.
Business demanded fluency
Yun Byeong-mun, a co-owner of Daeseong Mulsan smiled bashfully when he was praised for his ability to speak Japanese.
“Well, there are a lot of people who can speak Japanese better than I can,” but there was no one who tried harder, he said.
After Mr. Yun failed the college entrance exam, his family suggested he start a business in Namdaemun market.
While he began to enjoy growing sales, Mr. Yun came across an obstacle: communicating with the Japanese.
Japanese customers listened to his broken Japanese, but before long they turned their backs and walked away.
Even a tour guide embarrassed Mr. Yun, criticizing him, a seller of ginseng, which is popular among Japanese tourists, for not speaking Japanese.
Unwilling to give up, Mr. Yun registered in a Japanese language school right away. At 7 p.m. everyday, after work, Mr. Yun went to the school in Jongno, central Seoul. As if that were not enough, Mr. Yun took the same class twice in a row each day.
When he returned home, he practiced dictation watching Japanese cartoons. Mr. Yun thought that it was not only fun but also helpful in learning Japanese. In the beginning, Mr. Yun understood only one-tenth of the words, but after one year he could comprehend 70 percent.
He was also able to speak a little. Mr. Yun intended to learn the most respectable way of speaking.
“To even young customers, I tried to speak as politely as possible using honorifics,” Mr. Yun said. “They first seemed baffled and grinned at me.”
But he must have been doing something right, as he drew more Japanese customers.
Last year, Mr. Yun invested all the money he made in a new store in partnership with another person. Recently, he is facing a challenge from a number of new Namdaemun vendors who have studied in Japan.
“Yet I believe Japanese with a Korean flavor may sound more appealing,” Mr. Yun said.
by Shin Eun-jin, Kim Pil-kyu, Kwon Hyuk-joo