Why do Koreans speak poorly in English

March 15, 2021

“How well do you get along in Korea without Korean?” Is one of the questions I get asked most often. Not that easy to answer. I usually say: “It depends.” Here you can find out exactly what and how you master everyday life with Basic Korean.

First of all, I can reassure those who are concerned about how life in Korea will be due to their lack of language skills. There are people who have lived here for years, don't speak a single word of Korean and still get by. The people here are generally very helpful and try to understand you or to help you. There are also enough translation apps available these days (my personal favorite for Korean: the Papago app). I have already been able to cope with quite a few situations and conversations more or less elegantly with the help of this app.

How far can you get with English alone?

Here at the university, most of them speak good to very good English. At least they can understand you very well, even if some are a little shy and reserved about speaking. Lessons and finding your way around are not a problem. However, you have to keep in mind that it is one of the top universities in South Korea.
Most of the time, you can get along well with English within Seoul. Public transport is equipped with English signs (in addition to Hangeul, the Korean characters), and many shops and restaurants are similar. Mostly I've made the experience that as soon as you leave these more international areas and circles, it becomes a little more difficult to communicate. For example, in smaller Korean restaurants, at the hairdresser's (if you don't choose one that “specializes” in foreigners), at the nail salon, when driving a taxi. It is often the case that you can go to the English-speaking places, but they are significantly more expensive than the local Korean variants (which are definitely not inferior in terms of quality). With many apps that are part of everyday life here, you sometimes have to struggle a bit, because there is no English version or at least in places you have to rely on Hangeul. Even our university app has some features for which you should at least be able to read Hangeul.

Survival vs. Really Experience

So: You can survive here without Korean. But: to experience Korea “properly” without Korean? Rather difficult. Even if you don't want to live here forever, you can still experience a lot more, integrate better into society, get to know other Koreans more profoundly, get a more authentic feeling of Korea when you speak a little Korean. For example, at university it was virtually impossible to join some student initiatives without speaking Korean. It makes everyday life much easier to at least be able to read Hangeul. Since words from English are often used, you can understand a lot even without learning vocabulary.

Many Korean students that I met at university had already been abroad and were therefore very good at English. For those who don't speak English very well, it gets a little more difficult with the language barrier. On the other hand, you can also find Korean friends who want to improve their English and practice Korean with you. In principle, however, I would treat apps and meetings that offer “Language Exchange” with caution, as not all of them are approached with the sole intention of language exchange.

Opportunities and possibilities

Especially outside of Seoul you can feel the language barrier more and more clearly. In smaller cities and rural areas, people hardly speak English and the infrastructure is no longer as geared towards it as in Seoul. Many exchange students hardly leave this international bubble in Seoul (apart from Busan and Jeju), but since I want to discover these sides of Korea myself, I have noticed how important language skills are there.

Even with things like internships, you are relatively limited without any knowledge of Korean: apart from international organizations and the branches of some international companies, fluent knowledge of Korean is generally required. German students who do internships here often do so at German institutions (German Embassy, ​​Goethe Institute, etc.).

Language as the key to culture

Ultimately, you have to think for yourself how much you actually want to experience a local culture, communicate with locals and leave the international community. Because language skills are increasingly a must for this. I find that learning a new language enables a completely different approach and a much better understanding of a new culture. Language alone conveys so much that is unspoken about its associated culture. In Korean, for example, there are the very complex forms of courtesy that mirror Korean society, in which respect for the elderly is a high priority.

No need to despair: as noted in my report on my Korean course, the alphabet itself is not difficult to learn. It usually doesn't take too long to master everyday things like ordering food, asking for directions, etc. More information about learning Korean can be found in my contribution to my language course. So: Have fun learning this wonderful language!

The main Korean phrases for everyday life:
안녕하세요 (Annyeonghaseyo) - Good afternoon
잘 지내 세요? (jal jinaeseyo?) - How are you?
감사 합니다! (Gamsahabnida) - Thank you very much!
안녕히 가세요. (annyeonghi gaseyo!) - Goodbye.
네 / 예 (ne / ye) - yes; 아니 (ani) - No.
화장실 이 어디 예요? (hwajangsil-i eodiyeyo?) - Where is the toilet?
나는 한국어 를 못합니다. (naneun hangug-eoleul moshabnida) - I don't speak Korean.