The language barrier is very real. Because I lived a solely English-speaking existence prior to coming to South Korea three weeks ago, I had never realized how much of a challenge it is. I chose to come to Soonchunhyang University for my semester abroad because I wanted a challenge, but I did not realize how much I would have to overcome.
On the first full day I spent in South Korea, the other exchange students and I went out for lunch at a local restaurant. Some of the other students had taken Korean courses before, but I had not. I have never felt more helpless than I did on that day, fumbling with my translator app as I tried to order something to eat.
This is one of many times I have run headfirst into the language barrier, and I am only three weeks into my five-month stay in South Korea. I feel like a child when I interact with native speakers because I cannot properly articulate my words, nor understand what they are saying. I cannot count how many times I have been asked something simple like “Do you want a bag?” and I have just frozen up. These are actions I did every day in the U.S, but they require much more effort here.
This past weekend, my friend group and I went on an outing to one of the local cities. After only being out for a few hours, I wanted to go home. I was tired and stressed out and I think finally feeling “culture shock” from my sheer inability to properly interact with anyone. I had two options — cry about it or finally learn some necessary phrases so social outings did not stress me out.
With the help of my Korean roommates, I did the latter, and have a few phrases I am trying to use every day. When I first arrived, I could only say “안녕하세요,” which means “hello.” Now I can say thank you, please, and, my personal favorite, “잠시만요,” which means “excuse me.” I am partial to that last one because it is not often used by Koreans, as people will generally just squeeze by, saying nothing. However, I have learned that there is power in these phrases, as I have found when I use it, people give me the space I need.
When I studied Spanish in high school, I remember one of my teachers explaining that it is OK to have a weak vocabulary in the beginning, because from a language perspective, we were all still infants. I embrace being an “아기” and babble whatever phrase I pick up from my roommates. Though I am struggling, I know I am improving.
The hardest part of learning is when the Korean language throws me a sound that English simply does not have. For example, the consonant “ㄹ” is a fun cross between an L and an R. To say it correctly, I have to wrap my head around saying both those sounds at the same time, or guess which sound the word will be closer to. I also take personal offense to words like “이곳” (pronounced igo) because why have an ending that should sound like “S” if it is not meant to make any sound? I understand the irony of my struggling considering the English language has words like through, though and thorough, but I digress.
On the positive side, my constant interactions with the language barrier are teaching me to better explain English. I understand why my roommates struggle to pronounce English words with Ls and Rs because, as previously said, their native language does not separate the two sounds. As cliché as it sounds, I do have a newfound respect for people learning English, especially after moving to a new country. It is difficult, frustrating and scary to smile and hope for the best. I am very grateful to have learned a widespread language from a young age.
In terms of learning Korean, I am highly optimistic. You need to fall in order get back up, and I fell hard early on. It can only be up from here. This is the challenge I signed up for, and I am determined to work my way over to the other side of the language barrier.
If you would like to follow along with my time in South Korea, follow @eap_travels on Instagram for weekly updates on Fridays at 8 a.m. EST.