Moving to a new country is never easy. There are foreign customs, strange foods (that may or may not agree with you), bizarre stereotypes, and every day tasks like grocery shopping or ordering a cup of coffee can become incredibly challenging.
I lived abroad in London, England for a semester and found plenty of frustrations during my stay–and that was in an English-speaking country. A step up from that, traveling throughout France (where I speak the native language well) has been manageable. Even other countries that I have visited in Europe have used Latin alphabets that I have been able to read.
But there is nothing quite as unsettling as being in a country where you not only don’t speak the native language, but you are completely illiterate. I had my first experience with this when I traveled to China in 2009. I often heard from my college roommate how Chinese children learn English from their grade school years, but I was shocked to find very, very little English present, even on public signs. I was completely helpless. Fortunately I was with my roommate and her family, so I didn’t starve and was able to take a small glimpse at what the country had to offer. It was the first time that I realized other countries can truly be an entirely different world from our own, despite being only a plane ride away.
|Flashing back to nineteen….aaaaaand now I feel old.|
When I returned from China, I immediately started taking Chinese courses back in college. (There’s still a really embarrassing video from the beginning of my first semester class floating around on YouTube). I began to discover my passion and knack for foreign languages, and still want to learn many more. However, with my move to Korea my Chinese studies have been put on hold. Fortunately, the Korean writing system (한글) functions like a streamlined, well-oiled alphabet machine. Whoever King Sejong commissioned to design it was absolutely brilliant.
Learning how to write and read Hangeul should be your first priority when coming to Korea. While many road signs are written with English below them, you will find there are many English words that have be Koreanized into Konglish using Korean characters! For example, “orange” becomes 오렌지 (oh-ren-jee) and “camera” becomes 카메라 (kah-may-rah). I’ve had many moments where I’ll be sounding something out, and I’ll suddenly realize I’m pronouncing a normal English word with a Korean accent. It sounds silly, but it can really help you both pick up Korean quickly!
Tip: Use Korean signs that are written in Konglish with the English below them to practice reading and learn your vowels!
Once you have mastered Hangeul, you can begin to learn words and phrases. I’ve been busy for a variety of reasons since coming here that I won’t get into now, but I have been able to use my knowledge of Hangeul to more accurately learn new words and phrases. When teaching my students English, I do my best to direct both the kids and my teachers away from using Hangeul as a way to sound out English words. The language is completely different, so the writing system you use should be too! At my elementary school, students don’t begin formal English classes until 3rd grade, but I’m teaching my students IPA to help with English pronunciation. I was surprised how quickly they picked it up.
Tip: When learning a new language, try to leave your native language’s writing system and pronunciation behind. Learning IPA can help tremendously! After that, practice, practice, practice.
Now, I use Hangeul whenever I learn a new word. When we speak we don’t always enunciate every consonant sound, but sometimes if you learn a word from its sped up pronunciation, you will incorrectly assume it’s spelling and end up developing a pronunciation that is further from the actual word. For example: “thank you” in formal Korean is 감사합니다, or gamsahamnida. When broken down syllable by syllable, this is pronounced “kahm-sah-hahm-nee-dah,” but when spoken quickly it sounds more like “kum-suhm-nee-da”. Knowing the spelling (and as a result, the exact pronunciation) enables you to speak with a more natural rhythm and intonation.
However, if all else fails, your hands are your best friends*. I swear I’m essentially a professional mime now, and have developed my own special form of sign language that I’m teaching to all of my Korean coworkers. One of my co-teachers actually complimented me the other day, saying that I seem to be very good and ‘reading their minds’ and understanding what they’re trying to communicate, as well as expressing myself clearly in return.
Tip: Do not play charades with me now. You will lose.
*There is also a fantastic app out now called GenieTalk! You can either speak into it or type, but I have found its translations to be far more accurate than other quick translation services like GoogleTranslate.