Korean is more than a hobby…
It’s a necessity for me. I refuse to live in a country and not speak the language. Heck, I hate traveling to countries whose native tongue I can’t speak at all. This is partially because Americans make no apologies about refusing to speak anything other than English on American soil so I don’t see anything wrong with natives of any country expecting long-term expats to learn theirs. Also, I hate not being able to do small things like ask for help, directions, or explain things to people.
Being unable to express myself makes me feel like a child, plain and simple.
I fear having to explain something with hand motions like many other people do. I’m not a kid. I’m almost 25 years old. As I’ve gotten better at Korean I’ve found that interacting with Koreans has become smoother. I know someone who was hung up on while trying to order food because her Korean wasn’t that good and while he tried to oblige her it just got too hard and was holding up the line. I also once went into a vet with a friend we stood around hoping someone would help us but they thought we were just shopping until I said we needed to see the vet. Imagine how long she would have stood around had I not been there.
One other huge benefit of knowing Korean is that it helps me teach. Many hagwons and schools don’t want people to speak Korean with the kids (and I don’t) but when they are confused on the nuance of something I just show them an example in Korean. Knowing Korean also helps me to teach grammar points to them. I don’t know how the hell other people manage to teach grammar without knowing Korean because I need the English equivalent to learn Korean.
Another benefit of knowing Korean while teaching is knowing what the kids are talking about during classes when they shouldn’t. See Korea is a very indirect culture when it comes to socializing but all kids are kids. Our students aren’t bad but do like to mumble the occasional shit under their breath. At first they spoke too fast for me to understand but after 3 months I could understand them. After 3 more months I got to know them so well I started to respond to them in English. You should see the face of a kid who just realized you understood what they said. Some still talk crap but most know I’m listening to them.
The most fun part about understanding Korean is eavesdropping. I overhear the most ridiculous conversations. Sometimes regarding how tall I am or “wow look how well she eats spicy food” or something like that. The things about foreigners that fascinate Koreans is so bizarre. And then, that moment when they realize you’ve been able to understand them this whole time is priceless.
Finally, I think that learning Korean while living in Korea is something you can add to your skill set. I don’t expect people to study as much as I do but a couple hours a week over a two year period can get you at least to the intermediate level. And as I’ve told my students who think learning English while living in Korea is stupid, “What can it hurt? From where I’m standing it can only help you.” I believe this. Learning anything new can only benefit you and for me studying Korean as much as I do surely beats the alternative– drinking and clubbing.
I have always considered myself to be a leaf in the wind. I try to plan but life it always takes me in a different direction so I’ve learned to just go with it. I don’t know exactly what I plan on doing with Korean, but every time I’ve taken a shot in the dark it has greatly paid off. The was I see it, if I wasn’t studying Korean as much as I do, I’d be sitting around wasting my 20’s with nothing more than “I taught English in Korea for few years” under my belt. And anyone teaching English in Korea knows that’s not exactly a difficult job to get. Hopefully my studies will pay off down the line.