Saturday, September 18, 2010

Communication Breakdown

This article, being the titular entry of my blog, shall indeed deal with the difficulties and amusements involved in up and moving my ass to a new country where I don't speak a word of the native language. It shall not be a display of hilarious Engrish signs I've found, if that's what you were hoping for. Perhaps that will come later. No, I'm sure it will come later. Have patience, friends.

...sorry, what? Titular?
  Before I came to Korea, I was under the impression that everyone and their hamster spoke English. I'm not sure if I had simply convinced myself of it after countless repetitions of stating my case to friends and family for why I was going to Korea, or what, but I was kind of expecting it to be like my trip to Mexico City; anyone I needed to talk to, would speak English. This, however, is not the case.

Turns out, the country is in fact quite nutso about English. It is seen as an important tool for success, and is required study for students from the 3rd grade through high school, and in many universities. It is very rare for students to study any languages besides English in school. And yet somehow, hardly anyone seems to actually speak it. Of the people I attempt to communicate with in stores and restaurants, on the street, in back alleys, in police stations, etc, most of them have less of a command of the English language than the average American does of Spanish. And I'm sure you know the way many Americans feel about speaking Spanish.

Yeah, I'm tired of speaking Moron
Even the native Koreans who teach English at my school for the most part can't speak it that well. My co-teacher, who is the head English teacher at the school, often mixes up the past and future tenses, and as far as I know she isn't one of the guys from Primer. Understanding what she is trying to tell me is often a struggle. To give you an idea of her English skill: with perhaps the exception of vocabulary range, I would say that my French is better than her English. I took French for about a year and a half. Granted, she is only teaching elementary school-aged kids and their material isn't the most difficult, but honestly I expected more.

I think there are plenty of possible reasons for this. This infatuation with learning English is I'm sure a relatively recent development, as it is directly related to U.S.-Korea economic ties and the march towards globalization. So I'm sure many of the older folk did not receive nearly the same kind of motivation for English education. Korea is also a very homogeneous society. All one has to do is walk down the street and get stared at by every person they pass to discover that non-Koreans are a bit of a novelty in most areas of the country. There is not much of a chance for exposure to other cultures or for practice of one's English skills with native speakers, so it is easy to forget what one has learned. Additionally, Korean schools (at least the elementary schools) seem to be very strict and standardized. The curriculum and materials are created by Koreans, and often have mistakes or strange choices when it comes to subjects and vocabulary. And while there is plenty of opportunity for those who excel, those who struggle seem to easily fall through the cracks, and often sit in class ignoring and being ignored.

Finally, there is one obvious reason for this general lack of English competency: the language is fucking hard to learn. In particular, the Korean language is so different from English that it takes quite a lot of study and practice for a native Korean to become anywhere near proficient with it. Considering how difficult Korean seems to me, I have nothing but sympathy for those who find learning English to be a tough buck to saddle.

Fortunately, the rest of us lucky enough to have learned English as a first (or strong second) language can laugh at amusing situations made possible by these obstacles to communication. For example, this conversation I had at the hospital while getting my medical examination:

Dentist: No more.
Me: No more...what?
Dentist: No more.
Me: ...Huh?
Dentist: [something in Korean] more!
Me: Shit, do I have a cavity or something? No more what, now? Sugar?
Dentist: No, no, more! [turns aside to say something to my busily texting Korean guide] Ha ha! Goodbye!

Me: So...what did he say?
Guide: He said your teeth are normal.

Needless to say, I was greatly relieved (and amused) when I realized that he had been trying to say "normal" the whole time, and not trying to chastise me for and unhealthy diet as dentists are wont to do. It is nice that these moments exist to balance against those that are on the Frustrating side of the scale, and to remind me of why I came here in the first place: for experiences. Funny, annoying, educational, random, inspirational, confusing...whatever they may be.

And, since this post is long enough already, I think I'll end it th--

Well since that's there, I'd like to point out that the Korean text on the sign doesn't really make sense's just a transliteration of the English.




  1. This made me smile. Also, good to know I probably can't read your blog at work, since it's a few nipples away from being pornographic.

  2. This is liz brown btw, my real name probably confuses you.

  3. Can you send me some of that crap? This is hirarious by the way. Suplize!

  4. lyke omg dewd u totally have a blogging purrrrrsonaliteeeeeeeeee, it's kewl. also i miss you, i played settlers of catan w/ my family today you should have been there. or maybe not, because i won, which i'm sure i wouldn't have done w/ you there. kk lolz bye

  5. LOL ok please post more funny sign photos. i'll have to tell you about this one from australia...