Learning Korean in the kitchen of a Buddhist monastery

Adam Novak
5 min readAug 11, 2022

I’ve been studying Korean seriously for over three years now. At this point, when I listen to my favorite podcasts in Korean, I can understand a majority of the conversation with ease. I thought that meant I could understand the language spoken live fairly well, too.

That was, until I spent several weeks working in the kitchen of a Korean Buddhist monastery.

The monastery is called Dhamma Korea. It’s one of the many centers around the world which teach Vipassana meditation in the tradition of S.N. Goenka. They offer 10 day courses for people to cast aside worldly desires and struggles to become a monk and meditate seriously, all day everyday, for ten days straight. You can learn more about these monasteries in my blog post on living at one last summer.

This time, I decided to serve while living at the monastery. Unlike the students who meditate upwards of 12 hours per day, servers meditate for 3-5 hours and then work in the kitchen for the rest of the day. I thought this time in the kitchen would be a great way to practice Korean in a real-life environment after studying it earnestly the last three years.

And it was indeed helpful. I’ve built up my vocabulary related to the worlds of chefs and monks, and many sentence structures come out more naturally now.

That being said, hearing a language in a kitchen is worlds apart from listening to a conversation in a coffee shop. It wasn’t speaking—but listening—that was significantly more difficult than I had experienced til then.

As I reflected on why this was the case, I came across the following reasons, ordered from least to most impactful:

COVID-19 masks

Unsurprisingly, covering your mouth with a mask slightly muffles one’s voice and makes communication less clear.

Short commands

Instead of open ended questions and conversation on topics like:

  • “Why did you decide to attend USC?” / “남가주 대학교를 왜 가기로 했어요?”
  • “Well, you see I always wanted to….” / “그게, 전 어렸을 때부터…”

In the kitchen, things went more like:

  • “Can you lift this up for me?” / “이걸 좀 올려놓아주시겠어요?”
  • “Yea sure” / “네~”

Quick questions, quick responses. Language ends up being just a helpful accessory to the task at hand.

Distance and angles

In half of my conversations, my co-cooks were in a separate part of the room, looking in another direction. Anyone can relate to not hearing your parents when they yell something across the house. Now image them yelling in foreign language 😵‍💫

Background noise

Cling, clang, “아이고”, “와 이게 진짜 맛있다,먹어봐!” When these sounds and many more echo around you, it’s hard to tell the subtle differences in pronunciation between similar words

Quietness

Because the kitchen was at a monastery, we had to stay as quiet as possible to not disturb nearby meditators. Dropping your voice a few notches makes it harder for others to hear.

Noble Speech

Monastic servers are to uphold Noble Speech, a practice where you only speak about the tasks at hand without engaging in unnecessary conversations (let alone insults, lies, or back biting). Although this rule was not followed 100% of the time, it certainly pushed me in a direction of not wanting to speak Korean in order to preserve the quietness.

Multitasking

Multitasking makes speaking slightly harder for me, even in English. I prefer to give my full attention to whatever I am doing when possible.

Urgency

I found the urgency of working in a kitchen to be the greatest difficulty. Because we have to get all the food prepared with limited hands and with a deadline, we were under some time pressure. It’s in everyone’s best interest to communicate as quickly and briefly as possible. More often than not, my co-chefs would just finish my sentences halfway through to speed things up.

These factors all combined to create an environment that’s actually not so ideal for language learning.

Although one can grow in many ways at a monastery, and although one can have some fun working in a kitchen, they’re not the best places for learning a language.

When I left the monastery and hung out with a friend in Seoul, we had a relaxed conversation, face to face, giving each other our full attention, without a mask and with relatively little background noise. I was surprised how easily the conversation flowed.

This is not to say that one cannot grow in a language while living at a monastery or working in a kitchen. I improved tremendously in Korean while living with my parents in Tennessee during the pandemic simply by voraciously reviewing vocab words in my Anki deck and repeating after YouTube videos. During that time, if I had lived at Dhamma Korea instead of Brentwood Tennessee, I probably would have improved even more.

I think the very best environment for an adult learning a language would be formal schooling in the language. Schooling at any level, whether immersion education for youth or a master’s degree in the country of that language. The entire purpose of schooling is to learn something, and when the learnings occurs in a foreign language, the environment is naturally designed for you to learn the language. After all, the most effective and fun way to improve is not by trying to learn the language, but by learning something through the language.

As I now prepare to start my senior year at USC, I know that the next best step towards real Korean fluency would be formal education in South Korea for a few years. Of course, I still plan to visit more Korean monasteries to enjoy the delicious vegan temple food 😋🍲🥗

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Adam Novak

Monastic Living | Language Learning | Responsible Technology