Speaking English fluently makes learning Korean harder

Adam Novak
5 min readJul 26, 2022

--

I’ve studied Korean pretty seriously over the last three and a half years. I picked up the alphabet on a whim during my freshman year in college, and that turned into a love for learning the language. I’ve spent a good bit of time in South Korea, too: a summer in Seoul, a winter on a farm, and just recently, several weeks at a Buddhist monastery.

On my first stay in South Korea, I couldn’t speak Korean well at all. I was studying intensely during that time, mostly just learning all those basic words and phrases which are a prerequisite to meaningful communication. As a result, virtually all of my conversations with people were in English. I was very thankful that so many people around me knew English.

Three years later and I speak Korean quite well—well enough to handle most any daily situation, plus some deeper topics. I just finished living on a Buddhist monastery in the Korean countryside and I’m now headed back to Seoul to work on Mist by day and speak Korean by night.

But the catch?

Although I can speak Korean now, actually speaking Korean in South Korea has actually been more difficult than I expected.

I would love to speak it with everyone I meet in the country, but to my surprise, many would rather respond in English. If I had to estimate, roughly half of the situations I encounter in Seoul involve people wanting to speak in English rather than Korean.

Truthfully, it’s been disappointing at times. I’ve worked tirelessly over the last few years, spending at least an hour everyday, to be able to speak the native language of people from a different part of the world. Yet even while living in Seoul, there are times where I feel significant friction to speak Korean.

Some of my Korean notes from a year ago

Although disappointing, there’s two understandable reasons for this.

First, many Koreans’ English is actually on par with or better than my Korean. Korean students have been taking English as a mandatory course since elementary school, and a recent influx of English teachers from the English speaking world has brought the English education to a new level. English pre-schools are also popular amongst those who can afford it so their children can get exposure at an even earlier age. Practicing a language diligently for four years just doesn’t compare with practicing since you were four years old.

More importantly, though, Korean people want to practice English. And as a 6 foot 5 white dude, an obvious English speaker, I’m a great opportunity for that.

I’ve met a surprising number of Koreans who have hinted at the idea that they’d rather I wasn’t learning Korean so that we they could practice their English with me. I guess I overestimated the value that someone might place on a foreigner learning their native language, and underestimated the desire people have to improve their English and the opportunities that can provide them down the road.

One Korean grandmother I spoke with at the monastery told me of an English university teacher in Busan who knows very little Korean, and his students love it. They are forced to speak English with him in every situation. This is interesting, but it’s also not too surprising since students in an English language class have a greater desire to learn English.

I recently bumped into a tall white French dude in Seoul who couldn’t speak English very well but was similarly studying Korean. After our conversation, I realized that this person might not experience this same difficulty I do when trying to speak Korean. If he responds in English with a French accent, odds are Korean people won’t be able to understand, and they’d end up switching to Korean. Maybe I should fake a thick European English accent and stumble on my words in order to lean towards Korean conversations.

This difficulty is similar to language learning in certain European countries with high English fluency. A Japanese American friend named Takae lived in Sweden for several years while studying the language, and she said it was hard to practice the language since almost everyone could speak English so well.

People often criticize Americans for only knowing English and not making an effort to learn other languages. Truthfully, though, when most of the rest of the world is working hard to learn English, not only is the payoff of language learning relatively lower — in some ways, it’s actually more kind and altruistic to only speak English and hang out with one of the many natives who want to improve.

The reality is that today, speaking English fluently actually makes language learning harder. There are a lot of people who want to improve their English, and a conversation with a foreigner is a great opportunity to practice. Odds are, even if you speak the local language well and want to improve, there’s a sizable number of people that would rather talk with you in English.

Well, I guess that’s my cue to stop blogging and get back to studying Korean.

The Ethical Algorithm in Korean. 열공열고

Notes

I’d guess this difficulty is smaller in countries where English is less widely spoken. China is investing heavily in lower income countries in Southeast Asia and Africa; perhaps Chinese is more of the lingua franca there. When I lived in Japan, English seemed to be less prominent than in Korea, and the average person is not as leaning into English-speaking culture as in South Korea. And as for the Middle East and South America, I’m really not too sure what languages are primarily used there.

I’m also curious what things would be like if I could speak Korean even better. Not just well enough to have daily conversation, but well enough to almost be indistinguishable to a native. Perhaps these cases where people respond in English would go away. Maybe I speak Korean just poorly enough so that others know I might not be able to fully understand what they say.

--

--

Adam Novak

Monastic Living | Language Learning | Responsible Technology