Learning to speak Korean was high on my priorities when I first considered coming to teach English in Korea.

I had great plans of how I would study hard online for months and be able to speak Korean, at least conversationally, to a fairly decent standard by the time I arrived. Out of all the Asian languages, Korean surely has to be the easiest.

Before you fall down and start ROFL-ing, take a look at this incredible little video that will teach you how to read Korean in 15 minutes. After arriving in Korea, I was introduced to this voodoo and within a few evenings of drilling the letters, I had the Korean letters nailed.

(Grab your pen and pad and have a go! But, ahem, read my post first…)

If only I knew learning Korean was that easy!

I would have thrown myself into it months before arriving. I would have arrived in Korea ready to discuss important matters like the weather and the state of the economy.

Instead, I knew nothing!

Why?

Unfortunately, because of the way my EPIK application played out, everything was up in the air and I was actually studying Mandarin Chinese until the final hour. I was so close to going to the Middle Kingdom.

The last-gasp switch and dash to Korea meant I arrived with little more than a smile and a wave in my locker.

Rather than being able to speak Korean, I spent the first few months largely limited to ‘hello’, ‘thank you’ and ‘goodbye’.

All my efforts on learning apps and online podcasts improved my vocab and grammar knowledge yet I remained a mute, gagged by a lack of confidence, my tongue tied with doubt. It was only when I got this great beginner textbook that my understanding of grammar truly grew over time.

But those early months were tough. I couldn’t speak Korean and so felt somewhat isolated. Even as an introvert, I started to find my alone time was….almost all the time. There were moments when I realized I hadn’t had a free-flowing conversation in my native tongue for almost a week with someone who wasn’t me.

There I was at school everyday, a smiling mute. I was trying to learn the Korean language but the confidence to speak eluded me.

The words were there, but I just couldn’t seem to get them out. When I tried to speak Korean, it was like my mind was a library but the doors were locked.

So, in a conscious effort to improve, I set myself a mission.; to use a new phrase each day, starting with the teachers’ room in the morning – the setting for over a hundred magnificent utterances of hello and goodbye from yours truly.

Rural arable land in Korea
In rural Korea, there’s always room to grow

For weeks, I had wanted to offer the ever-present vice-principal a coffee in the morning and to speak Korean to break the silence, if only for a moment. Before I knew it my chance came along.

I arrived a little early, he was there, alone, and he had no coffee cup in front of him as he pored over his computer, his brow furrowed in focus.

Raising his eyes for a brief moment, he nodded in acknowledgement of my presence, drawing my verbal response…

“Kyo-cam sun-sing-nim an-yeong-ha-se-yo” (hello vice-principal)

I strolled to the kettle, the hamsters running the show up above in my mind pushed open the library doors and found what I was looking for.

“Koe-pi deu-se-lae-yo?” (would you like a coffee?)

Stunned, he turned with a smile. He nodded and said “nae!!” (yes)

Awesome, this was going well, I thought. This speaking Korean lark is actually kind of fun!

I poured the coffee and took the Vice-Principal’s to the desk, gently setting it down within arm’s reach.

He thanked me. In Korean.

I was feeling confident. I was actually starting to speak Korean.

So I took it one step further…

“Jam-shi-man-yo!”,  I said, cool as a cucumber.

He looked at me, slightly confused.

I met his eyes. He waited, expectant.

Doubt kidnapped my mind immediately. I felt the library door in my mind close with an almighty bang as the hamsters were sent crashing against their wheel.

My mind went blank.

He stared. Silence fell between us.

I walked away leaving him hanging, his confused expression awkwardly frozen upon his face.

“What did I just say?”

Leaving the room with my coffee, I consulted Google Translate to figure it out.

What I meant to say was, chun-man-ae-yo (You’re welcome). What I said was, jam-shi-man-yo (Just a moment please).

Needless to say, after that day I realized I needed to really learn how to speak Korean properly!

As I write this, I wonder is he still waiting….


How have you coped with the language in your new country? Have you made an embarrassing faux-pas? Let me know in the comments below!