by A.J., Greenheart Travel English Teacher in South Korea

One of the most common complaints I hear from foreigners living in Korea is about communication. Not the language barrier…..communication. Even when you meet Koreans who speak perfect English, or if you are fluent in Korean yourself, your problems are not over. What do I mean by that? Allow me to give an example.

Recently, while waiting for the train in Seoul a middle-aged man approached my friend and me. He asked where we were from and hearing our reply immediately begin to assure of us the great respect Koreans have for Americans, largely owed to the political relations between the two countries over the years. What surprised me what when he began to apologize for his fellow countrymen who have forgotten or simply don’t care about the sacrifices Americans have made to help secure South Korea’s freedom. As he told us about the removal of a statue of a U.S. general in Incheon tears began to fill his eyes. It was a touching moment as he seemed to be recollecting a memory that in some way had a personal tie to the events of the Korean war. The time had come for my friend and me to board our train, so we said our good-byes.

But this was not the end.

The encounter would go on to have a comical conclusion. At the time of boarding there was a ticket mix up so my friend and me ended up in separate cars. Twenty minutes later things were resolved and I found my friend again. There seemed to be something else going on that I had missed. I could see the relief in her eyes before I got to my seat.

“Good, I’m glad you’re here!” she said with a laugh of disbelief brought on by the circumstances that had proceeded my arrival. “That man just left.”

“The one from the station?” I asked.

hamlet-quarto“Yes! He followed me here, and this isn’t even his car. He has been sitting with me the whole time,” she said shaking her head. “He pulled out Hamlet,” her eyes growing large. “He wanted me to explain it to him!”

The two of us had a good laugh then settled in for the trip. I looked up and noticed the gentleman heading toward us.

“I have another question” he said pulling out a folder containing the Hamlet excerpt then asked us to explain what the grammatical importance of “this” in a sentence had to do in context with the word “old” or some such thing (I don’t recall the exact passage). It was not the meaning that concerned him at all, but purely the structure and grammatical make up of each verb, preposition, article, and adjective, and so on.

The frustrating and comical part came when no matter how many times we tried to explain it, he insisted on repeating the same question after each attempt we made. On top of this his English pronunciation and intonation made it difficult for us to understand. We listened carefully to try to figure out what he was asking and what he actually meant because it didn’t seem like we were giving him the answer he wanted. Eventually he seemed to understand, thanked us, and left.

Or so we thought.

The gentleman returned again, and again…….and again……and again. It felt like were stuck in time as we went through the same scenario four more times over the next hour until we finally arrived at his destination. I had to keep from laughing too much, but we tried to remain polite. Each visit grew slightly more awkward and hilarious. Finally it dawned on me – shamefully it came rather late – he wasn’t really asking for our help, but looking for affirmation. Although he was asking us to explain it, that isn’t what he meant at all. What he really wanted from us was confirmation that he was correct in his understanding.

So all of this for the sake of saying what you ask? This situation is not unusual when cultures intersect and it usually has little to do with the language. Circumstances like the ones in this scenario often arise in context rich cultures when your own is much less context rich and vice versa. In the west our style of communication is very context poor. Westerners “shoot straight” “no beating around the bush.” We prefer to “keep it simple” and “get right to the point.” Therefore our language processing is very direct. We don’t care much about the context unless it contains specific details that are necessary to convey the main idea. Koreans, and many of those in the east, are on the opposite end. Being too direct is seen as rude and impolite, so they provide a lot of information that may not have any direct consequence to the overall meaning. They may not come out and directly ask you a question either depending on the situation. Instead they may provide a lot of information (or be persistent) in order for you figure it out. This isn’t to be difficult, but is seen as polite.

Different ways of expressing ideas and emotions does not make one method superior to another, and yet sadly, some of the most degrading stereotypes that persist within western culture about Asian culture stem from this perception. In western media Asians are depicted as being extremely intelligent or extremely silly. Have you ever noticed how the “intelligent” ones are depicted as rarely, if ever, speaking. What does that say about our own prejudices toward different styles of communication?

Getting back to the gentleman on the train (a dear man I might add). He was by far much better at English grammar than either of us native speakers were. Which brings up another point. It is extremely important in Korea (and neighboring countries) to master English grammar, almost more than it is to master the English language, or most importantly, the ability to communicate effectively with native English speakers. Which is why you will find in many of these countries a lot of people still have great difficulty speaking English despite years of government funded programs.

One reason is that until you can move grammar from your conscious to your subconscious you’ll never be fluent. This is true of anyone learning a foreign language. Fluency is the ability to speak a language without having to consciously form your thoughts and words into coherent sentences. A fluent speaker will never think about structure, word order, or verb tense. The more you aim for grammatical accuracy vs. the ability to communicate thoughts and emotions the longer you delay true language acquisition.

Note to English teachers. If you are coming to Korea to teach keep in mind that your teaching methods in some ways must conform. For anyone teaching English in a foreign country it is large part of your job. Conforming does not mean compromising the quality, but it requires flexibility in approach and techniques. All of this being said, please do not be discouraged to travel or apply for a job that would require you to leave a culture that is comfortable to you. These kinds of situations will not be the same with every person you meet. You will make lots of friends and learn a great deal. The point this blog has tried to make has been to help you understand some of the reasons for communication differences, not instill fear. I have had to work through communication issues, but nothing that has caused me to have any regret in moving here. In conclusion, I recommend if you come to Korea be sure to make Hamlet your traveling companion. Long live the Bard!