The Language Barrier is Real!

Why the language barrier is a problem and doesn’t have to be

This is the first in a series of entries I’ll be writing about my experiences as an exchange student in Sogang University and South Korea.

Welcome to Korea!

One of the exciting aspects of traveling to another country is experiencing the language of that country, especially in countries where the languages spoken are unfamiliar in one’s own locale.

I had that excitement looking forward to a semester in Korea. Even before I finalized any plans to join our exchange program, I was already studying Korean on my own. I practiced words and phrases by having conversations, both offline and online, with anyone who would use Korean with me, and I took a semester course in Korean. At the same, I also realized that I wasn’t learning enough. Along with my regular consumption of Kdramas and Kpop, all of these passive and active learning strategies seemed like adequate preparation for a semester in Korea but I still felt that actually using Korean there would be a completely different ballgame.

The Language Barrier!

Not as confident about my Korean as I look here, but just as awkward.

I was right. I’ve only been here for five days out of the 121 that I will be here for as an exchange student, and so far it has been difficult to settle comfortably even with the little Korean I had learned. It was as if the accumulated experiences I had listening, writing, and speaking the language only amounted to learning how to float, and now that I was in Korea I was being pushed into the ocean. Then I remembered that there’s no better way to learn.

Thanks to user-friendly services and helpful features like signs and labels, getting a hang of the language I needed to survive became easier, especially for riding public transportation and ordering food. However, surviving is one thing, and engaging with Koreans on a deeper level is another. It’s only when I was thrust into situations where I had to interact, and where my lack of Korean was a disadvantage, that I realized just how much of a language barrier there is.

And yet, even with all the difficulty that comes with this adjustment, these same situations have shown me that what I have come to frame as a “language barrier” may not be a barrier at all, and that there are connections that bond people stronger than language or even nationality. While I still have a lot more to experience here in Korea, I’ve had three such experiences in my first five days here that I’d like to share.

1. Startup networking event

With the founder of Django Girls Seoul and the Director of the Startup Campus in Pangyo Valley

As someone who is active in the Philippine startup community, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to explore the startup community in Korea and learn from them. Prior to coming to Korea, I liked relevant Facebook pages and joined a few Facebook groups that would expose me to members of the community, at least online. When I got a notice about an end-of-summer networking party organized by HongHap Valley and the Seoul Global Startup Center, my friends and I signed up for it. In the days leading up to the event, I couldn’t help but think of how similar or different it would be from the community events I was joining in Manila.

When we finally participated in the event, I noticed that it wasn’t that different, at least in the sense that we could easily talk to anyone in the crowd and everyone was comfortable with sharing their ideas, opinions, and contact information. What caught my attention was that the event had more elements than I was used to, with games, an awarding ceremony for the Seoul Global Startup Center’s recently concluded Enternship program, and a round of open mic elevator pitches.

While English was the designated language for the event, I realized talking to the different entrepreneurs just how much of an advantage it was to know Korean, not just to get to know the market, but also to operate the business as part of the legal economy. A number of the foreign entrepreneurs were looking for Korean interns to help them get in touch with the market, and those that already knew Korean fluently were either half-Korean or were long-time residents in Korea.

There aren’t that many channels or events in English for the startup community either, so there’s no incentive for most entrepreneurs to learn English or any other language for that matter unless they want to expand abroad or look for investment abroad. As most of the products and services developed by Korean startups are focused on very niche markets (i.e. Students of a certain university or specific interest groups or problems that would be relevant only to Koreans) international collaboration can be difficult without a Korean communication channel.

Even the Korean investor I met in Manila admitted this when I asked about Korean investment activities in the Southeast Asian region — “The biggest problem is the language barrier,” she said. Take note that unlike French or Spanish or Chinese, Korean is only a national/secondary language in two countries in the world, and one of them hardly participating in the global economy.

How many foreigners can you count?

What is interesting is that even with the language barrier, South Korea is attracting more and more partnerships with foreign investors and entrepreneurs with incubators like the one in Startup Campus in Pangyo Valley, spaces like the Seoul Global Startup Center, and competitions like the K-Startup Grand Challenge. A startup founder from Canada told me that even I could set up a business here in Korea if I wanted to — it’s that easy and accessible!

With an efficient and user-friendly system, Koreans still retain the usage of their language and even incentivize foreigners to be able use their language when it comes to business. Also, the presence of many bilinguals and professional interpreters also allows Korea to participate in the global economy while keeping their language as a priority, unlike in the Philippines where English takes precedence in business and legal matters.

Nevertheless, for newcomers like my friend and I, our inability to fluently speak the local language paled in comparison to our passion for startups and innovation, something that was shared by everyone in that event.

2. A visit to the Opus Dei community center

With the Yonsei senior and Filipino out for lunch at McDonalds

Thanks to my fellow Filipino Sogang university exchange student and Atenean Joaqui, I was introduced to the Opus Dei community here with a visit to their only center in Korea near Soongsil University. Opus Dei is an institution within the Catholic Church that teaches specific practices that promote holiness in a secular environment and ordinary life. There are a number of schools and communities run by the Opus Dei in the Philippines, and I had visited two of the centers for male students and professionals in Manila. That’s why coming into this field trip, I wasn’t completely in the dark about what to expect.

The center itself looked almost identical to the ones in Manila, and so what stood out in our visit were the people we met, who were either Korean or European, but most everyone in the center knew how to speak Korean. One of the Koreans actually studied in De La Salle University in Manila, and would only speak Filipino to us. Another is a Yonsei University (close to Sogang University) senior who later on gave us a tour of his campus. Another was a Filipino who had been in Korea for a few years and was very happy to meet fellow Filipinos after a while.

When we finally started the benediction and meditation, which happens every Saturday, I finally got a taste of my faith in Korean. Joaqui and I were silent throughout the prayers as we couldn’t keep up with the responses, and I had a hard time following the meditation, only able to pick up words and phrases but not fast enough to piece them together to form coherent thoughts.

As someone whose main contact point with Korean has mostly been through Kdramas and Kpop, this experience of my faith in Korean showed me another side of the language I hadn’t considered before. What is interesting is that while Joaqui and I couldn’t participate as much as we would have wanted, we didn’t feel out of place. There’s something about shared faith that runs deeper than any language or ancestry.

With a fellow newcomer to the church and a fellow exchange student

It became apparent to me as we prayed the rosary before Joaqui and I left. I became witness to this bond once again when we attended Sunday mass at the International Catholic Church in Hannam-dong, where there were churchgoers from various countries. Though in both instances we prayed in English, I realized that the language we were using didn’t matter in practicing our faith. As cheesy as it may sound, there’s no better language to practice our faith with than the language of love.

3. 한국어 잘 하시네요! (You speak Korean well!)

Where I chatted up the ahjumma on the food she was cooking and asked about the black bean noodles

As I mentioned earlier, the little Korean I know has helped me survive. However, there were a number of instances where I tried to be more adventurous with my use of language by making comments or asking more questions than I needed. This has caused me problems in deciding whether or not to use Korean. Ever since I arrived, every time I talk to a Korean, the intuitive part of my brain (Dan Kahneman’s System 1) and the processing part of my brain (Dan Kahneman’s System 2) always clash. The former automatically goes to English, while the latter wants to code switch to Korean, or if the vocabulary is not available, at least generate some broken Korean response.

It obviously takes me more time to handle a conversation in Korean, but one of the friends I made in the Opus Dei center told me that’s the best way I can learn. He said that a lot of Koreans will want to speak in English with me, so I should find Koreans who will speak to me in Korean. I’ve been doing that by “forcing their hand.” Knowing that the intuitive part of their brain will naturally respond in Korean (unless they are already prepared to speak in English), I initiate the conversation in Korean. It’s only when they realize I’m not that good or when I stumble that they start speaking in English (or using hand signs and pointing.) I’ve done this in restaurants, stores, and offices, which are service-oriented environments where the people I’m talking to have to respond, though I’ve also done it with Sogang University students as well.

With some of the exchange students and a Sogang student to the far right, with whom I tested out my Korean conversation strategy, but apparently he had lived in LA for 5.5 years so it’s all English from the get-go

So far this practice has helped a lot in terms of boosting my confidence and adding more to my vocabulary and grammar toolkit. Some of the Koreans I’ve talked to are actually patient enough to wait for me to finish my sentences or piece together my broken sentences — which helps a lot in the learning process. What I do to retain new words or phrases is use them immediately in conversation so I create memories with that word — that way I don’t just remember the word per se, but I am able to associate an experience or image with that word that makes it easier to remember. That’s why the easiest words and phrases to remember and recognize are those on the signs or the ones that are constantly repeated like “맛있게 드세요.” (Bon appetite)

Nearly every time I speak Korean, I always hear the remark — “한국어 잘 하시네요” — that I speak the language well. While it feels good to hear it, I also realize just how much more I can’t speak. There are times when I feel like giving up altogether, because the truth is that I don’t need to learn that much Korean. The batches of exchange students before me had great experiences without knowing as much as I did coming here to Korea. After all, I’ll only be here for four months. Why make my life harder?

The Language Barrier?

This seemingly endless walk illustrates how much I still have to learn

My fellow Filipino Sogang University exchange students would remind me about the language barrier, how it can be such a hassle to get around, and how they wish they had also prepared as much as I did. After attending the startup networking event, visiting the Opus Dei center, and becoming adventurous with my conversations, I realized that the best way to look at it is not with what difficulties I will have but what I can stand to gain by being able to engage Koreans in their own language.

What’s clear from the experiences I’ve had thus far is that there are shared passions, beliefs, and experiences that go beyond any understanding of language, and while it may sound like the language isn’t important, that’s far from the truth. Language is important, but it shouldn’t be treated as a barrier, as something keeping others out. Language is meant to bring people together, and as someone who has been working these past three years with organizations to bring people together, I can stand behind this frame of mind. It’s more empowering to know that I can create more fruitful relationships with people by learning Korean, and even if I have a long way to go, every blunder and embarrassment I go through will be worth it.

It’s amazing what a simple paradigm shift like this can do in terms of opening doors for those who otherwise would not have the courage to open those doors themselves. I learned a few days ago that there are around 300,000–400,000 foreigners living in Seoul (myself included I suppose.) I really appreciate the amount of effort the metropolitan government goes into taking care of us by getting to know our languages and also sharing their language with us.

The language barrier is an easy culprit for being unable to connect to or start a conversation with other people, but if language is a tool for inclusion and community building, what then is stopping us?

This ridiculous pose illustrates that language can be a bridge even more than we consider it to be a barrier