For the past few months, I’ve been bumbling my way through Korean language classes. And when I say “bumbling,” I really mean it — you can ask Lym!

Just a quick disclaimer: I don’t think my experience learning Korean is typical for most Americans living in Korea.  I’m taking free classes sponsored by the Cheonan Multicultural Family Support Center; it seems like they are primarily available to help immigrant families and spouses of Korean citizens adjust to Korean life. 

Anyhoo, because of this, the classes cater to spouses of Korean-language speakers and the curriculum is entirely in Korean! In fact, most of the students who attend classes are wives to Korean citizens so many have a basic understanding of Korean and can usually speak a little. Except for me. I think I am the oldest student with the least amount of Korean language knowledge. LOL. Oh well.

Taking the classes made me realize how sheltered I’ve been since we moved to Korea. Lym and his whole family can speak both Korean and English so I’ve had access to a lot of translators. In addition, if I was ever on my own, a little pointing, some Google Translate, or a sympathetic Korean fluent in English has always been enough to get by. Truly, if I really wanted to, I don’t think I HAVE to learn Korean to survive in Korea. However, I would personally feel like a hypocrite if I didn’t try to learn some Korean – after all, we’re asking our kids to get out of their comfort zones and learn Korean WHILE they are going to school. I should do my part and learn Korean too!

And actually, attending classes at the multicultural support center has been really interesting and eye-opening. So far, I’ve completed one session, a Level One super beginner class, and I’m currently in the middle of the Level Two, beginner class. To be honest, I’m lost most of the time – although a little less lost this session. Did I already mention that EVERYTHING is in Korean – I mean, EVERYTHING: the support, the instructors, and the curriculum. In fact on the first day, one of the staff members came into the classroom to go over the health safety rules due to Covid. When she began speaking really slowly and really loudly, I had to smile – isn’t that what we do in the US when talking to non-native speakers??!! I kept thinking, I can’t speak Korean, but I’m not deaf! LOL.

When I first started my Level One class in July, I was surprised (PANICKED!) when I realized I was one of the only students who couldn’t understand the teacher said (she only spoke Korean) and I think I was the only student who couldn’t read the Korean alphabet. (Wait, WHAT?! I thought this was a Level ONE class?!!!) I was completely overwhelmed.

When the panic-haze cleared, I realized why the class had to be Korean-only – we were an international immigrant class. I was the only native English-speaker and there were about 5 countries represented in my class: USA (just me), Vietnam, Thailand, Philippines, and even Kazakhstan! It turned out that our only common language was Korean but we weren’t good enough to even communicate with each other. Ha.  It was also during this class that I realized how privileged I was to have a husband who could speak English fluently with me. I think many of the women in my class do not have a fluent common language with their spouses or their spouses’ families which is why all of them could understand and speak some Korean. It was also during this time that Google Translate became my best friend – not only to understand snippets of what the teacher was saying (thank you auto-translator!), but also to communicate with the other students in the class.

I’m now in my second class – Level Two beginner. Actually, I really wanted to repeat the Level One class but we had to qualify to repeat the class. To be honest, I’m not sure how I didn’t qualify to repeat Level One – I was the worst student in my class and I only answered about 60% of the questions on qualifying exam! The only thing I can think of is that there were so many new students (they had to add another Level One class) that they just pushed some of us out and into Level Two. I still can’t understand about 50-75% of what the teacher is saying but I’m working on it! At least I understand 25-50%! Haha.

For now, I think my biggest issue is my lack of Korean vocabulary and my listening skills. I’m getting better at sentence structure but it doesn’t help when I don’t know enough verbs, nouns, and adjectives to fill in the blanks! Also sometimes the words just don’t sound the same when I read them on paper vs. someone speaking them! Still, my goal is to be able to hold some conversations in Korean by next summer (that would make it a year of learning Korean). I also have lots of people to practice with since the Kimlets have to learn Korean too! They are better than me anyway. They correct my pronunciation all. the. time. LOL.

By: Faith