Native English speakers tend to forget how lucky they are. This is the language that dominates the world and it is one that most students learn from a very young age. In many schools in England a second language only becomes compulsory at the age of 11 and you can drop it at 14. The lack of encouragement that students face when deciding whether to continue with a second language means that a vast amount are left knowing only the basics and their own mother tongue.
Teaching in Korea certainly reinforces how importantly the English language is perceived. Students strive to grasp the language as it is seen to be required for success in later life. However, when you step outside of the classroom you are confronted with a completely different language with its own confusing characters and complications.
Prior to moving to Korea I had no desire to learn any other language, partly because I am lazy and mostly because I believed that the majority of people spoke English so I didn’t need to speak another language. But I decided that if I was going to live somewhere that English was not commonly used I needed to step out of my comfort zone and learn some Korean.
Learning the Hangul characters was easy enough; I just copied them down a couple of times until I had it pinned. Luckily, one of my coworkers was keen to tutor me for free. There are also group study sessions in the area, but I prefer the one on one approach. It took no time to grasp the basics: directing a taxi, ordering at a restaurant, finding items in the supermarket etc. I now know enough to just about get by and where my language fails I use body language and Google translate. Of course as my coworker and I became friends, our study sessions slipped into gossiping. A key thing to bear in mind if you find yourself in a similar situation to me is that these sessions are also a chance for your tutor to practice their English. So don’t feel guilty if they are free.
Since I have mastered the basics in Korean my desire to learn anymore has waned. There are people who pursue the language; there is even a TV program (Non-Summit), where foreigners debate in Korean. However, the majority of the foreigners that I meet tend to only learn the basics. It really reiterates the bad reputation that English speakers have in the world of speaking.