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Mission Impossible: Getting Koreans to Speak Korean

Posted by on October 13, 2010

As everyone knows — except for Koreans, who seem to have absolutely no conception of this — the hardest thing about acquiring conversational facility in Korean is that no one will speak to you in Korean.
Koreans talk a great deal about their “영어 울렁증” (fear of speaking English) but the truth is that they will take every opportunity they can to speak English. It would be understandable —even appreciated — for Koreans to speak English to foreigners who cannot speak Korean. But the problem that you have likely faced is that Koreans will continue to respond to you in English even after you have spoken to them in Korean.
In extreme cases, I’ve even run across people who will continue to speak to me in English after I straight out said that as a matter of principle, I only speak Korean to Koreans.

So how do you handle this?

I’ve compiled a list of the various ways I’ve dealt with it in the past and their efficacy:

Option #1
Answer with: “제가 영어로 말하고 싶었더라면 계속 미국에서 살지 않았을까요?”
(If I wanted to speak English, wouldn’t I have just stayed in America?)

Way back in the day (circa 2003), I used to be incensed by people who would respond to me in English after I had asked them something in Korean.
I just felt that it was rude: if the customer speaks to you in Korean, you should respond in Korean and if they speak to you in English, you should respond in English. What you should not do is laugh in a superior way and then respond in English — it’s rude.

Option #2
Lie: “저 영어 못하는데요”
(I can’t speak English)

I used this method for a few subsequent years. It’s good because it is very unlikely that they will continue to speak to you in English. The downside is that if they then ask you where you are from, it’ll be a little awkward if you answer with an English-speaking country.

Upshot: This is an effective method, but be ready to also have to lie about where you are from. Poland is always a good answer.

Option #3
Use a bunch of really high-level vocab that isn’t necessary but will immediately show them you mean business

“이 업소에서 쓰는 포장지는 재활용 성분이 몇 프로나 들어가요? 저는 뚜렷한 친환경 정책을 가진 식당에서만 먹거든요.”
(What percentage of post-consumer content goes into the wrapping materials used in this establishment. I only eat at restaurants that have a clear, environmentally friendly policy)

If you throw down some b.s. like that, it’s unlikely that anyone except for the toughest customers will continue to speak to you in English.
I devised this method back in 2006. It’s not bad in terms in efficacy, but I just hate to have to play this game at all. It seems so affected. But in the struggle to get Koreans to speak Korean, we sometimes have to do things we don’t want to.

Option #4
Just give up and speak English

This is admittedly the defeatist’s way out, but sometimes when I get sick of this whole game, I just pretend that I can’t speak Korean and speak to them in English; it’s what Koreans want anyway.
It is ironic though: to learn Korean in order to communicate with Koreans and then be forced into speaking English.

Option #5
Hit ’em with the straight s**t
This is the nuclear option. You can frankly entreat them with, “저한테 한국어로 얘기해주시면 안 될까요?” (Would you mind just speaking to me in Korean?) or what I more often employ: “전 한국인한테는 한국어만 쓴다는 원칙을 가지고 있어요.” (As a matter of principle, I only speak Korean to Korean people) After which you can add, “한국어를 배우려고 하는 제 노력을 존중해 주셨으면 합니다” (Please respect my efforts to learn Korean.)

The unbelievable thing is that even this fails sometimes. More than once I’ve used this on a person only to have them continue to speak to me in English.

The simple solution, of course, would be for workers to initially speak to costumers in Korean and then use English only in cases when the customer can’t speak Korean. Unfortunately, I don’t see this on the horizon.

Another thing I get a lot of is cashiers who won’t even say the price of what I’m trying to purchase; they just speak with their hands (i.e., hold up three fingers for W3,000 etc.) or point at the cash register display and grunt. This vexes me beyond measure. What separates humankind and the animal kingdom after all is our ability to use language and we should exercise that ability whenever possible.

I should clarify, I have no problem with helping people who come up to me and want to practice English. English lessons are expensive here and I’m happy to help anyone.

What I don’t appreciate is people that I interact with just assuming from the outset that I can’t speak Korean and then even when I do speak to them in Korean, responding to me in English.

The bad news: Back when I was new to Korean language, I surmised that a few years down the road, when I got sufficiently comfortable in Korean, people would stop forcing me to speak English. I’m sorry to have to break this to ya’ll, but no matter how good you get at Korean, people will always assume that you are a fresh-off-the-plane English-teaching fool and most likely speak to you with their hands or with English.

The good news: Above all else in getting Koreans to speak Korean is your accent. Even if you know 50,000 words of Korean, if your accent is bad, Koreans will not respond to you in Korean. Unfortunately however, the ability to mimic sounds seems more innate than vocabulary acquisition or any other aspect of language learning. In other words, if your accent sucks now, it will likely still suck ten years from now unless you take some drastic steps. Recording a native speaker and mimicking what you hear will lead to slow and steady progress.

Go get ’em Champ!

7 Responses to Mission Impossible: Getting Koreans to Speak Korean

  1. Brian

    Great article. Reminds me of a very appropriate video too. 😉

  2. Phil

    What kind of person moves to Korea and expects Korean people to speak Korean to them?? Next, you will be blogging about how people living in civilized first world nations should be educated to read and write.

    C’mon Man!

  3. Phil

    What works best for me is 프랑스 사람 입니다. 영어말 못해요. If they ignore you and continue to speak English, stick to your story.

  4. Bob

    Awesome. When I got here I thought it was just that Koreans were hyped to demonstrate their English on native speakers but most of the time it’s totally the result of culture-oriented mind programming whereby when a 큰 코를 가지고있는 외국인 appears in front of you that person by default will have neither the knowledge or mental capacity to reproduce 우리말. Of course, most foreigners confirm that initial theory but unfortunately for the few of us who to do attempt to learn it, Koreans tend to write us off in general terms.

    At work even though I can participate in conversations with fellow Korean employees whenever I try to butt in to a conversation running in 우리말 (they hate when – I – call it that), even then I get responses only in English. It took a while but I found that with perseverance and a stubborn-ass attitude towards using any English outside the classroom that almost all coworkers have to some extent have permitted me to enter into the inner realm of 한국말.

    I’ve extended that to the rest of Korea – actually it’s interesting: before reading this blog I used to use the “I am French and hate speaking English” especially to vendors in 명동. Surprisingly I found it a great way to bond – through mutual hatred of my real mother tongue!

    But then again it’s not all roses when you do get someone to speak Korean to you. Often you get the ‘우와! 한국말 잘하시네요!’ rubbish after you’ve only said hello..

    btw great work on opening this sort of site, cheers

  5. jsph510

    haha … even though this post is quite old, it is so relevant i felt i had to comment. the funny thing is, i think it has more to do with looks than anything. if you look like you’re from an asian country, they assume you can’t speak english. if you look like you’re from a western country, they assume you can’t speak korean. Once, my Filipino friend came to visit me, and we went to a cash register. When they rang me up, they just pointed at “45,000원” even though I had established at that point to the cashier that I could indeed speak Korean, having been here for years. Low and behold, when he rang up my filipino friend, he proceeded to say in Korean “이만원 이시구요” (despite that, in my opinion, dark filipinos do not resemble koreans in looks whatsoever). I was so pissed I just had to respond in non-formal speech, “그분 한국사람이 아니죠… 당연하지 한국말을 못하잖아!” which the cashier either didn’t full acknowledge or didn’t fully believe.

    Once, my Chinese-American friend specifically said to a Korean that he was CHINESE-AMERICAN, and DID NOT speak korean. Still, even though the Korean guy tried speaking to him in English, when he couldn’t continue, he looked at him and continued in Korean. My friend looked at me and said “why the hell is this guy still speaking to me in Korean??”

    Have you ever experienced anything like these situations? It’s quite annoying. The even funnier thing is I’m actually of korean-heritage on my mother’s side, but since I’m of hispanic heritage on my father’s, I don’t look Korean or ‘east-asian’ at all, and hence continue to put up with such difficulties every day.

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