Living Overseas:  Language Concerns

Living Overseas: Language Concerns

November 24, 2009  |  Expat Life, Featured, No Sidebar

If you recall, I have been asking folks for questions about living overseas, to answer in my post series about that topic.  Here is one of the questions I have received:

“I’ve always been most curious about language. How hard was it for you to understand the language…in understanding what people were saying (which I assume was easier than speaking yourself) and in things like knowing what you were picking up at the grocery store, or what a sign on the street meant. I think that would intimidate me most, being alone in a country and not being able to understand the spoken or written word. I know when we spent three weeks in the Middle East visiting my Father’s family, my Mom (who is as American as they come) felt so isolated and homesick because although they spoke some English to her and were so nice and hospitable, she said she longed to just turn on the TV and hear someone speaking English that wasn’t my Dad, or her two year old (me).”

When I left for Korea, the only words I knew were “kamsahamnida” and “annyong haseyo” (thank you and hello, respectively).  I couldn’t read the alphabet, and I sure as hell couldn’t understand what anyone said to me.  To make matters worse, when I got off the plane in Gwangju, I was greeted by a panel of three Koreans – my supervisor, her husband, and the director of the provincial education office – none of whom could speak more than about 10 words of English, and who seemed to yammer at me incessantly, as if repeating a phrase over and over again in Korean would make me magically able to comprehend it.  It would have been overwhelming anyway, but after over 24 hours of traveling (including 3 planes, a train, and a bus), it was enough to send anyone over the edge (don’t get me started on how they started breaking my contract within 15 minutes of my arrival).

Being in a country where you don’t speak the language can be scary, and it can be frustrating if you’re more than a tourist.  Learning how to ask where the bathroom is or how to order a beer is one thing, but learning how to successfully navigate a grocery store or a trip to the doctor is a whole other level of complexity.  Unfortunately, if you want to successfully live a full life in your adopted country, you’re going to have to learn to deal with occasional anxiety and frustration when it comes to languages.  That, I feel, is one of the keys to feeling comfortable in your adopted homeland.

When you meet someone in your homeland who doesn’t speak English, do you get angry at him/her?  No.  You probably feel sympathetic, and want to help.  I think that many people forget this when they go abroad, and they assume that if they don’t speak the native language perfectly, that the locals will be angry or frustrated.  In reality, I have found that the general reaction, the whole world around, is one of sympathy and helpfulness.  If you don’t know a word, don’t worry – they’re probably not thinking “Boy, what an idiot.  She doesn’t even know the word for beer.”.  They’re likely instead thinking “What is she asking for?  She’s pointing at the glass.  Does she want water?  A beer?”  When you finally come to terms with this, I think you will find that your interactions will be a lot less stressful.

Likewise, don’t worry about having perfect grammar – focus on being understood.  For example, here is a transcript, complete with grammatical errors, of my first full conversation with a stranger in Korean (Korean translated directly into English):

Guy with Jindo: This is a Jindo dog. They are very beautiful and smart. High IQ!
Me: Yes, Jindo dogs are beautiful and cute.
GWJ: Do you like Jindo dogs?
Me: Yes! I like Jindo dogs. Jindo dogs beautiful because orange fur. (playing with dog: Come here! Sit! Good dog!)
GWJ: Where are you from?
Me: America. (Migook) Boston.
GWJ: Ah! Boston marathon! Red Sox!
Me: Yes.
GWJ: Are you a teacher?
Me: Yes. Middle school English teacher. Teach at G******, U****, G******. Three schools.
GWJ: Ah! English teacher! Rotation?
Me: Yes.
GWJ: Difficult!
Me: Yes.
GWJ: Do you speak Korean?
Me: A little.
GWJ: A little?
Me: Very little.
GWJ: *laughs*
Me: Nice dog! Cute dog! Goodbye!
GWJ: Thank you! Goodbye!

It took me 6 months to get up to that level of confidence and conversation.  I probably would have gotten to this point faster in a language with any relation to English, but Korean is pretty much as foreign as Chinese or Navajo.  The point is, don’t worry if it takes you awhile to become even vaguely comfortable with a language.  The natives will forgive your incompetence.

As for missing the sound of your native language, I recommend listening to podcasts, watching Hulu, etc.  When I first got to Korea, I had a hard time of things due to some trouble at work, and I found myself really missing the company of my countrymen.  There were other foreigners on the island, but not many (five, to be precise), and I didn’t see them often.  I remedied this by turning on CNN (the only English channel I got at the time) in the mornings as I got dressed, and in the evenings after I got home from work.  I didn’t pay attention to it, but hearing English news on in the background really made me feel more at home.  In the winter, I went weeks at a time without speaking English to a native speaker, which was difficult.  After one month-long stint of not-seeing-foreigners, I decided that if I couldn’t socialize, at the very least I would put on movies in the evening and watch them on my second monitor while I worked, cooked, cleaned, etc.  Again, it was no substitute for real interaction, but at least it took my mind off the isolation a bit.

One thing I do recommend doing if you’re moving overseas is learning the alphabet, if that country has one (some, like China, do not).  If you learn the alphabet, you can at least sound out a word, even if you don’t know what it says.  I was way more lazy with learning the Korean alphabet (hangeul) than I should have been, and when I did finally get confident with it, it changed my expat life in a relatively fundamental way.  I was finally able to make sure I was getting on the right bus without having to resort to asking the other folks in line.  I could actually read the food words that I knew how to say, thus allowing me to order food at restaurants without having to point blindly at the menu and hope it wasn’t live octopus or pig intestines.  Most important of all, I could actually read the name tags my students wore!  One of my major regrets is that I didn’t make an effort to learn the alphabet sooner, and I suspect I would have had an easier time of things in Korea if I had, so I strongly recommend learning the alphabet of your adopted home as soon as possible.  If you can do it before you leave to go there, that’s even better.

Other than that, my advice is pretty much just to relax.  Contrary to what the movies and media try to scare you into thinking, you likely won’t get stranded, ripped off, or made fun of just because you can’t speak the local language.  Take a deep breath, slow down your thoughts, and pull out your phrasebook or dictionary (both of which I recommend carrying at all times).  It really doesn’t take that long to look up a word in a pocket dictionary, and if someone has already committed to helping you, they won’t mind waiting another 10-15 seconds to do so.

If there’s an aspect of this topic that I didn’t touch upon that you’d like me to go into, let me know, and I’ll gladly make a another post from your request.

For those of you who have lived abroad yourselves, what is your advice?


  1. Fantastic post. It’s so useful to speak Korean. At first, it just makes life easier by, for example, letting you go to more than a handful of restaurants or get around town. If nothing else, you’ll be able to say you speak a language (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, whatever) that very few people speak unless it’s their heritage.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Do you have anything you’d like me to cover in future posts in this series?

      Also – out of curiosity, how did you find this blog?

      • I can’t remember. You probably commented on another blog (Monster Island, Marmot’s Hole or Brian in Jeollanam-do).

        Short of a post about what a great person I am or what happens to visas in your passport when that passport expires, no, I don’t really have any suggestions. But I do enjoy the blog.

  2. I took a Korean class my last semester in college and I think it really helped me feel more confident about going to Korea. I second learning the alphabet, but would also recommend learning common/survival phrases to make the transition easier.

    Here is link for survival phrases/vocab if anyone is interested…

    I think the more prepared you are the easier it will be, at least that is what I am trying to do.

    • The thing I found about survival phrases is that in fact, those are the phrases that a native is most likely to actually know in English. Things like “how much” and “restroom”, etc, are likely to be known unless you’re truly in the middle of nowhere. So, I tend to focus on the alphabet and words that are unusual but that I use frequently. For instance, some of the first words I learned were “teacher”, “photographer”, “journalist”, “photojournalist”, “foreign service” (to describe Marc), “artist” (to describe my parents), along with “right”, “left”, and “go straight”.

      The more prepared you are the better off you will be, certainly, but Korea is also pretty singularly skilled at throwing curve balls. I researched Korean culture and working in Korea for over a year before I went, and I *still* got burned (so badly, in fact, that one of the larger K-blogs wrote a blog post about my experiences!). It’s really luck of the draw.

  3. I completely agree with you. Even if you can’t learn the language, learning the alphabet is very helpful. I have been in Russia for over a year now, and am able to speak Russian good enough to navigate me around town and find the things that I need. I have found that even if I don’t know what a word is, I can usually figure it out by reading it since about 35-40% of Russian words are ‘borrowed’ from other languages. I have also found that people are more inclined to help you if you are showing an effort to learn their language. Maybe they view it as a sign of respect, I don’t know. All I know is my life is 110% easier now that I am able to communicate!

    • I wish that Korean had *any* relation to other languages I knew. Unfortunately, its closest linguistic relative is actually Mongolian. Uh…yeah.

      And yeah, I found that if I used even just the few Korean words I knew in a given situation, Koreans were *way* more likely to try and help me as best they could.

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