A Linguist’s Thoughts

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Before coming to Seoul, South Korea, I talked to other students who had come to Yonsei University. They all told me that it was fun and I’d make so many friends but I was still worried. I wondered if I would be able to communicate with Korean locals.

Language is important to me. I use Spanish to talk to my family and my community and I use English to talk to my friends. I express myself by talking to the people around me and exchanging stories about our lives. The big problem is that I can’t speak Korean that well so, how would I be able to have this same experience in South Korea where the primary language is Korean? I wanted to be able to order food at restaurants, talk to Korean students, ask for directions when I was lost, and learn about people’s life experiences but I wasn’t sure if my goal was possible since my Korean language ability is very low. Would it be possible to communicate with people? What would I do without the most important thing in my life: language.

Over the course of the month, I’ve met Korean students who want to help me practice my Korean meanwhile they speak in English to me. It’s not hard to find someone who speaks English in South Korea especially since many students start learning English since they’re in primary school. I also volunteer at a senior citizen center where I help elderly people practice English. Sometimes they don’t know words in English so I help them by using Korean to explain. I feel proud that my Korean has improved so much in the past couple of weeks that I can communicate with people of all ages.

Prayer book and song book we use during Spanish mass

I was so grateful that I could speak English with my new Korean friends however, the other half of my identity was missing. I wanted to meet people who could speak Spanish. It isn’t as common for people to learn Spanish in South Korea but I delt determined to find someone who would be willing to speak in Spanish with me. I got lucky and I found a church that has a Spanish mass every Sunday. At this service, I’ve met many people from different Latin American countries including: El Salvador, Peru, Colombia, Mexico, and Ecuador. I have also met Korean locals who are interested in learning Spanish. Even though everyone comes from different parts of the world, we all speak the same language so we feel closer to one another.

The food I ordered in Korean with my fellow trilingual friend

I also made a Korean friend through club at Yonsei University who wants to learn Spanish. We talk in Spanish and Korean and sometimes even English. My favorite thing to do with my new friend is exchange songs in our language. He’s shown me some of his favorite Korean songs and I’ve shown him some of my favorite Spanish songs. Whenever we hang out, he encourages me to practice Korean. For example, last weekend he encouraged me to order our food at a restaurant so I could practice my language skills.

Although I expected to find people who could speak English in Korea, I was pleasantly surprised to find a Spanish-speaking community. Without access to English or Spanish, I think my life would be less enjoyable in Korea. Even though I’m learning Korean, it makes a huge difference to be able to speak to someone in the language that connects me to my communities at home. I hope I can learn Korean so I can communicate with Korean locals the same way they communicate with me. The effort has (and will) go both ways.