Occasional commenter Tom Coyner has penned a piece on why Korean is rarely the medium of business communication between Koreans and expats. The topic of Korean versus English has been rehashed over and over, but his article provides a balanced view and is worth a read. He correctly differentiates between survival Korean and professional/academic Korean proficiency and contrasts language acquisition in Korea with its neighbors:
Korean is often classified by the U.S. government as one of the “hard” languages, along with Japanese and Chinese, etc. In China and Japan, however, medium- and long-term resident foreigners make a point to speak much better than “survival language” during their tenures there. And in all fairness, I have often witnessed foreign managers carrying on in Korean when dealing with simple issues such as asking for items, answering telephones, etc. What is rare, however, is to see foreigners in Korea carrying on serious business negotiations or handling complex personnel issues in the Korean language. In Japan and China, these days, if one has been in country more than a couple of years, it is generally expected to do business in the local language, with the possible exception of senior executives who are frankly written off as being “too old” to learn a new language.
He cites grammar and phonetics as obstacles to mastering Korean but says the biggest reason is cultural/social:
With the exception of blue collar labors who must speak Korean as a matter of survival, white collar foreigners find themselves in linguistic completion with English-speaking or wishing to learn English Koreans. This is also true in China and Japan, but what really sets Korea apart is the number of English-speaking Koreans at many levels of commerce. The sheer volume of bilingual or near bilingual ethnic Koreans or Koreans who have studied abroad one encounters in business frankly diminishes the incentive for many foreigners to try to become truly conversational or better in Korean.
Unlike the Japanese and Chinese languages, few students abroad study Korean as a foreign language. It is common to find people, such as myself, who studied Chinese or Japanese in university, before coming to Asia. The few universities that teach Korean language find most of their students being ethnic Korean who study out of family obligation and/or a desire to better connect with Korea. There are some notable exceptions of non-ethnic Koreans studying the language before coming to Korea, such as missionaries and military/government employees. But only few of these make it into business, albeit those who do generally do very well indeed.
This isn’t earth-shattering news to us present and former expats, but it’s a good opportunity to remind folks that most expats start learning Korean from scratch as adults, and it takes many years to become fully proficient. A similar situation exists in the US with Spanish. Public schools, government offices, and health care facilities often have at least one Spanish-speaker on staff or available by phone to interpret for Hispanic immigrants, many of whom arrive with less than a high school education, nevermind a word of English. Many of the parents of my students take evening adult ed. classes, but as blue-collar workers or caretakers of young children at home, they have little time and few opportunities to extend their language skills beyond survival English.
This perception of Tom Coyner’s, however, I do not share:
Even today, walking into a common restaurant as opposed to an international class establishment, it is not unusual to get the “deer in the headlights” panic stare from employees. While a few, rudimentary words of Korean does work wonders in many cases, there are other times it can be painfully difficult as a foreigner struggling to be understood beyond ordering from the menu. While less common with younger Koreans, older Koreans can display a confidence-destroying reactive behavior to beginner speaker’s efforts by abruptly turning away, since they don’t wish to deal the hassle of communicating with a foreigner.
Granted it was a long time ago that I was a rudimentary speaker of Korean, but I honestly don’t recall too many occasions where I was given the alien/cold shoulder treatment by locals. Most folks were patient; the only difficulty I observed was that back in pre-Djamila days of the 90s, Koreans weren’t used to hearing their language get mangled, so communication breakdowns were not infrequent. In contrast, I found Chinese ears more tolerant of my non-native speech; a difference probably owing to the much wider language diversity in China. I have witnessed situations in which two Chinese struggled to communicate to each other between their dialects. As an example, I was on a bus one day when a man boarded and asked the driver how to get to a particular place. The man was not fluent in Mandarin and the driver struggled to communicate with him. “Where are you from?” the bus driver asked. “I’m Chinese,” the man replied matter-of-factly and identified his province of origin. This conversation would be highly unlikely in Korea or Japan.