Sneaking past the language barrier

When you tell your friends and family that you’re going to be living abroad for an extended period of time, one of their first questions is, “Do they speak English there?” Along with that, one of your first questions is probably going to be, “How am I going to fend for myself in a country where I don’t speak a single word of the language?”

Some people turn to cram-style learning programs like Rosetta Stone; others might pick up a dictionary or phrase book and study it the old-fashioned way. In many countries with a high expat population, some universities offer free or low-cost language classes.

Sometimes, though, life gets in the way. The course schedule might not fit into your own full calendar, or your funds might be tied up in other ventures. You can still survive! How do I know this? I’ve spent more than a year living in South Korea, have never taken a class or used any kind of learning program, but speak Korean. Mind you, I’m nowhere near fluent. I only know the very basics, but it’s enough that I’ve lived here this long without major problems, and many Koreans have insisted that I’m putting them on and can speak more than “survival” Korean.

Learning a new language can be terrifying, but only if you let it. With patience and time, you’ll get by just fine. Here are some easy ways to get started:

The three most important phrases

Before you learn anything else, get someone to teach you how to correctly pronounce the following phrases: 1. Hello. 2. Thank you. 3. I don’t speak (language).  They are the three phrases you will use the most in your first month as an expat. The first two are obvious. You should always be polite when you’re a guest, and especially in that first month or so before you’re settled, in some places you’ll be considered as such. The third is a nice way to show that while you don’t speak the language, you’re at least making an effort, which is admirable. It’s also the quickest and most polite way to let store employees, landlords, and others know that it would be easier on everyone to either find someone who can translate, or grab a pad of paper to play Language Barrier Pictionary.

Learn the alphabet

In Asia, as well as a few other countries, you’ll be looking at a whole new alphabet. Ask someone to write it down and pronounce the characters with you, and make notes. Practice often and memorize using whatever methods work. I still remember that the first two Korean letters I learned were the characters for B and H. To me, the B character looks like a bucket and the H character looks like a man wearing a hat. Silly? A bit, but it’s paid off; I can read some store signs and navigate the subway without an English map a good portion of the time.

Look for cognates

Once you’ve got the alphabet down, start trying to read it anywhere you can. You’ll quickly find that you already know many words! They might be pronounced a bit differently, but they’re still the same. I was taught the Korean alphabet off a beer menu at a bar by a fellow expat. She showed me how to look for cognates. 밀러 라이트 is pronounced “mee-luh lah-ee-tuh.” Say it a few times fast. Sound familiar? That says Miller Lite. Practice your reading and pronunciation in one go by reading street signs, billboards, anything you see. Chances are, you’ll see a fair amount of words you already recognize.

Listen to native speakers

There’s a reason so many Asian countries hire native English speakers to teach their children. The best way to learn a language is from a native speaker. Listen to your coworkers or your students, and you’ll hear some of the same words pop up again and again. If you start studying body language and other factors when you start hearing that, you can probably figure out the translation on your own. For teachers, it’s especially helpful. Through listening and watching, I learned how to say many helpful classroom phrases for when my students aren’t paying attention. “Sit down.” “Stop that!” “Give that to me.” “Hurry up!”  I also learned “Yes,” “No,” “How much does that cost?” “How do I say this word?” and “That’s okay/don’t worry about it” through simple observation.

Ask questions

The easiest way to learn how to say a word? Ask!  As a teacher, I practice this with my students a lot. Three days a week, I eat lunch in the classroom with the kids. In the first few weeks when they couldn’t speak more than a few words, they’d often point to something on their lunch tray and ask, “Teacher, this what?”  I’d tell them the answer, and then ask “What’s the Korean name?”  They’ve since figured out that I’m slowly learning Korean just as they’re learning English, and will try to help me out on their own: after asking “Teacher, what is this?” and I answer, they immediately respond with “In Korean, this is (xyz).” Since they get a huge kick out of hearing you speak their native language, it’s also a good tool for helping your students review, especially the younger ones.

After those first few weeks, I’d point to a vegetable, say its name in Korean, and ask, “What’s the English name?”  The kids increase and practice their own vocabulary and I get to work on mine at the same time. Believe me, if you mispronounce something or use the wrong word, even your quietest kids will have zero problems shouting, “No no, Teacher! WRONG!”  Along the same lines, when going out for staff dinners or hanging out with Korean friends, I learned how to order my own meals. Like I said, Koreans get a kick out of hearing foreigners practice their English. When I arrived as an exchange student, I’d go out for dinner or drinks with my classmates. They knew I was trying to learn, so they’d often insist that I order for the table. If I made a mistake, they’d clarify for the waiter and then teach me the correct words.  A native speaker, no matter how young or old, is your greatest resource.

When in doubt, find a translator

If you need very precise instructions for things like opening a bank account or getting a prescription from the pharmacy, it’s best to ask someone else for help. See if a classmate or advisor can come with you, or ask a coworker to write out a translation you can hand over.  As long as you ask nicely, they’re usually happy to help, and it’s better to be safe than sorry.  There’s no shame in asking for help when you need it. Personally, when it comes to things like my finances and my health, I’d much rather admit I don’t know what I’m doing than try to fumble through it on my own and make an unfortunate mistake. For smaller obstacles, have someone translate for you at first while you practice on your own.

For my first two months, I used a cheater card to get home in a taxi. I laminated a small piece of paper that said in Korean, “Sorry, I don’t speak English. Please take me to (my home address.) Thank you!” That helped a lot while I was still working on pronouncing my address correctly and learning directional phrases like “Turn right,” “Turn left,” “Keep going straight,” and “Stop here please, this is fine.” After a while, I stopped needing it, but while I was still learning, it was a lifesaver.

Before I came to Korea, the language barrier felt like a three-foot-thick wall of concrete with reinforced steel. In reality, it’s more like a sliding door that’s stuck shut. It’ll take some time and a little elbow grease to get it open, but once you put the work in, you’ll glide right through. Study up, use your resources, and practice, practice, practice, and you’ll do just fine.

Mandie Groves hails from New Lenox, Illinois and studied Mass Media for Radio Production at Illinois State University. In addition, she spent a semester studying at the Dong-Ah Institute of Media and Arts (동아방송예술대학) in Anseong, South Korea. Currently, she works as an English teacher at a private kindergarten in Jamsil-dong, Seoul. She loves soju, karaoke, her students, and the Seoul nightlife. She won’t touch dried squid with a ten-foot pole and can’t figure out the k-pop craze for the life of her. Read more about her adventures as an expat at Mandie the Miguk.


8 thoughts on “Sneaking past the language barrier

    1. Hi Molly! I didn’t use any books, though occasionally I’d refer to the internet. My roommate copied out the Korean alphabet on a piece of paper with the corresponding sound in English. I kept that taped to my wall and studied it. In addition, I used Google Translate sometimes to double-check spelling and pronunciation; there’s an option for the translator to spell out the word phonetically in English, and there’s also a button to hear the pronunciation. Be warned, though- it doesn’t always provide a reliable translation.

      I also just did a basic Google of “easy Korean phrases” and studied those along with the alphabet, things like “Hello” and “Where is the bathroom.” Ones that feature sound files are usually the most accurate. Definitely double-check those phrases and your pronunciation with a native speaker of the language.

      From personal experience, I wouldn’t really recommend books unless you’re already enrolled in a language course. It’s much more difficult to figure out correct pronunciation when you don’t have an instructor or a friend to help you. I’ve heard programs like Rosetta Stone can be helpful, though not always accurate.

      What language are you trying to learn? Where are you going or considering to go? Good luck, and thanks for the question!

  1. Hello! Thank you for this post! I went and lived in Switzerland for two years as an ex-pat, and I can tell you that all of these things are true. I learned Italian, which is nowhere near as complex as Korean, but all of these rules apply to any and every language. Truly knowing please, thank you, how much, where, and I don’t speak ____ are the BEST things to know! There is also never anything wrong with asking- sometimes I would feel isolated not understanding what everybody was saying but asking questions and being willing to learn helps so much.
    Your post is spot on! Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks for the nice comment, Kate! I’m glad you enjoyed the post, and it’s always good to hear a fellow expat’s perspective! It can definitely feel isolating, not being a native speaker of the language. Thanks again!

  2. Great article. I’ve also found it super useful to learn numbers – how they are written, which is far more useful than knowing how to count from one to ten. That way you can recognise prices and barter effectively!

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