Causing Confusion and Korean Cultural Differences

I love the thought of travelling but I have to admit that I’m not as well-travelled as I would like to be. The rest of Europe and the Middle East are only a short flight away and even North Africa is fairly easy to get to. I recently went to America and Canada but I still have a huge list of places I’d like to go to.

One of those is Asia, specifically Korea and Japan. Luckily I was recently given the opportunity to go to Korea and from then on probably to Japan. I would hate to go somewhere without having any idea of the language and culture, so I began to start learning Korean. I didn’t think I had enough time to go to regular classes and Korean classes are few and far between anyway so I decided that self studying would be best. I bought a set of books from the “Living Language” series and my first job was to learn the alphabet. Initially the Korean alphabet seems like a confusing mass of squiggles but it’s probably one of the easiest, if not the easiest alphabets to learn in the world.

Most of the letters give an indication of where you should put your tongue and how you should shape your lips. A lot of the letters also have a deeper philosophical meaning. None of this is an accident, in the 15th Century King Sejong gathered scholars from all over the country to design the perfect alphabet for Korean. It’s called Hangul and it’s so popular that Korean has an annual Hangul day. It’s no surprise Hangul is popular, as before its invention the literacy rate was incredibly low as the population was relying on modified Chinese characters which were very complicated and difficult to learn. Now the South Korean literacy rate is one of the highest in the world.

Although I came to greatly appreciate the alphabet, the rest of the language wasn’t quite as simple as I had believed. Honourifics, word order and formal speech were interesting but so confusing. I thought it would be best to ask for help so I booked a lesson on Skype with a native speaker. It was only when I sat down with another person that I noticed what I was doing. I had almost no confidence in speaking because I was unused to the language so at the end of almost every sentence I raised my voice slightly and in English this wouldn’t be too much of a problem.

If you were trying to say something like “I went to France” and raised your voice at the end, it might sound like you weren’t quite sure where you went but you would still easily get your point across. In Korean because you don’t normally use personal pronouns, to say, “I went to France” you’d say, “France-to went”. This is confusing enough but it gets even worse if you’re not confident with what you’re saying. When I raised my voice at the end of the sentence, my teacher thought I was asking her is she had gone to France and started talking about that whereas in actuality I’d been trying to say that I’d been to France.

This wasn’t the only confusion I’d caused when speaking Korean. In English if someone tells you a piece of bad news, it’s fairly standard to say “I’m sorry to hear that” or something similar. I was speaking Korean with a Korean friend when he told me that he’d lost some money. I think I said “I’m sorry” in Korean and didn’t understand why he seemed so confused. He told me later that this was because when you say sorry in Korean it’s as if you’re accepting the blame for something, so he wondered if I was admitting that I had taken his money.

I’ve caused a lot of confusion by not understanding different cultures and idioms, but it’s these differences that make learning languages so entertaining and enjoyable.

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