Can You Get by in Korea Without Speaking Korean?

There are some questions that the Korean receives that he is fundamentally unequipped to answer. This is one of them -- can one get by in Korea without speaking Korean? The Korean is unable to answer this question for a simple reason: there has never been a point in his life where he was unable to speak Korean in Korea. Any attempt by the Korean to answer this question would only be a guesswork.
Fortunately, there are others on the Internet who are able to provide thoughtful answers to this question. So here is a good one from the always-entertaining Eat Your Kimchi:
The point is, we think the whole reason why someone should learn the language in a country is for communication.  . . .  In our case, we have basic communication down. We can order anything we need at restaurants, ask for everything we need at supermarkets and shops, tell taxis where to go, ask for directions, all that. But we can’t have deeeeep discussions. We can’t talk politics or religion. We can’t tell you what Spudgy did to that teddy bear in the park (you don’t want to know what he did to that teddy bear in the park). We’re not fluent or 100% conversational, but we’re perfectly functional to the point that our local shops think that we ARE fluent speakers. It also helps that we can understand Korean, so even though our responses are basic, we’re still communicating.
So, the question we often face is why don’t we learn MORE Korean. We live in Korea, we plan on living here more, so why not become super fluent? Well, there are a few factors for us to consider. From a very honest personal standpoint, we don’t need to.  . . .  we’re already married and we don’t go out that much, because we spend so much time editing and filming. We’re with each other all the time, talking to each other all the time. More importantly, our Korean friends speak English as well, and want us to speak English with them all the time, because this is their chance to practice it when they otherwise don’t have many opportunities to do so. So from our personal perspective, learning Korean won’t really do that much for us.
Not Speaking Korean in Korea [Eat Your Kimchi]

Admittedly, the Korean's perspective is somewhat different. As the readers know, I immigrated to U.S. and learned English at a relatively late age, and learned English to the level of having above-average language skills, even compared to native speakers. (Sorry to boast, but it was necessary for the context.) 

There is, of course, difference in purposes held the Korean on one hand, and held by Simon and Martina on the other, and the difference probably drives the different life choices we made under similar circumstances. The Korean had a clear goal in making a life in the United States like any other American. I cannot know what the future plan of Simon and Martina are, but I would imagine it would differ a bit from the one I had for myself when I moved to the U.S. In other words, one could say that the bar for "adequate" level of foreign language was simply higher for the Korean.

But, in my opinion, the bigger difference between our approaches is the purposes of our language learning. EYK thinks communication is the point of language learning -- a position from which it follows that the adequate level of language learning is at the point where one can make adequate level of communication. This is a perfectly valid position, and makes a great deal of sense.

Yet the Korean has a different purpose for language learning. For me, the purpose of language learning is not communication; it is for understanding the world around me. For me, it is not enough that I have enough language skills to order food at restaurants, make small talks or do my job. I need to have enough language skills to understand the major events and issues of the society to which I belong, and understand how those events might affect me. I need to have enough language skills to speak with people who are more knowledgeable than I am in a given issue, and read what those people wrote about such an issue. Simply put, I need enough language skills to know what is going on around me.

EYK did allude to this "language bubble," as they termed the state of being unable to understand most of what is going on around them. But the Korean simply does not feel the "calm and peace" that EYK feels in the language bubble. This is likely because of fundamental difference in temperament -- after all, whenever I enter any physical space (be it someone's room, a subway car, a busy street, etc.,) the first thing I always do is to read every single printed word there is to read. This does not mean that the Korean gets annoyed or frustrated when he travels abroad to a country whose language he does not speak. But it does mean that, if I don't understand the language around me, my surroundings lose a little bit of reality for me, as if they are images from a television or artificial structures in a theme park. The Korean can tolerate that for a week or two, but not for a month or a year. 

Lest there is any misunderstanding -- this post is not to suggest this or that about Simon and Martina. The Korean already made it clear that the difference in our perspectives is likely due to our life circumstances and our temperaments. It is, simply, something to consider.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at