How do Koreans react to foreigners learning Korean

9 February, 2012

After writing the post on how Singaporeans react (both the good and the not so nice ways) to me studying Korean, it got me thinking of how my Korean friends / people on the street react to me learning Korean.

As all things go, there are a variety of reactions. Personally I’ve had very good experiences, but I have read not so nice experiences from others. Here are some of the common reactions I have gotten.

1. ‘why Korean?’

Koreans understand the need to learn other languages in order to survive in this ‘globalized world’. Unlike the average monolingual English speaker, Koreans sees learning languages as an important and necessary aspect in life. In Singapore, we are blessed with knowing English and Chinese, and most of us do not see a dire need to learn a third language. Languages for us is more of a pastime, an interest, instead of a necessary skill to acquire. So, I don’t get Koreans asking me ‘why are you learning a language’. Rather, I get the question ‘why Korean.

Koreans are proud of their language and culture, but a lot of them don’t seem to think Korean is an ‘important language’ in the world and they are often puzzled by my decision to learn their language.

‘Why not learn Spanish or French?’, ‘there’s not much use learning Korean’ etc. These are the most common comments I’ve received. Even with the worldwide spread of the Hallyu wave, many Koreans remain quite unaware of how popular their culture / language is getting and many of them are surprised that I know many of their dramas / movies / singers etc.

They seem to find it amusing that foreigners are so interested in their language / culture.

2. Being thankful

Another very common reaction is that they would thank me for learning Korean. Most of my friends or even people in shops / on the streets always tell me that they are thankful that I find their language and culture beautiful.

3. Very surprised

Despite the growing popularity of Korean as a foreign language and the fact that more and more foreigners are proficient in Korean, many Koreans are still very much surprised at a foreigner being able to speak Korean. Even a few simple phrases is enough to wow them. I find that pretty amusing 😛 I know many foreigners who can speak Korean so well, and yet a lot of people tell me they are so surprised at my level of proficiency and they have never seen any foreigner more proficient than me. ㅋㅋㅋ I take it that they are just being very very nice 😀

—–

On the other hand, I have came across a few blogs where the foreigner (mostly Caucasians) have negative reactions. I distinctly remember a blog (rather controversial topics) where the guy thinks that the Koreans basically view foreigners speaking Korean as performing monkeys. A very strong metaphor. And it seems like that view garnered a lot of support from the comments on that post.

Personally, I have nothing but the best experiences. Everyone appreciated my effort to speak Korean. ^^

What have your experiences been?

27 Comments
    1. When I start studying Korean, everyone around me thought that I’m crazy or just because of K-pop. Even my parents didn’t support me. They prefer me to learn Japanese instead, so I end up with learning Korean myself and Japanese at my 3rd language at future university.

      Actually, I start my interest in korean because of K-pop. But now I feel deeply love in Korean culture, food etc.

      Anyway, my reactions more than 80% are positive and I am looked to be a dedicated person ^_^.

      Thanks Unnie for your wonderful blog, It’s very helpful and inspiring as well,

      Parfait ^_^

      1. Don’t let the opinions of others get to you ^^ Studying Korean brings so much more to my life, it’s impossible to place a value on it ^^

        Hope you will also continue to work hard in Korean! ^^

      1. I find it amusing your parents would prefer that you study Japanese. I started with Japanese and my parents really hated it because they had a negative view of anime and manga.. (even though learning Japanese doesn’t mean exclusively that). Although, at least they were mostly outwardly supportive… my dad always used to make comments about my learning Chinese (I took some easy classes, but I was never really passionate about it).
        I think my parents are more supportive of my learning Korean now though

        1. My mom can speak Chinese and my dad also understand it. I think mom don’t want me to know Chinese b/c when I am just a kid, my grand mom tried to teach me Chinese but mommy say “no”

          I also don’t know why. Maybe because she want to speak something secretly and I will not understand her ^_^

    1. I have had many similar experiences 😀

      Whenever I meet a Korean, they always ask me what’s the reasoning behind my studying – I think it’s because they’re shocked I picked their language rather than something widely known like Chinese or Spanish. Like you mentioned, they find it very odd that I love their language and culture.

      I have noticed the adults get really surprised and they try to help me find more Korean resources and other communities in order to advance my language progress and interest. On the other hand, the kids around my age usually just chat with me off and on and act quite shy ^^;;;

      But so far, I haven’t had any negative reactions yet 🙂

      1. ㅎㅎㅎ I havent had many chances to talk with korean kids. 😛 I should try next time!
        wow you met great people (: It’s really nice when Koreans are so positive about us learning their language. I feel very motivated every time I received some form of encouragement from them (:

    1. hahahah! I get what you meant, shanna! Really, it’s just simple phrases and they will go WOW!!!! — literally. hahahaha! sometimes their reaction makes me feel a sense of achievement :)) But sometimes if you ” try too hard” to speak with them in complete sentences after searching up dictionaries and such, they think that you really know a lot and hence start communicating with you informally (you know those shortforms and all D: ) , you’ll go like ” ??????!!” . But having conversing with them makes me even more motivated to learn this language well 😀

      1. ㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋ i know what you mean too!! they will launch into a whole string of Korean and Im just nodding my head and pretending I understand them 😛 That was what I did last time ㅋㅋㅋ i felt like I shouldnt disappoint their ermm expectations of me 😛

        kind of hilarious. but I very much appreciate the fact that they will not deliberately slow down for me and use very very simple korean. Koreans wont do things like repeating ‘do you understand me??’ after every sentence while I tend to see English speakers saying such things to foreigners who may not be that proficient in English :/ Personally I hate that

    1. From native Koreans, I generally get the shocked reaction, alongside the “Wow, you’re the best foreigner I know speaking Korean.” [Despite the growing population of foreigners with Korean proficiency, I think it’s still small enough that many Koreans haven’t interacted with foreigners who are proficient in Korean.] I think it’s especially surprisingly just because I’m living in the US, and haven’t been to Korea yet.
      So~ from native Koreans, I generally get a positive reaction.
      However, from Korean Americans here, I get a more negative reaction. I think they’re more weirded out by it~ I tend not to tell people that I speak Korean, and they find out after knowing me for a few weeks or so, but they find it really weird. I think it’s just because in the US, most people are monolingual, and they won’t expect a non-Korean speaking Korean.So~ I generally reserve speaking Korean for native Koreans rather than Korean Americans. [There’s also the fact that I “speak better” than some of them. – I can at least write better than some of them. But I think that makes it a bit awkward for them.]

      1. haha i agree about the part on how koreans havent had much chance to interact with proficient foreigners. In Korea, there are proficient Asians who look like Koreans so much, perhaps the koreans can’t even tell them apart from koreans 😛

        It’s interesting that you brought up the point on Korean Americans. I have plenty of Kor-Am friends, some of them speak very well but some.. I think Im better than them :/ It gets a little awkward and most of them prefer speaking English anyway, so I just use English with them.

    1. All the time they were really surprised! I haven’t been asked yet why Korean since most of the time they were really short encounters (Korean exchange students and professors in our university aside). The ahjummas looks very delighted that they almost always wanted to hug me (or ruffle my hair at least) even after just saying a few simple sentences. I oftentimes get more ‘service’ from restaurants (from a bowl of dwaenjang jjigae to taking home a free container of kimchi), and get free snacks from Korean marts.And a couple of Korean ladies who asked me for directions insisted on carrying my heavy bags for me. When we were in Cebu, stalking Kim Sun Ah, the Korean resort staff were also surprised. And I think they felt our sincerity thus they trusted us (and gave us their whereabouts). And yes, I haven’t met a Korean who would slow down and ask if I understand them. They will just keep on talking and once they notice that I can’t understand anymore, some (but not all) will try to rephrase what they said using simpler terms.

    1. I haven’t really met many Koreans to be able to observe their reaction to me learning Korean. My pen friends just admire how I’m improving and how I could pass for being a Korean, but… seriously with my bad grammar I doubt I’d pass by as a native. And when the lady in the Korean supermarket here in Prague found out I’m learning Korean, I was shocked at her amazement. She cheered me on and asked me various questions if I’m learning at school. She was more surprised when I told her I’m learning alone. Despite being a beginner, she chatted away to me in Korean, without asking if I actually understood what she said. I was only able to reply to her using single words. My speaking is really bad. I have no idea how to practice. But, I understood and happily nodded away. Our conversation nowadays consists of “안녕하세요… 감사합니다…. 안녕히계세요.”

      And the best response I’ve had …. “Are you Korean?” (Important to note, I’m caucasian….). For some reason some asians think I’m half (-Korean). @_@

      Anyway of to prepare my Korean learners post for you. Should be there in a short while. 😀

      1. Ah! I remember being asked by an ahjumma “Are you Korean” in a 찜질방 (here in the Philippines)! I can’t remember what I said, I think I said 죄송합니다 or 실례합니다, thus she asked me if I’m a Korean. She was surprised when I said no, then she asked me to scrub her back. ㅋㅋㅋ We talked for a bit, just random little stuff.

    1. I do get what you mean about them being thankful. I can never forget the day two Korean ajummas talked to my friend and I on the train, held onto my hand and thanked us for learning Korean. One of them even offered us gum!

      On a personal level I do feel knowing Korean has its advantages when you’re in the country. People warm up to you quicker and are less afraid of approaching you. And of course, because you know their language, they wouldn’t dare to say anything funny infront of you! Haha.

    1. Thank you for sharing your experiences! Since I never went to Korea I can’t say how Koreans react to me learning their language but my friends, family, others.

      At first I was very interested in Japan and Japanese, almost obsessed with it.
      My mother was like well okay and my dad was totally against it, like he thought it was a waste of time.
      After one year I got aware of Kpop (through Jpop & some blogs) and I found myself liking it really much. Later I also started learning Korean.
      At first I kept it as a secret, because of the previous reactions for starting to learn Japanese, but little by little I told some people and they were like: “What? I thought you were learning about Japanese? Have you given up already?”
      Of course I didn’t ^^; My parents are still a little concerned about school and grades but I do at least as much for school as for Japanese and Korean.

      My personal thoughts on this are:
      Do what you want to do if you really want to! Because if the people around you see that you’re serious about a certain thing, they will take you serious. Although it sometimes takes it’s time.

      1. I don’t usually tell people that I am learning Korean too. Or even so, sometimes I simply tell people Im horrible at it still ㅋㅋㅋㅋ Just to avoid questioning etc 😛

    1. I get the impression that most people are project their feelings.

      When they see a non asian speaking, some people react out of jealousy, fear, or ignorance.

      “OOOH YOU ARE A GENIUS!” – Did you see how long it took me to write that?!

      “OOH… You want to learn Korean?” – Gorramit I am learning!!!

      And on the other side of that when people believe I’m learning Korean:

      “Why don’t you just speak Korean?” – Because I still don’t know enough so I have nothing to say yet!!

      Eventually I’ve learned not to give a damn. When I feel like speaking and I can say things in Korean, I do. The pressure will make your head explode. Just let it go.

      I’m glad to be away from the attitudes in the States. But somehow that gave me a lot more motivation to learn languages.

      Most people in America can’t point to Korea on a map. When I told my boss I was leaving for Korea he said “You’re not going to North Korea are you? HEHEHEH…”

      “…”

      (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻

      I just let stupid people be stupid. I’m too busy having fun and exploring the language and culture to have someone poop on my parade.

      1. Can’t agree more! I’ve seen more than my share of ‘stupid people’ too D:

        Most of my non-Asian friends learning Korean tell me they feel that they get less chance to practice their Korean. Once they stumble a little, most Koreans will tend to switch over to English immediately and that lessens their chance of continuing to use Korean.

    1. I always have customers/meeting koreans and when i speak just simple korean to them, they always seems surprised. some part of them were just expecting me to speak to them in english, sometimes mandarin.

      I remembered one time I was serving a pair of Korean girls that were gearing up to do some high elements and they were asking in simple english about whether it will be safe. a simple “걱정 하십시요” sent them clapping for me.

      I always stumble and stutter when i try asking for things in korean when im there. at first i thought it was really embarrassing but i get used to it when you know they are just really grateful and glad that i learnt their language so that i can converse with them well. and because of that, i sometimes do end up getting really good discounts. XD

      and its pretty flattering when someone asks if im a korean. XD (probably because my eyes makes me look like one)

    1. I just recently found your blog (actually, just today lol) so I’m reading a lot of your entries. They are very inspiring! I started learning Korean about a month ago – just hangeul because I had no spare time while uni was in session. So now that it’s summer break, I want to be in full-on Korean study mode. But anyway…!

      I have had the same experience when telling other people what language I’m studying, except in my case it’s Japanese. I started studying in high school and am continuing through uni (so it’s my 5th year but far from proficient orz). I really get the “Why Japanese?” comment from older people. I got it once from my neighbor who said “Why did you pick that? What can you do with that? What do you WANT to do with that?” Usually saying ‘Oh I just love languages’ or something isn’t sufficient. There has to be a REALLY good reason to pick THAT language.

      Well, that’s what it feels like anyway.

      Otherwise, most people I tell think it’s really awesome that I can speak a language like Japanese. They say “But isn’t it really hard?” “So you’re fluent right?” etc. And then I get the “Well say something in Japanese then!” ww I’m glad that I can get a mostly positive reaction from people, especially my parents. I was really interested in Japanese culture from middle school, and they never had any objections to what I wanted to learn. I hope to surprise them by learning more languages!

      I actually read something in Korean to my dad the other day. He most likely didn’t even know I knew how to read it! w but then he asked me what it meant and I had no clue haha

      But anyway, TL;DR, there are mixed responses to learning any Eastern Asian language (primarily Japanese or Korean) in America, too. But it’s mainly from the older generation or people who aren’t exposed to it much.

    1. Maybe because you are Asian/Singaporean, that’s why Koreans react better to you learning their language than if you were Caucasian. Firstly, if you look Korean, they will assume you are. That’s already a foot in. Together with the ability to speak Korean, that’s another plus. This conveys a more genuine feeling to them than if a Caucasian were to speak their language (& come across as a faker).

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *