The Prevalence of English in Korea

Before I left for Korea, I posted an article I had previously written about English as a global language. Even though I’m only a few weeks into Fulbright, I am starting to realize for the first time just how much of an impact English has around the world–in positive and negative ways.

Korea is the first country I have visited that has a non-Roman alphabet (Hangul). Though I can recognize the letters and syllables in Hangul, this is my first experience (that I can remember, at least) of being nearly illiterate. While this is disconcerting at times, it is even more disconcerting to see how much I am able to understand–because even in a small rural town, so many words are also in English.

Coming to Korea, I did assume many places and signs on the streets would be bilingual, but I expected more Korean and Chinese than Korean and English, given China’s proximity and historical relationship with Korea. I was wrong. When I see Korean students in the hallway at Jungwon, I see American brand names or English phrases printed on clothing. I have yet to see a shirt with Hangul printed on it. When I walk down the street in town, I see mostly Korean words, but enough English for me to know where I am going without a map or a dictionary. Sometimes, as in the instance of a Western restaurant or Western company, the English words come first, with a Korean translation.

My language does not only affect what I read and see, but how I interact with people. Because of my white skin and visibly non-Korean facial features, Koreans usually see me and say, “Hello.” I recognize and appreciate this as a sign of respect for my language and culture, in the same way that I always bow and say, Annyeonghaseyo when I pass a Korean. However, this becomes problematic if I am not expected to assimilate into the Korean language and culture. I am here to share my language and history and to learn Korea’s language and history. I am not here to force others to adapt to me. I am learning quickly that much of my experience will depend on my attitude and always having a sincere interest in wanting to be part of Korea. Language is the first step, though it will be a difficult one.

Fortunately, Korean class has gotten much better. I am still lost at times and do much better with the writing than the speaking, but I feel like I am improving in a full-immersion environment. Seeing the prevalence of English in Korea makes me more determined to become conversational in Korean by the end of my grant year–or, at least to know enough Korean to feel like I am showing respect to the people who have welcomed me into their country.


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