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Lost in Translation

April 21, 2011

(From Sophia Coppola’s Lost in Translation with Bill Murray & Scarlett Johansson) 

Phrases on notebooks and T-shirts are not the only things that get lost in translation in Korea.  Basically these kind of moments make up the most part of my day.

Korea is one of the most homogeneous nations around the world.  This means that the vast majority of people in this country are in fact 100% Korean.   In the late 80’s, people started coming to Korea to teach English.  Since then, the Korean government has also hired thousands of English-speaking Westerners to come and teach in public schools.   In 1988, the population of English teachers in Korea was around 1,000 and since 2002 the number has surpassed 20,000.   What makes this whole situation interesting is that for thousands of years the Korean culture and it’s people have remained somewhat isolated…then we came along.

So, Where’s the English?

Before arriving in Korea, I expected to find more English spoken in Seoul.  I thought that since I would be in a large city (AND because English is a compulsory subject in school!) , it wouldn’t be too difficult to find people who speak English when I need to ask for directions or get something accomplished.   Well, I was wrong.   In fact, some of the other English teachers at my school can barely communicate effectively with me.  There are times when I am talking to one of my co-teachers about something and I leave the entire conversation thinking…”What was that about?  Wait, what did they think I SAID?! Oh, no…I hope it wasn’t important…”.

There is a reason for this though:  Until about now,  Koreans have been learning English grammar with less emphasis on actually speaking.  Then the government realized how that method was not working at all…and …that’s why I’m here.  I am here to teach English communication AND to work with the co-teachers to help improve their English speech.

The liars!

At the same time, for the last 10 years English has been a compulsory subject from 3rd grade.  This means that yes, people CAN in fact speak some English in this country.  But why can’t I find them?!  One reason: Because they lie about it!  Koreans as a culture are reserved and shy. There have been many times that I will ask someone if they speak English because I need help with something.  I usually pick someone young-looking because then I have the best chance of them speaking English.  I would guess that 6 times out of 10, that particular person will tell me no, they don’t speak English.  LIAR, I am sure you speak a little!  Usually, they are too embarrassed and uncomfortable, and I know they are lying just to get out of being tested on it.

Example:  There is a  guy that works in the faculty office and he is around my age.  He is the only other “younger” person that works here and I bump into him semi-often.  Sometimes we end up eating lunch next to each other, put on our shoes next to each other (we have to wear slippers inside the school) etc.  Well, it took him TWO months to speak to me.  All along I thought he didn’t speak English!

I have also found that late at night is the best time to get Koreans to speak English.  After a bottle or two of Soju….it seems like anybody will come and practice their English on us.

It’s funny to become less independent 22.  Shouldn’t it be the opposite?

The hardest part about not speaking the language and not being able to communicate with  people here is that, in one sense, I’ve lost some independence.  Whenever I need to get something serious accomplished (buy a cell phone, set up internet, banking issues)  I have to either do it with the help of  my main co-teacher, Sung Hee.  Every EPIK teacher is assigned a main co-teacher at the  school, and in the job description of this main co-teacher is to assist the foreign teacher with certain things.  Sadly, they don’t get paid extra for “taking care of us”.  Most times  Sung Hee will make phone calls for me, help me look things up online and even take me places where she will translate to help get things done.  Other times I don’t want to bother her and I just have her write me notes. One time I had to go to the bank and accomplish three different things (a bank transfer, automatic bill payment and online banking).  I had her write down exactly what I needed done on a paper and then she put her phone number at the bottom.  I went around to different areas of the bank with my paper in hand, having Koreans cross things off like scavenger hunt.  This particular instance was successful yet I’ve had others which have not.  One time, the nice lady couldn’t accomplish the task I had written on the paper  so I then mimed with hand gestures for her to write down why in Korean.  I then had to wait until the next day to take it to Sung Hee to translate it for me. Luckily, my co-teacher is very nice and understanding…yesterday she knew I was going to go buy new makeup and she insisted it was not a problem and she came along to help 🙂

Oh, no….there are no pictures on this menu!

After these instances and experiences mentioned above, yes I have realized life would (and will be) much easier when I can speak a bit of Korean.  But there was one thing that kick started my motivation to learn: Food.  Korean food is delicious and there are so many different things and places to eat at here in Korea.  When you can’t read the Korean alphabet (Hangul) you are basically limited to eating at restaurants that also have pictures on the menu.  There have been a few times where I am at a restaurant with no pictures and I just have to point to what another table has, or even tell the waiter to bring us anything.  It can be kind of embarrassing and difficult, especially when you realize you could have ordered your favorite dish….if only you could read that it was on the menu!

After teaching, I’ve been taking the time to learn Hangul and slowly I am learning words and phrases.  Hand gestures, “Hello” and “Thank you” in Korean have only gotten me so far.

Going through these little obstacles every day makes life interesting and challenging. The topic of cross-cultural communication can go so far and there are so many things to be said about it.  Even body language between the Koreans and Westerners can be very different at times.   Every day I learn something new about Western culture compared to Eastern culture but….

It doesn’t stop there

This ‘Lost in Translation’ phenomenon doesn’t stop at English vs. Korean.   At the end of the day I leave the chaos of my school, the subways, and the city to go hang out with other English teachers.   Mind you, we compromise a pretty diverse group.  Americans, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans and the whole United Kingdom group.  Half of the time we spend together we are either trying to understand what the other person is talking about or making jokes about each other’s home countries, accents, vocabulary and basically whatever else we can make fun of about each other.   Sadly, the Americans are usually the most picked on…but my friend Ashley and I have made it a personal goal to rag on the British and their ridiculous vocabulary whenever possible.

Have a nice day and thanks to all of you reading across the “pond”.  My next blog will be more pictures, less text…I promise.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. LARRY WRAY permalink
    April 22, 2011 7:26 pm

    WHATS UP GIRL, SOUNDS LIKE YOUR DOING WELL, PROBABLY WILL MARRY THE EMPERORS SON IF THERE IS SUCH A THING AND RULE THE COUNTRY BEFORE YOU KNOW IT, THEN YOU CAN TELL EVERYONE THEY MUST LEARN ENGLISH, I ENJOY READING ABOUT YOUR EXPERIENCES, SOUNDS LIKE YOUR DOING WELL, HAVE A GREAT EASTER, MAYBE THEY WILL LET YOU HIDE EGGS IN THE CLASSROOM. TAKE CARE AND ENJOY YOUR LIFE, I NEVER THOUGHT 60 WOULD COME, AND NOW IM DOING THINGS MY DAD USE TO DO THAT I DIDNT LIKE. LOVE YOU LARRY……

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