Language barrier in Korea and how to master it

January 17, 2019 by Loes Kieboom

Adventurous communication troubles as a budget traveler on Jeju Island

Jeju Island was my first destination in South Korea, I came from Hong Kong directly to Jeju International Airport and wanted to go on to the mainland by ferry a couple of days later. My travel style is to use low budget, so also in South Korea – which is not really cheap. I tried to cut down the costs by using public transport or walk, eat in street food stalls, cheap restaurants or cook myself, avoiding high entrance costs & go for the cheapest sleeping options.

As I have been traveling in a lot of developing countries off the main road where I couldn’t speak the local language, I wasn’t expecting to be the language barrier in South Korea – as a well developed country – the biggest issue at the beginning. Of course it might be easier when traveling in a group, sleeping in fancy hotels and taking expensive tourist taxis or arriving in the capital Seoul at the beginning.

English speaking people are rare

Fact is, that people in the places I have been staying in Jeju Island, usually were not able to speak English. Or at least so little to be able to communicate the basic check-in and payment process. Every further questions in regards to directions were getting too difficult.

No international descriptions on packaging

In the supermarkets the only language on the products is Korean. I have never thought about that before, but everywhere else I have been in Asia, the products always had an additional English text with the main information on the packaging, not so in Korea. You have to do a wild guess what you hold in your hands by interpreting the pictures (as most products are not packed in transparent foil). This was definitely new for me, it might difficult for people with allergies to go for grocery shopping in Korea without knowing the language.

The adventure of ordering food

Due to the fact that not many foreign tourists are coming to Jeju Island the restaurants do not have English menus. Be ready for eating everything by pointing on something (when you’re lucky there are pictures or the neighbor table has some nice food on it to order the same).

Korean memory games, angry old women and nonverbal ignorance OR public transport in Jeju

My most adventurous experience on Jeju Island was using the public transport. The network of buses on the island is incredible, so is the timing, but again everything is written in the Korean language. An additional tricky situation was that by the time I visited Jeju there just had been lately change of the bus numbers and routes, so all information I researched in advance was no longer valid.

So what would a well experienced traveler do when not finding the needed information on internet or on the bus stations? Walk and ask around and trying to find the information.

Packed with the name I wanted to go I went to a bus station which every bus seemed to pass to ask the people at the bus station. These were not really interested in even looking at a person who was speaking in this weird language called English and pointing on a map and saying the destination all over again. Politely everybody would just look in another direction.

No eye contact – no weird questions, right?

Playing memory games with Korean language

Then I tried to compare the Korean signs for my destination with the signs on the buses which is a kind of memory card game within a short time limit. Not very successful either as my destination is on the way to the final end station as well, so it might not even show up on the buses.

The real bosses in Korea – Ajumnas

Next approach was to ask the bus drivers directly, which was tricky – as standing in front of the entrance trying to talk to the driver involved some kicking and pushing of old angry Korean ladies, who were trying to get into the bus. Although there was enough space to pass they seemed not to see it like that and felt to expand their territory.

These aggressive old women as stereotypes are in Korea that common so they even have an own name in Korean language:  Ajumma. On Jeju island the role of the women might even be stronger due to the tradition of the diving Haenyeo women, who labored the families back to the 17th century. Read more about this history and other traditions on Jeju Island.

Non talking bus drivers

So while being attacked by angry old ladies I tried to pronounce my Korean destination on the very best way to the bus driver. Every single time I got waved out, a shaking head or sometimes the bus driver in charge would go with the no eye contact game as well and not giving any answer – all with no-talk by the way. At least the bus drivers also seemed to be unfriendly to locals and Korean tourists, so it was not a racist thing.

Well, after that all these unsatisfying attempts which took me for sure more an hour, I was still standing at the same bus station, not having any clue.

Finally I was able to figure out which of the buses would go to the central transport hub with a digital info board, which also had some hidden English language features. There I went for being able to find an information office with a very helpful, friendly English speaking Korean lady and also some useful tourist folders in English. And I asked her everything! I had my relevant bus numbers to come around the island and was able to leave for a trip to Yongmeori coast after asking around for about two hours.

How to travel in Korea without speaking the language

Get your pronunciation right

A tip when asking around for a destination: make sure you have the pronunciation of the place right. I found out that my place of desire was pronounced completely different then I thought. Even a stressed bus driver on Jeju, who won’t take the time to look at the map or read the place name in Korean will be at least so polite to confirm that you are on the correct bus – with no-talk of course.

So just practice your pronunciation with the receptionist of your hotel until it’s perfect. I was proud as an peacock the day after when the bus driver confirmed me that he is going to Seongsan, which I pronounced correctly and understandable. Don’t even think about knowing how to pronounce the names correctly without help, the Koreans are doing weird things with their S, J and G and actually all other letters of the alphabet.

Take advantage of English speaking people

When you meet somebody, who is willing to teach you Korean words and their pronunciation and even speaks a bit of English, then take the opportunity to learn.

At the train station of Mokpo, where obviously western tourists are not spotted often, I met a very friendly lady at the counter. She taught me the difference of pronunciation of the places Jeonju and Gyeongju, which sound very similar in Korean language. She did not give me my train ticket to Jeonju until I had the pronunciation correct. I could even use the learned pronunciation of ‘Gyeongju’ a couple of weeks later as I was heading there as well.

Don’t take it for granted that you will meet an English speaking person everywhere to find your way. So when you meet somebody who is even willing to help, ask them everything you need to know – like EVERYTHING which is coming to your mind.

Let locals write down what you need

After my frustrating experience in Jeju I often asked the owner of the places where I stayed or somebody else who could speak English to write a short sentence in Korean with my needs. Funny enough I never needed it afterwards, but it felt good to have a backup in my pocket.

I’m not very picky when it comes to food, but can imagine that it can be tricky to be a vegetarian in Korea. It is not always obvious what you are ordering, also talking about street food. Fish, seafood, meat or even insects it might be hidden in a fried ball. Some prepared sentences saying that you only eat vegetarian or any other special diet wishes might be a lifesaver for you.

Or you do as I did, recognizing weeks after my visit in South Korea and doing some research with the picture I made, that I had not eaten a cup of beans, but silkworms . They were not bad, though.

Use offline maps on your mobile

I actually started to use offline maps since my latest trip. Believe it or not, I always found my way before using that app, sometimes it just took a bit longer. Now I am used to Google maps and the feature that you can download certain areas for offline use, I cannot imagine anymore how I did it before.

However, I found that the app maps.me is much more helpful in Korea, Hong Kong and Japan. Google seems to be less used in Korea and it often does not contain the English translation, which is not really practical when not speaking the local language. This is no paid advertisement by the way, just a good meant recommendation what I found useful.

Get your self a SIM Card

Of course online maps provide more information, also you might be able to do a online research to find your way. There are some translation apps available, which allow you to make a picture of the Korean letters and translate it, but these only work online.

I myself came around without a SIM card and was offline when moving around and did my research while being in the guesthouse using the wifi. But when you want to be on the safe side, there are some online apps which can really help.

Be patient

Be patient, seriously – be patient! Things might not work as expected and take longer as you think.

When I arrived in Jeonju by train, I decided that I can take the local bus to my guesthouse, as there was a bus map at the train station which showed the city center with a bus station near by my place to go. The city buses seemed to go for a kind of circle route through the city. Although a part of the route was not shown on the map, I saw the bus station I needed.

I hopped on the bus, we passed by the city center, which was a close walk to my guesthouse. But I decided to stay in the bus to wait for my even closer bus station as it is good to save every possible step with a heavy backpack. So I looked out of the window of the bus and had an eye on my GPS signal in maps.me on my mobile and saw that we moved further and further away from the city center. On the app it was shown that the city borders where reached, so I thought it’s a good idea not to change the bus anymore for heading back, but just wait until the circle route through the city is finished and we come back to the round route, which I had seen before on the map at the train station.

Then the journey just started, suddenly we were driving through the mountains into the middle of nowhere. So I tried to be patient and enjoy the landscape, thinking it’s just going to the closest suburb village and turning back to the city. Well, I was wrong. About one hour after I stepped into the city bus I was standing in a little Korean very local village, the driver had thrown me out of the bus and it was quite clear to the locals that I don’t belong there.

Western backpacker lost in a small Korean mountain village

Imagine a western foreigner with a dirty, large backpack in the middle of the Korean mountains in between locals, who don’t say anything but silently observe the weird situation. Being confused and a bit pissed, because I had a fight with the bus driver before. I still thought I could just stay seated in the bus to return to the city, which he did not agree on. It’s not that I understood him, but his look and screaming made it obvious that I should leave the bus.

I was happy to see that another bus was coming ten minutes later and it even took me back to the city! Even to my desired bus station, a five minutes walk from my guesthouse. Just about one and a half hour later than expected, double fee paid, BUT with a good story and ride through the beautiful Korean mountains!

So just be patient! Everything will be fine.

Communicate with hands, feet and nonverbal

Showing somebody the food which you want, asking for a place on a map or guidebook to get the direction seems to be obvious.
Also have a good look at signs. Prohibitions are usually explained in Korean but also visually – often in a very detailed way. Actually some of them are really funny, not sure if it is unintentionally or not.

But also have a look around if you get a dirty look now and then. Korean culture is different and they are picky about their rules and not always very open in regard to foreigners not knowing everything. Try to find out what you are doing wrong and say sorry for it (folding hands and do a little bow usually does the job). Don’t be this ignorant tourist neglecting the country’s culture.

I knew before visiting Korea that they have a lot of restrictions about smoking, which I’m happy to adapt to. Nevertheless it took me a couple of dirty looks and sorry-bows to find out that it is even safer to smoke in one of the weird provided smoking cabins at public spaces than on a open, deserted street.

Enjoy the experience

The last and the most important tip: Enjoy the experience about all the things which go with the troubles of the language barrier. About feeling lost, about keeping your eyes open to learn the different culture, about doing your daily research in advance before hitting the road and about being prepared to have some new flavors on your tongue. South Korea is very safe and developed, there is nothing to worry about. Not being able to communicate as you are used to is giving this little extra to your trip to Korea – these small adventures, which traveling actually make special.

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