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Survival Korean

Quick tips for reading and speaking Korean.

Traveling Korea by Bike? Should you learn the language? How much do you need to know?

Let’s find out. Then let’s learn some Korean.

Should You Learn?

Should I learn the language? Yes, and no. A little. To survive.

A picture of a Korean classroom.
Learning Korean? Is it nessecary to bike in Korea? A little bit can't hurt.

Beyond Language

Travel to any foreign country and you’ll realize that some things don’t need language. Context communicates 90%.

Walk into a restaurant between 5 and 7. They’ll assume you want dinner. Stroll into a motel past sundown looking ragged. They’ll suppose you want a room.

Fingers show amounts. Gestures replace words.

So should you learn the language? This is the “no” answer. Don’t let your inability to communicate verbally hold you back.

English in Korea

How about the second question? How much English is in Korea?

Global Tongue

English is a global language.

  • 370 million folks are native speakers.
  • 978 million employ it as a second language.
  • That makes 1.35 billion total users, surpassing all other languages.

The language’s universality doesn’t just benefit native English speakers. It facilitates business around the world.

  • Indian developers communicate with German architects in English.
  • Japanese car manufacturers use it when calling up their Mexican parts suppliers.

This motivates Korea, like many nations, to pour time and money into English education.

  • Hagwons (학원), or private academies, teach millions of students after public school lets out every day.
  • Schools fly over and pay the rent for native English speakers to teach elementary students.
  • Korea’s college entrance exam (대학수학능력시험; CSAT), a test that determines the socioeconomic outcomes of 18-year-olds, includes English as one of its primary subjects.

International Signage

Korea was once an insular nation. During the Joseon Dynasty, because of past invasions and imperialism, they barred the doors to the outside world shut. And for much of the 20th century, the Korean War and its decimation limited the nation’s international exposure.

However, after a miraculous economic turnaround (1961~1997), Koreans sought recognition on the world stage by hosting high-profile events.

Korea is one of the most homogeneous countries in the world (95% ethnic Korean). So before these games, the country needed only Hangul (한글; /han-geul/; 🔈) for signs, maps, and public notices.

The international events forced Korea to rearrange the decor to accommodate the peoples of the world. That included reprinting all signage with at least one second language beneath.

Guess which subtitle language they chose? English.

While the 1988 and 2018 Olympics spurred foreign friendly infrastructure changes, each stuck to a specific region or city (Seoul and Gangwon Province).

For the 2002 World Cup, however, Korea erected ten stadiums in every corner of the country. This washed a tsunami of English onto every corner of the nation.

The Benefits of Hangul

Should I learn the language? Yes.

Three simple reasons.

  1. It’s easy.
  2. It shows respect.

English has limits.

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