Monday, August 17, 2009

I'll Have the Ummmm...: Korean Language

After Taiwan and Malaysia (some English spoken and English ubiquitous, respectively), Korea was a bit of a shock. Maybe it was too much MASH as a kid, or the thought that there were thousands of US troops still stationed there, or the belief that, as a civilized nation - it would be expected that..... but no. They don't speak English. At all. The colleague I was traveling with is fluent in Hokkien, several dialects of Chinese and English (OK: Singlish), and with me in tow, we can get through most foreign encounters OK, but this was off the scale. "I can't really leave the hotel" she said, exasperatedly. "There is one restaurant just down the road where they know me, and I point at the pictures on the menu." The picture shows one example of the problems you face.

The written language (Hangul) is completely unlike any other script on the planet, and is claimed to be the most logical script on earth, since each combination of sticks and balls even gives you instructions on how to pronounce it! The reason for the logic is simple: Hangul did not evolve naturally over time: it was created at the instigation of Emperor Sejong in 1406, who wanted a unique script for his country instead of just half-borrowing from the Chinese (like the Japanese did).

Since Korean is only used in South and North Korea, there is not much call to learn the language, and unlike Japanese, learning the written language does not even help you with other languages. As always, I found you can go far with the usual politeness things : Kamsamnida (Thank you) and Annio-Hassio (Hello), but that's as far as I got.

Safe Travels! Des


  1. I must say that on my recent trip to Japan language was no problem at all. Local busses with Latin Characters telling you the next stop, train stations all conveniently signposted as well as many streets and buildings.

    As for street numbers in Tokyo - well that's another story!

    But the ability to walk into a noodle bar, exchange the pleasantries and simply order yaki-soba and biru saved a lot of hassle....

  2. You must also have figured out "Tsugi wa XYZ desu" after a few stops on the Chikatetsu!