So I just got back home from a nice brunch and trip to the store with a friend of mine. She has been here over 5 years and isn’t planning to go anywhere, what are called “lifers” here. I have met two since I first came here, both are like me– married or planning to marry their Korean spouse- and have learned/are learning the Korean language. A majority of the foreigners who come here only plan to stay a year or two to make some money to pay the bills back home or to get paid to travel, but sometimes you’re lucky to find some people who have decided this is their home. That isn’t to say that some don’t pick up some Korean, but most aren’t that serious about it.
Besides the benefits of speaking the language of the country you are visiting/living in and the cultural enrichment you get from it, it makes going out that much easier. I can negotiate prices, food, ordering, and very basic conversations. Even this small amount is helpful when going out. I mentioned meeting two lifers here who speak Korean. When I went out with them, I don’t have to really speak (they’ve been here A LOT longer and feel comfortable, I’m still getting my footing down here) and they aren’t dependent on me to do anything for them when they want something. It is such a relief!
That’s not to say that the typical Korean reactions to foreigners speaking Korean isn’t discouraging/annoying. You get those who just cannot recognize the fact you are speaking their language and either a) insist on speaking English back or b) grunt at you to negotiate. There are also those who just giggle, smile, and overall don’t know how to deal with you simply because you are a foreigner. Lastly, you can get people who are so happy you have put forth the effort to speak their language and are very accommodating (these are the people whom I love dearly in Korea and wish I met more of). But seeing each of these people who have been here a long time and who are learning to speak it are certainly an inspiration for me to start learning again. I have stopped the last 6 months because I have been going through some serious culture shock and in that process I just rejected Korea as much as possible, but now I am finally starting to feel it again.
I guess the thing I want to get across to those who want to come here is that both the other foreigners here and Koreans both appreciate if you chose to learn SOME Korean. I think people will feel they deserve that service (free gifts for patronage at shops) or that smile accompanying the phrase “한국어 잘 하시네요!” It is a very gratifying feeling. Happy learning!