Korean, Personal
Comments 4

The most useful phrase to know in Korean (and any language)

Literal ‘did that just happen?!’ moment last week.

A friend of mine reached out to me last week, saying a coworker of hers needed help placing an order for 떡 for her child’s 백일 from a Korean bakery in Santa Clara.

I’m not sure what this person’s situation was–whether she was Korean(-American) or married to Korean(-American)–but I was more than a little baffled when my friend reached out to me.

Turns out this particular bakery (for fellow South Bay residents it’s 이화당 떡집 – Ehwa Dang Rice Bakery down in Korea Town Santa Clara, if you’re curious) isn’t English-friendly. It seems that they don’t have any English-speaking employees at all, in fact, which I found astounding–but I guess that just shows you what an arrogant American I am. Heh.

Anyway, said coworker’s dilemma was three-fold: her Korean wasn’t good enough to place a phone order with them, the owner’s Korean was too fast for her to understand, and her Korean relatives couldn’t help because they didn’t understand her English. So, I guess that’s where I came in.

She emailed me a bunch of specifics for her order–the date of the event, preferred pick up time, amount she required, questions about payment, etc. And I made the call to the bakery.

Making phone calls in English gives me anxiety, but making this phone call in Korean almost gave me a panic attack. There was a very real possibility I would ruin this complete stranger’s child’s 백일 forever, and that was terrifying.

But long story short, I was able to place the order according to all the specs I was given. And few days later, I heard back from my friend that her coworker’s party was a success!

The whole thing was kind of a small victory, but it made my week nonetheless. It also made me realize something.

The phone call in Korean was a challenge, but not so much as I feared it would be. The thing that helped me get through the anxiety was just staying humble while I was on the line. Instead of pretending like I was totally fluent in Korean and stretching myself to the max of my ability, I downplayed it and really made sure the bakery employee and I understood each other.

I started out in Korean, explaining my situation that I was trying to place an order on someone else’s behalf. And then I said the one phrase that has pretty much helped me in every challenging Korean speaking situation that I’ve been in:

저 한국말은 잘 못해요…

“I’m not that good at Korean….”

Nine times out of ten, if you’re in a situation where you have to speak Korean but you feel intimidated or overwhelmed, this phrase works wonders.

I was amazed how the bakery employee (who, indeed, spoke incredibly fast) just slowed down and listened a lot more carefully, let me finish my sentences without interrupting, and encouraged me when I stumbled, after I told her that I wasn’t that good at Korean but that I would try. She encouraged me to use the little Korean that I knew, instead of struggling to communicate in English. And she even used the opportunity to teach me some new words!

Admitting that you don’t know Korean that well often triggers one of two scenarios: 1) The individual you’re speaking with switches to English because they’re more confident in their English skills than your Korean skills or 2) The individual trusts your basic Korean ability and continues to speak Korean, but it’s less stressful and the interaction turns into a learning opportunity for the both of you.

That latter scenario was definitely what unfolded for me during the bakery phone call; I walked away from that conversation feeling so much more confident in my speaking abilities.

***

Ever since TOPIK II, I’ve been…. feeling really apathetic toward Korean. It scares me, because I used to be so invested in the language and culture. I still am, to some extent, but the 욕심 is gone.

Self-studying a language in a bubble is challenging because you’re not only expending energy studying on your own, you also have to actively pop the bubble you’re in and create an environment where you’re immersed. And lately, I’ve been redirecting that energy into other things.

Helping out this stranger with her bakery order was the first time in a long time that I did something related to Korean outside of books and the Internet. It reminded me of the ‘humanness’ of language, so to speak. And it made me really really want to go back to Korea. Maybe some day soon.

4 Comments

    • Definitely! It took me 10 days in Seoul the last time I was there to get semi-comfortable speaking to people in Korean.

      Like

  1. nellychoo says

    Great post. Humility is how I coped in Korea – and well tbh, going to Korea is a humbling experience linguistically speaking.

    Liked by 1 person

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