For as long as I’ve been learning Korean, I’ve had the goal of improving my Korean speaking skills. Unfortunately, even though I’ve made a considerable number of Korean friends and hang out with them pretty much every day, I’ve fallen into the dreadful habit of speaking 95% English to them and only rarely throwing a few Korean phrases into the mix. The main reason for this is that I’m shy by nature and I’m terrified of making mistakes in front of them. I realize it’s silly to be anxious and embarrassed of making mistakes in front of my friends, especially since they make mistakes in English all the time and it’s no big deal, but what can I say? It’s just an unfortunate character trait that I have to overcome.
Since I’m embarrassed in front of my friends, you can probably guess that I definitely don’t speak Korean to random strangers — at least, I didn’t use to. That’s changed a bit in the past few weeks.
I’ve recently gotten a new part-time job at the public tennis center here in town, and besides being a source of some additional income, it’s also been a surprising source of Korean speaking practice. Within my first few days on the job, I spoke Korean to three different Korean families. Since getting more speaking practice is one of my major goals right now, I thought I’d start keeping track of my Korean speaking encounters here on my blog.
On my very first day working there, a kid (around 11 years old) came into the lobby after finishing a tennis clinic to wait for his mom to pick him up. Since he was sitting near the front desk, I decided to strike up a conversation and asked him what his name was. As it turned out, he was half-Korean and half-Indonesian, and he speaks some Korean, since he was born in Korea.
Since children are much less intimidating than normal people (=adults), I decided to actually say something to the kid in Korean. I somehow managed to completely fumble over the only word I said to him (반가워), but he didn’t seem too bothered by that. He also was the first kid to have absolutely no reaction to the fact that I spoke Korean, and instead he just calmly mentioned that he was also studying five or six languages on the side (I think Chinese, Japaneses, German, and Latin were on the list). It’s been a while since I’ve been jealous of an elementary school kid.
He went back to quietly waiting for his mom, and I sat at my desk stewing in embarrassment that I had managed to stutter over a word I’ve known for 8 years. I didn’t think about the possibility that the kid might tell his mom I spoke Korean.
Spoiler alert: he did. Cue the anxiety.
His mom was actually Indonesian, but through marrying her Korean husband and living in Korea for a few years, she managed to learn quite a bit of the Korean language. This sparked a magical Korean conversation between me and her about the gist of how we learned Korean (me through self-study, her through her husband). Our conversation only lasted a few minutes while she paid for his lesson, but it was still a legitimate conversation. I didn’t even stutter or sound stupid, compared to the mess that came out of my mouth when I spoke to her son. Success!
Right after they left, another Korean mother and son came to pay for their lesson. I was still riding on the high of my previous conversation, so I decided I might as well speak to them in Korean, too. And I did! Again, we didn’t progress beyond the initial “How do you know Korean” basic conversation, but I somehow managed to speak Korean and sound like a relatively intelligent human being at the same time. As a bonus, her cute little six-year-old son stared at me like I was an actual alien during the whole conversation.
All in all, I left my first day of work simultaneously very proud of myself for mustering up the courage to speak Korean to strangers and also very bewildered about where my sudden confidence came from. And despite my weird rush of confidence, my anxiety levels were still very high the entire time I was speaking in Korean.
Several days after the first two speaking encounters, another Korean family came to the tennis center. There had been a miscommunication of some sort, where they thought they had scheduled a lesson by asking their friend to talk to the coach, but the coach hadn’t spoken to the family directly to confirm the lesson, so he didn’t think the lesson was happening at all and didn’t show up.
It was a complicated situation that’s difficult enough to explain in English, but it was even more difficult when I was trying to communicate this information through a language barrier. This happened several days after the previous Korean speaking encounters, and at this particular moment I wasn’t feeling very brave or confident, so I originally hadn’t planned to say anything to them in Korean.
After a minute or two of trying to communicate the confusing details about why no coach had shown up, I realized that, confidence or no confidence, the conversation would be way easier if they knew I spoke some Korean. The mom was trying to explain herself through her kids and having them translate what I said to them, and all of that trouble would be avoided if we could skip all the translation.
So, despite my shyness that particular day, I decided to just go for it and said, “한국 사람이세요?” — Are you Korean? It was a rather pointless question to ask since I had been listening to them communicate with each other in Korean for a solid two minutes, but it worked — the mother had tangible relief on her face, and she stopped trying to have her kids translate for her and just started explaining herself directly to me. I honestly didn’t do very well explaining the details of the situation, but I gave her the contact information of the coach and told her how to contact him directly to set up a lesson, and everything worked out in the end.
Randomly, while the mother was still figuring out the whole lesson situation, the father started asking me (in Korean) if I knew about our university’s Korean Student Association. I told him that I had gone to one KSA event back in the spring, the 운동회 (Field Day) and as it turned out, they had been there, too. He said I had looked really familiar, and now he knew why. I guess being the one random white girl in a sea of Korean students and families made me stand out haha.
All in all, I’m glad I’ve managed to overcome some of my nerves and speak Korean to these different families. Even though I’m still very anxious and paranoid about making mistakes, so far I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the success I’ve had making basic conversation, and I haven’t fumbled over my words too much (with the exception of that one kid, of course). Hopefully as I continue to work at the tennis center, I’ll continue to find these opportunities to speak Korean.
I’m also hoping that these random Korean practice sessions will rub off onto my interactions with my friends, and that eventually I’ll stop feeling so anxious about making mistakes in front of them. I’ve already noticed that since speaking to the strangers, I’ve been using a few more Korean phrases with my friends than I was before.
While I’m still not even close my goal of speaking comfortably in Korean, my current status is still way better than I was just a year ago, so that’s proof that I’m progressing. I’m excited to see where my level of Korean speaking will be by the time I graduate in May — that’s barely over 8 months away!