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Language Barrier In Korea: My #1 Awkward Experience

March 11, 2022

As a foreign student, every day I encountered difficulties because of cultural differences and the language barrier in Korea. However, there is one particular story that has stayed in my mind as the most awkward one. It involves a grumpy 'ajumma' (아줌마—middle-aged woman), naked people at a 'Jimjilbang' (찜질방—heating room), and my bad Korean.

This story happened back in 2016 when I first arrived in South Korea to study the language. My Korean level was basic, and I was still adjusting to the country and the changes of moving to a different continent.

Have you ever faced any awkward or embarrassing situations related to language and culture shock in South Korea? If you have, after going through that situation, you might have noticed how you were able to learn from that experience to improve your language skills.

In today's post, I want to tell you the awkward personal story from which I learned how important it is to leave fear behind and practice speaking. And after that, I will offer you a piece of advice in case you have been afraid of stepping out of your comfort zone to speak Korean with strangers. Let's break the language barriers!

My Most Awkward Experience In Korea

Fireworks in Busan

One day, my friends and I decided to go to one of the biggest festivals in Korea, the 'Busan International Fireworks Festival', which is annually held in the magnificent 'Gwangalli Beach'. We planned to go back to our town as soon as the festival finished, but we missed the last train, which forced us to roam around the city for a place to stay. 

Due to the festival, all accommodations in the city were full. So with no luck finding any guesthouse or hotel, we ended up staying at a cheap 'jimjilbang'. The idea was intimidating to me, but there was nowhere else to go so late at night.

Let me explain why it was intimidating to me. 'jimjilbang' (찜질방) is a gender-segregated public bathhouse popular among Koreans. People often visit for a relaxing time at the hot tubs, saunas, massage tables, and showers. They usually have a wide hall where everyone can spend the night together, lying on the floor. For me, it wasn't as relaxing as you may have seen in K-Dramas. 

Encountering Culture Shock And Language Barrier In Korea

Jimjilbang

The first thing I saw once the door opened before my eyes was an 'ajumma' (아줌마)—middle-aged woman, totally naked, buying her yogurt snack in the store right next to the showers and lockers. At that moment, the culture shock and realization that I also had to be naked in front of all those women and my foreign friends hit me hard.

Before changing into the clothes that they provided at the 'Jjimjilbang', we were told we needed to take a shower. And let me tell you, if you are not naked in there, you will be the focal point the whole time. 

So, I decided to go and calm down in the bathroom next door. When I entered, I noticed a puddle on the floor, but I didn't give it too much thought. After a while, I made up my mind to go to take a shower. However, another 'ajumma', this time a very sulky one, came into the bathroom yelling at me uncontrollably and blocking my way out.

My heart was beating fast, and I was getting annoyed. But no matter how much I tried, no Korean words could come out of my mouth, and therefore I wasn't able to defend myself. I couldn't understand what she was trying to say.  What have I done wrong?

If you've seen enough Korean dramas, you will understand what I mean when I say that an 'ajumma' was bursting out words at me with such a red face that she looked like a volcano. It's been a long time, and I still remember her expression!

After a while of not moving an inch, I tried to listen closely to try to understand at least one word. Nonetheless, to make it more difficult, her Korean accent was from Busan, and my listening comprehension wasn't on that level yet.

I noticed how she was pointing behind my back, where the large puddle was. And then I managed to recognize the words 'mul' and 'andwae.' Immediately, the memory of my previous lessons came to my mind. I remembered that 'mul' () means 'water,' and 'andwae' (안돼) means 'no, don't do' or 'you are not allowed to do something.' 

I looked down at the puddle on the floor, and I connected the dots. She was blaming me for the mess that someone else made, and I could do nothing about it. To this day, I regret not having been able to tell her that it was not my fault. So, from all my embarrassing experiences in South Korea, this was by far the most frustrating one.

What Did I Gain From This Awkward Experience?

The situation was a lesson for me. It was the first time that I had such a big exposure to a completely different culture, and it was the first time I felt the frustration of not being able to explain myself.

When the 'ajumma' yelled at me, the only word that came to my mind was 'mollayo' (몰라요), which means 'I don't know.' Yes, it was too hard for me to answer logically. Even the facial expression that she had, made me feel bad for not being fluent or a little better at Korean (at least, my answer finally chased her away from me).

Looking back at that moment, I can't help but think about other outcomes. What if instead of relying only on my classes, I practiced more with native speakers? What if I arrived in South Korea with a better Korean language level? Or maybe I could have used language apps to learn colloquial words rather than using them only to pass the TOPIK test (The Test of Proficiency in Korean). If I had done all of these, I'm sure I could have come up with more phrases to explain myself and avoid misunderstandings.

So Embarrassing! — 엄청 부끄럽다! (Eomcheong Bukkeuleobda)

As embarrassing as it was, now rather than having a grudge for being unfairly accused, I laugh at what happened. I think those are the moments that make language learning so special, and more if you are living in Korea. Even if it was a negative, frustrating, and scary situation for me, I learned a lot from it.  

In addition, after the day of that confrontation, I started to leverage all occasions to my convenience. Whether they were negative or positive, any opportunity that I had to speak with a local was good enough for me to practice and become better at Korean.

Leverage Culture Shock And Embarrassing Situations

Korean Friends Language Barrier In Korea

Are you scared of going through a similar situation while you visit South Korea? Don't be! Let me tell you what are the most important things you should have in mind while you learn Korean or any other language for that matter. From practicing with language apps, to speaking with locals, these implementations will help you endure any form of language barrier in South Korea.

My Advice:

  • Practice with a language app.

    I advise you to continue practicing on your own. If you want to avoid or minimize the language barrier in Korea, try to learn as much as possible before your trip. Set some free time to learn the language on an app. Ling App, for example, is ideal to help you master your desired Korean level.
  • Learn from real-life situations and don't hold back!

    If you create an adequate environment for you to practice Korean, in which you can constantly listen to natives and speak Korean with them, you will learn quickly through immersion. In addition, engaging in a good conversation using the Korean language can effectively increase your abilities. I assure you that in no time you will notice how that fear disappears.

    In addition, I would like to add that if you travel to Korea, and have enough Korean friends to practice with, you will learn quicker. Depending on the location, and other factors, some people in South Korea don't talk in English frequently, and so you will have the necessity to learn the language to survive.
  • Talk to yourself in Korean.

    Do you feel shy when you speak Korean with locals? Talking in Korean language while you are alone is a great tactic to overcome shyness. You can also record your voice and listen to it over and over again. When you listen to your own voice and Korean pronunciation every day, you start to become more familiar and comfortable with how it sounds. Therefore, you will start feeling more confident when talking to native speakers, specially when you travel to South Korea.

    Besides, conquering shyness is essential for you to know how to react to a situation like the one I had. Honestly, besides not having enough vocabulary, being shy and scared of speaking was one of the reasons why I couldn't say more than 'I don't know.' On the inside, I was full of thoughts, but on the outside, I was a shy and scared puppy with many limitations.
  • Have a positive mindset.

    When you experience an impactful situation, there is a higher chance that you will be able to retain the vocabulary used in that conversation. But it all depends on your mindset and reaction to said situation.  

    Think about it in this way. If I had a negative reaction that day, I would probably have blocked all my desire to learn the Korean language. But instead of holding a negative attitude, I ignored the conflict itself and encouraged myself to continue learning new vocabulary. I wanted to be ready next time I face something similar. I had to be able to speak with my Korean friends and other locals.
  • Do talk with an ajumma!

    Don't get scared of engaging in a conversation with an 'ajumma' only because of my story. In fact, during my years spent in South Korea, many of them actually helped me increase my language skills. Especially that lovely lady from the convenience store who used to help me with my assignments.

3 Useful Phrases To Use In A Similar Situation

Finally, I want to share with you the phrases that I wish I knew at that moment. If you visit Korea or live in the country, and you get stuck in a situation in which you need to apologize or defend yourself, you can try the following easy phrases:

  • I'm Sorry - 죄송합니다. ( joe song ham ni da.)
  • I didn’t do that (formal) - 제가 안 그랬습니다. (jega an geulaessseubnida.)
  • Don't yell (formal) - 소리 좀 그만치세요 (soli jom geumanchiseyo.) [Speechword voice="Korean Female" isinline]소리 좀 그만치세요[/Speechword]

If you would like to learn ways to say I'm sorry in Korean, our useful guide has everything you need!

Enrich Your Korean Skills!

If you are facing a language barrier while in Korea or with your Korean friends, the best thing to do is to identify how to eliminate it. Your first step is to improve your skills! And if you have to go through embarrassing or awkward situations for that, so be it.

Don't forget that when learning Korean, the mistakes you make and the situations you go through will enrich your process of becoming fluent. Remember, any daily life situation and conversation that you have with a native speaker will be the key to your language improvement and success. So, get out there and let the embarrassing situations occur! And most of all, allow yourself to make mistakes and to accept the culture shock. Simply learn from it. I guarantee that you will end up laughing later. 

Take my advice and begin practicing your Korean language skills with Ling App today!

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