12 Common Language Barriers When Living Abroad

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Dealing with language barriers abroad: Would you know which was laundry bleach?


You never know much you take your daily lifestyle for granted…until you become an expat living in a country which is not your own. Living abroad, culture shock comes in daily life-sized capsules called language barriers; and eventually, it mocks at your inability to do the simplest and most basic things. Here are 12 Common Language Barriers When Living Abroad ( in Korea)


Read: JSMP: Dealing with Language Barriers in Korea

12 Common Language Barriers When Living Abroad ( in Korea)

Coming to Korea, I didn’t calculate the fact that the language barrier might pose a high wall within the daily workings of my lifestyle. I mean.. duh. I knew language barriers would affect me, but not to the extend it actually does.

To work around my weakness, I gravitate towards products with pictures and universal symbols to narrow my down my guesswork.

But that’s still not enough.  Living in non-English speaking country like Korea is like trying to figure out tiny puzzles on a daily basis.  It’s all trial and error and  for every one step forward, you’ll feel like you’re taking five steps back. Grappling with this type of long-term culture shock isn’t easy. This affects my daily survival.

But for each struggle, there’s the air of humor. It’s a frustrating challenge and yet, it’s a much more entertaining life than dealing with the dreariness of a lifestyle you’ve taken for granted. My life is anything, but boring.

Do you have the right item ?

1. Hair & Beauty Products

I was running low on shampoo. Thankfully, the store had a recognizable U.S. brand- Head & Shoulders . But was this bottle, shampoo or conditioner?  Without knowing exactly which it was, I bought it anyways.

It took me close to two weeks to realize that the funky new Korean non-lathering shampoo was not shampoo.  It was conditioner.

Don’t worry– the African American expats have it harder in respect to beauty products. BB cream (foundation cream) has skin lightening ingredients in it. Not to mention, I’m fair but the darkest shade Koreans have make me look like I painted my face a shade of white.

Tip: Some Korean words are in Konglish and are pronounced close to English. It just happens to be written in Hangul. If you have a basic ability to read hangul, it helps. Sounding a word out may lead to an English word, like the example below.

hair conditioners in Korea, how to deal with language barriers in a foreign country, expat products in korea, head and shoulders in korea
린수 Rinsu (aka conditioner)

2. Cleaning products

Are you using bleach, detergent or fabric softener to do your laundry? Aha! Until now, choices didn’t have large consequences for me.

I’ve not accidentally bleached my clothes, yet but I would love to use fabric softener soon. …If only I knew what fabric softener looks like.

With foreign countries, you also never know how strong or weak their products can be in comparison to the U.S.

I bought the all-purpose cleanser to clean my apartment and after five minutes of using it without gloves, I discovered it was not doing good things to my skin. Being able to read warnings and caution labels would help.

common language barriers in Korea

Lifestyle Essentials

3. Skin Care Products & Vitamins or Medicine

Koreans have really good skin care products– like, world class! They have all sorts of ingredients to firm, boost, lighten and improve your skin. I take great delight in reading about the miracle skin healing powers each skin care product possesses.  I love asking store clerks their advice. But in Korea, there’s different terminology for skin care products:   tonics, emulsions, essences, cremes, etc…  Of course,  labels are all in Korean, so I always need to find an English-speaking clerk to try to translate it for me.  It’s not easy.

For five minutes, I  go back and forth, miming and trying to pick out recognizable words for us to connect on (believe me, it’s a lot of effort),… only to walk away with the obvious knowledge that all those bottles “make wrinkles better”.   Say you buy it– then you have to figure out how exactly to use it.   It’s definitely cut down my time in skin care shopping.

4. Household Appliances

What about knowing how to use your household appliances? Ever wonder what your washing machine directions might mean? While icons are helpful, some of them only beg more questions.

Who needs to do laundry anyways!

Tip: Household appliances, gather a list of things you don’t know how to use and have a Korean walk you through your apartment explaining them to you.

korean washing machines

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5. Reading directions

Have you ever scribbled off directions for a foreigner and thought nothing of it?  I never thought of how legible my handwriting is until now.  I asked my Korean co-teacher to write directions for me in Korean to show others;  I don’t know if there’s a cursive or scripted way of writing Hangul, but one thing is certain– my reading skills in Hangul require  big spaces between characters!

getting directions in a foreign language

6. Feminine products

I spent ten minutes assessing sanitary pads and tampons, pressing the packaging down over the product… hard. I was trying to see through the package.  Would it fit my size, flow and scented needs? I make my best educated guess, only to discover at home, my guess wasn’t very educated.  I bought a sanitary pad the size of a diaper!

On a good note, it was a good discovery.  During heavy flow evenings, I don’t have to sleep with a towel under me or on my side.

Tip:  Large stores like Lotte can occasionally have aisles and some products translated into English.

Read 6 Western-Friendly Stores in Korea 

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(Do you know what sizes they are? Is it a medium flow or pantyliner? Scented or not? Individually wrapped?)


7. Ordering at restaurants and eating

 Food Menus at Restaurants

I’ve no photo of Korean restaurant menus to show you yet. Why? It pains me merely to look at one more menu entirely in hangul (aka the Korean character). Of course, being Korea, hangul is everywhere.  Duh, what was I thinking? But I guess I didn’t foresee eating as a reading issue.

Compounded overwhelm.

Yes, I actually can read hangulslowly. It takes me time to sound out each character to read an entirety of a word. And even if I do pass first base in reading, I probably won’t know the meaning of what I’m reading.

Read How to Order at a Kimbap Restaurant

8. Ingredient Labels

What’s in the product? Are any unusual animals used? Butter or lard?… Being a vegetarian and a weight watcher, I like to know what’s in my food. The frozen mandoo that’s on sale… do they have bits of meat, seafood or chicken in them? That cartoon of a smiling pig… is that the brand mascot or ingredient?

If you only know one ingredient word in Korean, then reading ingredient labels on packages, is like playing word search.   Your search is only good if you know what you’re looking for.

ingredients in korea

9. Utility bills and important documents

Sounds like a dumb question, right? A  bill (I think)  just came in the mail today– no envelope, just a folded paper with a wallpaper of hangul and a bunch of numbers to make my brain go mushy. One familiar universal graphic makes me assume it’s my “gas bill”, because it shows charts like a metter reading. Still, I flipped the bill over and over several times for more clues– for the exact dollar amount I was to pay… and to whom.

gas and electric bill in korea, korean gas and electric bills, reading your korean utility billsMy gas bill

10. Paying your bills

Korea is a cash-based society, so you either pay via cash, bank transfers or automatic bill pay.  I go to my bank’s website and while there’s an “English version”, the actual functions on the menus are all in Korean… which defeats the purpose of having an English version website!

My co-teacher had to help me. So she registered me with Giro (an Korean automatic bill payment site). She started speed-clicking through website menus, asking me for my:

•   Bank Account information
•   Resident Alien Card number
•   Banking Password
•   Banking Secret Pin number

… the list goes on… click-click-click!

And you know what… I gave it to her! I could’ve paid for apartment or new car for her and I wouldn’t be wiser. All this disclosure of very personal information (making one vulnerable to identity theft in the United States) is something you’ll have to get used to in Korea, when you don’t know the language. Korea for the most part, acts on an honor system.  But still.. you never know.

Read: Is Online banking easy for expats and Mac Users

bill 2877

10. Your workplace

Why does my computer only speak Korean?

There isn’t a computer or software program I can’t figure out and navigate within a day or two. I’m good with computers.  The  problem is that my computer, like everything else here, only speaks Korean. Sure, I  can navigate and use Microsoft Word and Powerpoint…  if the software is in English!  

Tip: Learn keyboard shortcuts.

Universal icon buttons are one godsend to alleviate the frustration. But what about those annoying “error” alerts that keep popping up on my screen? My solution: just keep clicking on buttons until the “error” boxes go away. It may be possible I’m downloading a Trojan Horse virus. But I wouldn’t know.

Did you say– Go into Settings and switch the language settings?  Sure thing.  Now, part of my computer knows a bit of English; unfortunately, it’s a very small and useless part and as a result, my computer now has a language barrier with the Korean printer, which refuses to acknowledge it’s signal!

Advice: Bring in your own laptop !

my computer in the korean classroom, computers in the korean school, korean pcs in korean

11. Filling out Forms

Do I feel stupid when a store clerk or bank teller has to translate a form for me, each time I make a transaction or signing up for a store point card… “Name… yogiyo (over here)… Address… ” ?

I have a master’s degree, thank you very much and I feel like a grade A moron! Because in Korea I’m illiterate.  To an expat living in a new country, it’s the everyday, mundane, simple things which become your greatest enemies.

Tip: Google Translate has a camera feature where it helps you translate signs and words on packaging.

12. Getting sick or going to the doctor

Dropping in at the store pharmacist, when you’re suffering an ailment feels like visiting a witch doctor. You have to trust implicitly, what the pharmacist gives you, as well as instructions on how to take it. That’s assuming your doc has understood what you were saying in mime and broken Korean. In many cases, expat teachers have had to take their co-teachers to the hospital or pharmacy, as translators.

 Read Going to the Doctor in Korea

korean cold medicine, engrish in korea

Sometimes you just wanna to scream…  “Just Show Me the Pictures!!!”

What are your Common Language Barriers When Living Abroad in Korea?

Related Posts

Crazy Korea, Expat Life, Just Show Me Pictures!, Korea


  • I wanted to befriend with the writer of this page. I was having a not-so-good-day but after reading all of these, I found myself laughing and I felt better. Will be reading the other articles. I am a fan! <3

  • I was in Seoul for a week and was in a taxi that was rear-ended. I had only given the driver a business card with directions to the international school where my Americans friends lived in Yoni dong. In sign language he asked if I was Ok and then I still had to pay for the ride. I walked up the street in the direction we had been heading not knowing if I was on the right road to get back and didn’t have a way to ask and no one was around to ask anyway. It was a little SciFi feeling. (In the end I was on the right road and ran into the school entrance. Thank God!!) Now I live in Serbia, Lots of things are in Cyrillic. When I first arrived I was utterly lost. I would come home from a grocery store trip and sob. Now, It is only the odd thing that sends me into a panic. I do wonder if I will ever be over the random panic attacks that make my armpits sweat like I am on my first date. It happens often when trying to ask a question or need something at a store. Or my favorite ever, when water started leaking from my ceiling in my apt! I just opened my apt door and after freezing for a second, I yelled, “Trebam Pomoc! (need help!). you can read about hat hear if you are interested. http://chroniclesofserbia.wordpress.com/2013/06/09/foreigner-follies-i-have-great-neighbors/
    Love your blog!

  • Hey there,
    you know, your post really made my day today, because suddenly I felt not as alone anymore as before. I just arrived here a month ago and while I survive on cereals for breakfast (which is the same brand they have in Germany, so I recognized it) and going out for lunch with my colleagues, I still feel stupid going to an Emart for the third time and looking for a laundry detergent for half an hour and still not finding one because there isn’t even one brand which tells me that it is for sensitive skin. And no, just because there is a baby on it doesn’t mean that it is sensitive, as I have learned… painfully. Unfortunately, Emart also is a business and if you ask one of the many helpers standing and shouting around they will just send you to the most expensive one on the aisle.
    So, I’m totally with you, I want MORE pictures, in order to not feel like an idiot anymore unable to even do my grocery shopping without having to resort to cereals for a whole weekend! 😉
    I am looking forward to your other posts!
    Keep going

    • Christine Kaaloa
      October 4, 2013 10:18 am

      @Cleinmari: ha ha… Emart is a godsend. It was one of the places I ate at a lot, because it was easy to order from. For months I survived on only the things I knew like yogurt, tofu, etc… Do you have Lotte Dept/Mart? Just before I left, I noticed the one in my neighborhood (a new one) had English labels/categories in their aisles!

      I totally feel for you~ initially, it’s so overwhelming. If I had to do it a second time around~ I’d take photos of things and then have my co-teacher translate it for me. Or have her write the general name of things in Korean so I can take it to the store and ask for help finding it. Hang in there! When you look back on it all, you’ll laugh. 😉

  • I like this post. I’m living in Korea now and agree with what you’ve said here. You can download and install OpenOffice.org’s English stuff but, as the computer you’re using at work is addicted to Korean script, you’ll still have to know one or two computer expressions in Korean.

    You didn’t mention Korea’s own word processing program: Hangul, aka HanWord, aka HangulWord. To be blunt, it rots. It’s far and away the worst word processing program created by anyone. If we manage to find intelligent life or even nearly intelligent life that is just intelligent enough to create a word processing program, theirs will still not rot as much as Korea’s own word processing program does. So, why use it?

    The answer you will receive is, “Koreans like it.” The real answer is, “Koreans use it simply because it is a Korean product.” MS Word, OpenOffice.org’s Writer, and every single other word processing program ever made is capable of doing what HanWord does but, unlike HanWord, those programs are not royal pains to use.

    And don’t get me started on Korea’s addiction to an antiquated browser: MS IE6. Oh, yes, it’s even coupled with ActiveX lest you think that it couldn’t be worse. Go ahead. Download one ActiveX program to your own computer. Your computer will immediately believe that Korean bloatware (advertisements, useless “security” programs, and “tools”) are all Lay’s potato chips. Go ahead. I dare you. Just make sure you have enough money handy to buy a new computer. You will not be able to fix the old one.

    • @johnhenry: LOL I love your comments!That’s exactly it. Hangul/HanWord is like the Korean version of Microsoft Office and it’s used just because it’s Korean. It never made sense to me either and what also sucks is the conversion from Hangul and Microsoft Word. Of course your KT will give you docs in Hangul and when you open them in Office, the layout shifts and you have to redo the format or limp along.

      On MS IE6, I don’t know. I’m a Mac user so I downloaded either, Safari or Firefox on my school computer and browsed from that. LOL.

  • Haha, I am still bemused by all the facial products. Who knew “skin” could be a type of product? Or “essence”? (These are both like, gooey toner-like products that you apply to your face with a cotton ball.)
    And it was fun shopping for dishwasher detergent. My new place has a real dishwasher (woo!!) but when I went to the store and asked the lady for the right kind of detergent, she just pointed me to regular old dish detergent for washing by hand! I realized this when I had bubbles coming from the dishwasher! But no real harm done. 🙂

  • I haven’t had the opportunity to read a lot of your posts. My apologies if I’m wrong, but were you expecting English on Korean products in Korea?

    • @Lissa: Ha! Yes & No. There are things you don’t think to be challenged by when you move your lifestyle over– simple and basic necessities are one of them. You don’t think how they can actually be hard to deal with, until you get there and must create a lifestyle… of walking around and feeling like you’re bumping things in the dark. What’s the workaround solution when you can’t read the language? It sounds naive to expect English, but I never considered the possibility of there being absolutely NONE & that I’d have to live my life in it. As a traveler, Korea is the first place I’ve had difficulty navigating w/o knowing the language,* Seoul is the exception. I’ve bought stuff like shampoo and conditioner in various other countries before- rough & developing even- no problem. For me, Korea was like “dhuh”?

  • Good luck! Always.
    Naw, I sounded really angry when I wrote that…and maybe I was. I do not understand how people cannot be welcoming. But again, different folks, different strokes.
    Greetings from sunny NY!

  • uh, man, Chris…I feel like you aren’t getting the help and support you need. I remember being in Italy when I was very little..my mom spoke Italian fluently, but wanted me to learn on my own mostly. So I was sitting mostly with the other 3 year old pant-shitters communicating with hand and feet, slowly learning the words…if I really didnt get it I ran to Mama and asked. I spoke nicely by the time I hit our fifth or sixth vacation 2 years later….even when I was an adult and didnt know words (who would know the word “ricer” in another language) people always helped without me asking.
    So, where are your pant-shitter friends? I feel like you are being isolated instead of welcome. Korea, one country off my future travel list.

    • @Katja: Awww. don’t let my experience turn you off to visiting Korea. It’s a different for everyone- luck of the draw & as a tourist, you may not encounter much of this language hardship. Your personal experience sounds funny tho- I can just imagine you.. little blond haired German girl in pigtails lost in the Italian sea. j/k. I won’t lie- it feels isolating not knowing the language & culture & worse to not have a host to help you acclimate to foreign surroundings. The principal of my school just gave my mother the grand tour of the school w/ peeks inside of classrooms, etc… To get 1/4 of that welcome from my CT would’ve made a big difference to me; otherwise, everything becomes work in navigating your way with everything & the more you have to do it, it’s easier to find frustration w/ life. Am currently taking Korean language classes -wish me luck.

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