Just Show Me Pictures! Dealing with Language Barriers in Korea

Last Updated on August 24, 2017 by Christine Kaaloa

JSMP 1Just Show Me Pictures! Dealing with Language Barriers in Korea

Updates: a) Eating in Korea is more difficult than I imagined… and while my food vocabulary grows in Korea, sometimes I can’t get first base with the smell and this turns me off to cooking my own food too; b) I’ve been taking regular weekend/day escape trips outside the city (Seoul, Busan, Jinhae, Cheongdo, Geongju) to snap back into travel mode because I suspect, my not liking it here has nothing to do with Korea; c) I finally told my co-teacher how I feel about her, why and how it’s hindered my enthusiasm to this country and to working with her!

I’ve decided to add a short blog series,  titled “Just Show Me Pictures!” about surviving language barriers and culture shock in Korea.

Read JSMP: Dealing with Language Barriers Abroad (Part II)

90% of all expats suffer culture shock and depression while living abroad

Why the staggering number?

Living abroad, your familiar is replaced by the foreign and you must endure, this compromised lifestyle for a lengthy duration.

As a traveler, you might think you have no problem adapting to cultural change. True, as travelers, we do it all the time. But there’s a difference between dating and marriage.  Furthermore, obstacles with language are a beast, adding to frustrations.

Read Coping with Culture Shock in Korea

You’ll only realize how much you love your language when you live abroad

Imagine a free diver, holding his breath underwater for a sustained period before coming up. Immersed in the pressure of foreign surroundings, you’ll feel the exasperation of having to do everything “in foreign“. You’re alien to the  language, customs and the way locals deal with their bare necessities of life.

The tedious chore of daily living

It’s the simplest things, like knowing detergent over bleach, how to operate your washing machine and room heater, signing up for a store point card, using your point card, figuring out how to use Microsoft Word (the version that’s in Korean language) on your workplace computer, etc…  These are all small things you never predicted you’d have difficulty with! Your ant hills now become mountains to hike over.

LG washing machine in Korea, Korean washing machine, washing machine in Korean language

Using English to the point where you lose it.

When you speak English to a Korean and your students, your speech becomes  an exercise in delivering the most elementary phrases. You must speak slowly,  with pauses between every three words, to give listeners time to catch up.

Can       you     imagine     talking     like    this     every    day    and   even    in    conversation  ? 

This type of speech must be your new habit for the next 12 months, when you teach, but also when you converse with Koreans.

Thus,  two things end up happening:

#1.  You crave other native English friends, so you can go back to your normal speed-talking English style.

#2.  Your spoken English and grammar start deteriorating and you actually begin to forget how to speak good English.  This actually happens!

For most expats, seeking out English  and  familiarity  is a search for sanity.

For dinner, just serve me English!

When you live in a country, devoid of the English alphabet, you crave the sight of English!  Call it a desperate hunger.

When the gates of heaven open and you finally see  E.N.G.L.I.S.H. in a pearly sign,  the floodgates open. You can breath. You realize how much you’ve missed seeing your mother tongue.

When I visited Seoul, I saw English  signs in the artsy neighborhood of Samcheon-dong and ran up to it, squealing like a little girl on Christmas morning:

Oh my God, oh my God, they have store signs with English !!!”  

Yeah, like an idiot, I lost my cookies on that…  But English storefront signs feel rare in Korea. Chain restaurants like Bennigans, Burger King, Mc Donalds and Starbucks  attract those who might ordinarily turn their anti-establishment noses up.

It’s because they serve English!

The frustrations of dealing with language barriers

Here is a Powerpoint Introduction I gave to my Teaching English to Teachers Class on the first day. I used my  obstacles and frustrations with learning Korean as an example for challenges and frustrations they may feel learning English.

Dealing with Language Barriers in Korea






Have you had problems dealing with Language Barriers in a foreign country? What did you experience?

Related Posts

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


  • Wow! I have totally experienced this but in Thailand. I wanted to live there but eventually had to give up.

    • Christine Kaaloa
      February 7, 2014 3:24 am

      @Jim: Oh no, that’s too bad. Thailand seems like a wonderful place to live in.

      • yes! Thailand is very nice in many ways. Some expats I met have lived there over 20 years, still cannot speak Thai, but are happy. They were better able to adjust than me.

  • Hallyucinator
    May 3, 2010 5:56 am

    I completely identify with your craving for English. It’s a constipated feeling, not being able to just spontaneously express yourself. You think maybe this is why children misbehave? – no verbal (polite) outlet for even the most simple, harmless feelings, thus pressure-cooking for an eventual meltdown. Yikes.

  • Laura Cancun
    April 27, 2010 4:47 pm

    I was lucky enough to speak the language (somewhat) fluently when I came to live in Mexico. Speaking to individuals was easy, since they naturally slowed things down for me. However, there was a time when I always wanted to cry when out in groups. They spoke at their own pace in their own slang, and my formal Spanish couldn’t keep up.

    I think the best thing to do is to not be afraid to ask questions. My friends and classmates were always happy to tell me why Mexicans did things a certain way, what certain expressions meant, etc.

    I now speak fluent Spanish, and most Mexicans can’t even tell I’m not Mexican by the way I speak. Hang in there. You’ll get it 🙂

    I love reading your blog, btw. I can really relate to lots of stuff, but it’s cool to see how it applies to an Eastern culture.

    PS I also freaked out once when I saw a Bennigans.

    • @Laura: Thanks… I’m hanging or trying. I’m genuinely glad you feel you can relate– I feel the same about your blog as well. For me, seeing another expat dealing with cultural differences on the southwestern front is a wonderful outlet. Also, you’re pretty hysterical at times. The Korean language classes are going slowly but mostly, I need more practice time. I feel like that’s the sealant. Being an EFL teacher, they tell you not to speak Korean in front of the kids or they try to speak to you in Korean. So they tell us… My goal was to attain some level of fluency, so I”ll need to get back to being serious about that.

      @Hallyucinator: … constipated. I love it and you’re totally right. Spontaneous expression is a weighty part of the frustrations one can feel about language. For kids though, misbehavior usually comes from a desire for attention- spontaneous expression is not really something they have problems with. LOL.

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