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South Korea Travelers holding umbrellas in the rain while travelling in South Korea.

Do South Koreans Speak English?

Ever asked yourself ‘do South Koreans speak English’? Visiting another country, you want to order food, acquire directions, and ideally pick up some local knowledge. Even while the majority of European natives speak English well enough to be useful, what about Asian nations? Can English be spoken in South Korea?

In South Korea, most people speak less English than they can understand. Despite the fact that English is taught in schools, Koreans rarely have the chance to speak the language. Even in sparserly populated places, you should be able to get around because Koreans are kind and helpful.

Continue reading to learn why Koreans have trouble speaking English, where to find English speakers, and how to communicate with Koreans.

Is English a Required Language For Koreans?

The majority of schools demand English as a subject, and many parents enrol their children in hagwons (English language schools). Additionally, before being accepted into a university, most ask applicants to complete an English proficiency test.

In fact, the first English-language school in Korea opened its doors in 1883, and the country spends $20 billion a year on the study of the English language. However, neither the major nor secondary language of the nation is English.

Why are so few Koreans able to speak English?

Koreans may not speak much English, but that doesn’t mean they can’t understand it at all. Even Koreans who have studied the language for 12 years and scored highly on a test of English competence like the TOEFL are unable to speak effectively in English.

Many claim that the hagwons and other language programmes use rote teaching techniques as the reason why. High test scores are used to determine English proficiency rather than one’s ability to communicate in the language. It makes obvious that Koreans will find it difficult to converse with visitors when you consider the minimal opportunities for speaking English.

English is widely used in Korea, as seen by the abundance of English vocabulary used there (although the meaning is often changed). Here are a few instances:

  • A working day that falls in between two days off is referred to as a sandwich day. Monday is a sandwich day if Tuesday is a holiday.
  • Meogstagram, a portmanteau that combines American and Korean roots, refers to the practise of shooting images of meals to share on social media.
  • Additionally, the Korean phrase “ssi yu” means “see you.”

How to Get Around South Korea’s Language Barrier

Seoul has more English-speaking Koreans than other big cities do. The people that work with tourists, such as hotel personnel, will speak English. Most employees in shopping centres and major department stores are fluent in English or can direct you to someone who is.

However, placing an order in a restaurant can be challenging. If you don’t recognise the dish, pictorial menus aren’t usually helpful either. Fortunately, big cities like Seoul now have a tonne of American franchises, such McDonald’s, KFC, and Pizza Hut. The largest Korean fast-food restaurant, Lotteria, offers burgers, fries, and fried chicken for those seeking a South Korean take on McDonald’s.

Although there are fewer people who can speak English, tourist centres in cities like Insadong, Myeongdong, and Hongdae will have English-speaking employees.

Ask a young individual who is more likely to speak English if you need assistance finding something. Don’t think the Korean doesn’t understand you either. If they don’t speak English frequently, they’ll have a hard time finding the correct words.

Are There Communities in Korea That Speak English?

Look for areas with a high concentration of expats or English teachers if you want to find places where you might encounter English speakers. Teachers frequently live in the Gangnam-gu neighbourhood since it has easy access to buses and subways. The district’s Apgujeong-dong neighbourhood is home to some of Seoul’s top shopping areas.

The U.S. Army Base is not far from a number of locations north of the Han River. There are numerous English-speaking Western eateries and shops in the Itaewon-dong neighbourhood. Another diverse neighbourhood nearby is Haebangchon-dong, and both have easy access to public transportation.

Who knows, you might be able to engage in an intelligent discussion on sports, politics, philosophy, or anything else that interests you.

Getting By in Seoul
The capital city of Seoul will be visited by the vast majority of tourists who speak English, which is fortunate because this is where you will find the majority of English speakers. All of the major hotels’ staff members as well as some of the younger people you encounter on the street speak decent English. However, some South Koreans, like the Japanese, become frightened and shy when asked to speak English, and some may flee.

Similar to larger shops, you should be fine in department stores because staff members typically speak at least basic English or can call over someone who does. Restaurants come in all shapes and sizes, but many of them have pictures of their menu items so you can, if necessary, simply point at what you want to order. Though not always, English is also available on some menus.

The most popular tourist destinations in Seoul, including Insadong, Myeongdong, and Hongdae, all have information centres with staff who speak English to assist visitors who are stuck or lost. If you are unsure of where you need to go, start here. Both English and Korean descriptions of tourist attractions will be available.

In order to avoid confusion when taking a taxi, it is always a good idea to keep your hotel card with you to give to the driver. You should also ask the hotel staff to write down your intended destinations for you in Korean to give to the driver. However, the city’s signage is excellent and frequently in both English and Korean.

The Seoul metro system can be a little more challenging; it is frequently rated as being OK but not quite as user-friendly for tourists as the systems in Tokyo, for instance. There are rumours that the exit guides there are occasionally a little unhelpful regarding which stops visitors should get off at. However, you can also use some fantastic tourist bus services to get around.

In Seoul, as in Japan, it is always a good idea to have Google Maps and Google Translate on hand in case you encounter any issues and find it difficult to communicate with the locals in spoken English. They should always have this option available because they will understand written English more easily and are less confident speaking it.

Any tourists who choose to travel outside of Seoul will probably struggle to find many English speakers at all, forcing them to rely even more on the stereotypical tourist miming and gesturing, along with a few essential phrases and a few smartphone apps, to get by.

The South Korean government is investing money in English education for its youth, much like the Japanese government did, but in a way that will never really allow the majority of them to be proficient enough to communicate in it on a daily basis.

James Yeong
James Yeong

Once a quaint dweller of the English countryside, James is now a vibrant voice narrating his adventures in the bustling heart of South Korea. Since relocating to Seoul in 2019, James has immersed himself in the dynamic tapestry of Korean culture, from the serene temples tucked away in mountainous terrains to the neon-lit streets of modern cities.

This blog has become a haven for those seeking an outsider's yet intimate perspective on South Korea, often shedding light on hidden gems and local favourites rather than just the typical tourist hotspots. With a keen eye for detail and a writing style dripping with wit and warmth, James has managed to amass a devoted readership from all corners of the globe.

Whether you're planning a trip to the Seoul, the surrounding cities or just vicariously traveling from the comfort of your couch, Jame's tales of exploration and discovery are sure to ignite a passion for the Land of the Morning Calm.

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