(Image credit: Dustin Cole, a Seoul based photographer)
If you’re traveling to Korea, you might be curious if you’ll be understood by local Koreans. So if your Korean isn’t perfect yet, and you’re more comfortable with another language, read this to see if you’ll be understood!
Note: Of course these are generalities. Not everyone is the same, but here are some general truths about Korean people and the languages they speak.
Do Korean People Understand English?
Quick answer: Generally, yes!
Explanation: Korean people are crazy about education, and English is compulsory education for all students in public schools. In addition to that, the majority of Korean students attend after-school English academies to improve their English conversation, reading and writing skills (providing the majority of jobs for English speaking foreigners in Korea). That means from a very young age to even after graduating college, many Korean people study English. Of course there are people that aren’t as good as say this dude, but almost everyone knows the basics. Actually, it might even be difficult to find people that don’t understand the basic travel phrases you’ll be using in Korea, such as: “Where is the bathroom?,” “How much?,” and “What is the meaning of life?” (jk! ;)).
What are some other languages that many Koreans know?
Quick Answer: Chinese and Japanese (duh!)
Explanation: Just look at a map, silly! Korea is right in the middle of these two countries. So naturally, Koreans have been exposed to the languages of these two countries for centuries. Because Korea used to use Chinese as its writing system for centuries, many Korean words come from Chinese characters. And since Japan still uses Chinese characters in its writing, many of the Chinese-based words in Japanese also sound the same in Korean as well (who else just got confused?). On top of that, the majority of immigrants to Korea are Chinese (or Chinese-born Koreans), many of whom work at restaurants serving you darn good food ;). For Japanese, many people consider Japanese and Korean to be grammatical cousins. They’re so similar that many Koreans think Japanese is the easiest language to learn for them.
Koreans who understand Chinese and Japanese are not as numerous as Koreans who can understand English, but there are definitely a good number of people that speak Chinese or Japanese. Just ask!
Tip: If you’re dying for a full conversation in Chinese or Japanese, head to Myeongdong, Seoul. There you’ll find as much Japanese and Chinese tourists as there are Korean people. And the Korean people there speak these languages too! Holla!
Yo! What about my language?!
Unfortunately, finding Korean people that speak languages other than English, Chinese and Japanese is a crapshoot. French, German and Spanish are popular languages to study, mostly for college educated people. But you’ll have to do a little bit more digging. If you’re in Seoul, we suggest you check out a cool language meetup, languagecast! But really… if you’ve read this far, you’ll be understood in Korea! Your English is bomb!