When I first bought a plane ticket to Seoul, I was extremely excited. Not just about experiencing the food and culture of South Korea, but also at the opportunity to finally practice speaking the language. I had been doing language exchanges for about two years, but nothing face-to-face. And since I was going to be there for 3 weeks, I’d expected to get a lot of practice out of this trip, just by being physically in South Korea.
And it turned out that wasn’t the case. At least, not really. I’d gone into this with minimal preparation (I picked up a phrasebook) and a vague notion of improving my Korean skills just by surrounding myself with the language. Simply put, I’d kind of expected that by putting myself in a purely Korean environment, my brain would somehow absorb all the knowledge by osmosis and magically activate half of my passive vocabulary.
Pretty silly, I know. Well, you know what they say – hindsight is 20/20.
After spending the first week feeling disappointed at my lack of progress, I realised what I was doing wrong. Immersion by itself isn’t enough. What I needed was active immersion. Think about some of the expats that you’ve met, the ones who couldn’t speak the language of the country they were living in, despite having been there for years. Being surrounded by the language isn’t enough by itself – you need to be actively processing the information around you and engaging with your environment.
Having realised this, I began to approach my ‘immersion program’ differently. This guide is a compilation of the things that helped improve the overall experience of my trip, and I hope they will help you make the most out of yours.
Before the Trip
Do Your Research
Plan your itinerary and read up on the places you’re visiting – in your target language. An average traveller might be satisfied with reading the English brochures handed out at the tourist information centre in Gyeongbokgung, but if you’re approaching this as a language learner, you’re gonna want to read all the signs around the monuments, which generally tell a more complete story than the short summary on the tourist brochures. You’re going to encounter a lot of very advanced vocabulary while you’re doing that, so it’ll be helpful if you read up a little beforehand.
I started doing this in my second week. I would look up the place on Naver the night before and read the wiki, looking up words I didn’t know. I ended up coming across half of those words on signs and brochures while I was visiting the place the next day. Since I already knew what they meant, I was able to read things with relative ease without having to stop and look a word up every few minutes.
If this is your first time speaking to native speakers face-to-face, chances are you’re going to panic. You might find yourself feeling so nervous that you struggle to come up with your own sentences. To avoid this, prepare some phrases that you can see yourself using on the trip. A reliable phrasebook would be a good place to start, as they usually cover common topics like asking for directions, ordering food and so on.
I remember running into a problem with my T-money card on the first day (I couldn’t get past the ticket barrier for some reason) and feeling so terrified that I couldn’t get a single word out in Korean. The girl I’d approached, luckily for me, was very helpful, even though she couldn’t really understand me (I was speaking in English). After 10 minutes of confusion and frantic gesticulating, we parted ways and I found someone else who could speak English to help me out. It all worked out in the end, but I think in hindsight, things would have gone a lot better if I had been better prepared.
During the Trip
Talk to the Locals
Don’t wait for the opportunities to come to you, seek them out yourself. Take the initiative. When you talk to the locals, whether it’s ordering food at the restaurants and paying for your souvenirs at the local gift shops, make sure you start off by speaking in your target language. If you wait for them to start the conversation, chances are they’ll just speak to you in English. In fact, you might find that they prefer to speak English to foreigners in places that are popular with tourists. I’ve had people insisting on speaking English to me even when I was speaking Korean. Don’t get discouraged. Venture beyond those tourist hotspots, because you’re more likely to find locals willing to engage in your target language outside those areas.
Put yourself in situations where you’ll have to speak, such as going on an unguided tour to Gangwondo (which turned out to be a great experience). If you’re staying at a local airbnb, talk to your host! Don’t lock yourself in your room. Get to know them and interact with them often during your stay. They might give you tips on the best places to visit – you might even become friends with them!
Stop Using English as a Crutch
After the first week, I did my best to minimise my Mandarin Chinese and English input, which was really hard because there were signs in Mandarin Chinese and English everywhere in Seoul and on Jeju Island. This changed once I ventured outside of Seoul and Jeju, however. We went to Geochang (to visit my friend), Gwangju-si, Mokpo and Suncheon.
In some of those places, nearly everything was written in Korean, and people spoke with thick accents. I couldn’t speak English even if I wanted to. I did my best. I had friendly halmeonis who appeared to be in their seventies approaching me and offering to show me around the place. One of them walked us through the beautiful folk village of Naganeupsong in Suncheon.
And after two weeks, I began to slowly get over my fear of embarrassment. It was something that I was still struggling with, even after two years of practice with my language exchange partners. But interacting with the locals, particularly the very helpful halmeonis who didn’t seem to care at all about my lack of proficiency, reminded me of the reason why I began learning Korean in the first place – to connect with people from another culture.
I used to think that to connect with someone, to have a meaningful experience with a native speaker, you must speak fluently in their language. Having realised that wasn’t the case, I became a lot more relaxed and forgiving with myself. I stopped berating myself for every mistake I made and focused on the person I was interacting with instead. The shift in focus – from striving to form elegant, impeccable sentences to being as engaging as I could with the person I was talking to – did wonders for my speaking skills as well as my overall travelling experience.
Amp up the Immersion Level
As I mentioned earlier, I tried limiting the amount of Mandarin Chinese and English input I was getting. I stopped listening to English songs or browsing weibo. I started reading news in Korean, watching Korean TV programs and listening to Korean music. I bought two Korean books to keep myself entertained during long train rides and bus trips. I bought a notebook and wrote a short diary entry in Korean every night before I went to bed. I changed the language of all the apps I was using to Korean and did my best to surround myself with the language. Everything I did, I did it in Korean, except when I was talking to my sister, whom I was travelling with.
After some time, I began to notice some changes in myself. I found myself reading the Korean signs before the English ones. I stopped translating every sentence in my head, from English to Korean, before I spoke. The uncertain “uh…” at the beginning of my sentences disappeared. I read a lot faster. I no longer felt this crippling fear at the idea of approaching a stranger to ask for directions.
Collect Reading Materials
You’re going to come across a lot of reading materials, such as the brochures handed out at the tourist information centres. I made sure to grab as many as I could – both the English version and the Korean version, which makes for great reading comprehension practice. You can read them while you’re on the subway heading to your next destination. Not only do you get to learn interesting facts about the places you’re visiting, you’ll also pick up new vocabulary!
After the Trip
Write About Your Trip
Remember all the brochures that you collected on your trip? Well, now’s a good time to put them to use! Write about your trip in your target language and post it on italki or Lang-8 for corrections. It can be a short journal entry, or it can be several blog posts chronicling your entire journey. The purpose of this exercise is to get you to use the new words that you learned on your trip and commit them to memory. Writing these words down helps convert them into active vocabulary that you can use in your everyday conversations.
Keep in Touch with Your New Friends
If you managed to make new friends while you’re on the trip, make sure to keep in touch with them! Chat with them every now and then to see how they’re doing – you might even end up visiting them again the next time you travel to that country. Some of them might even be interested in a language exchange – you’ll never know!