Now before I start, I do have some ability to speak Korean, in fact these days I am very efficient at getting things done in Korea and most Korean people I don't know will regularly complement me on my Korean. I can grasp the gist of most conversations but I am simply not practiced enough or have a wide enough vocabularly to really particpate fully in them.
People back home generally expect me to be fluent in the language after living here and I expect this goes for many people who have visited Korea when they go back to their home countries. When we say to someone that we spent even just one year in Korea, we are expected to have a fine grasp of the language. Why is it then that my admittedly shoddy level of Korean is still probably in the top 1 or 2% of foreign visitors that I have ever met? Why are most Native English teachers who come to work in Korea so bad a picking up the language?
To begin with our jobs obviously do not help. When I worked in a furniture company a number of years ago in England, I had a Polish work colleague who had almost no English language ability before he worked there. He did not really study and did not seem like a genius, but he was able to hold quite a decent conversation after six months and probably even before that. This leads me onto the first excuse for my (and almost everybody else's) terrible Korean:
We do not have to learn Korean
Terrible attitude, I know, but this is true and, what's more, we are paid to do a job using our own language all day. Even in our work relationships with teachers there really is an onus on most people to speak English to them because we are sort of here for their benefit as well.
Although many Korean people do not have a great level of English there are also enough of them with a basic knowledge to make everyday life very liveable without so much as uttering a word of Korean in a day (and they want to speak English to you), except for 감사합니다 (thank you) and 죄송합니다 (sorry), without a doubt my two most used words. I also use 실례합니다 (excuse me) quite often as Korean people have a strange habit of always being in my way. Everything else is manageable with simple English and hand gestures, and Korea makes things generally quite easy to live with lots of translations into English on subways, restaurant menus, etc.
This contrasted quite sharply with Japan, which was - perhaps surpringly - more difficult to get around for an English speaker. The reason for the common place nature of English translations could be to encourage Korean people to learn and understand English and might not be solely for the benefit of foreign visitors.
My Polish friend back in England simply had to learn English, he had no choice as no one was going to speak Polish to him, especially in that working environment.
It can be difficult to make Korean male friends
Language, generally, may be an ability best learned by women simply because they talk more (we all know that, right). But there is another reason I think that women have an advantage in learning the Korean language specifically, Korean women are nicer, easier to talk to and more open minded than their male counterparts.
Now, if you are a bit of a player - like an American friend of mine I knew in the past, who would go out almost every night in search of random Korean women he could chat up - this could work to your advantage, but if you are anything like me, whose tongue ends up being tied tighter than the Gordian Knot at the mere sight of a pretty woman, this is a problem (I am also married).
Women visitors to Korea can make friends and therefore use the language much more, although I must admit most Korean women I have seen who are friends with foreigners do mostly speak English to them.
I have always found Korean male friends - who are not interested in learning English and do not study it - very difficult to find as I have always sensed immediate competition and a feeling of defensiveness when I have tried (see my very early blog post on Korean men).
Sometimes it is useful that I don't know more Korean
For example, when a relative of my wife's commented on her looking like a prostitute when she was with me while walking down the street (he had seen us holding hands once) at her cousin's wedding, I had no idea what he was saying until I asked my wife ten minutes later after he left. Had I known, what would have resulted would not have been pretty. Personally, I could not believe that her parents sat back and said or did nothing, but he was an older Korean man so I guess he could say whatever he liked without a reprimand.
The knowledge that I don't speak that much Korean has also prevented my in-laws from asking me tough questions directly or me telling them what I think of certain situations too honestly.
I also find that there is a rather uncomfortable truth about the culture here, and that is the more accepted you are in a group of Koreans, whether this be at work, with acquaintances, or (in my case) with family the more you can find yourself in uncomfortable situations where you are being pushed into doing things for the group that you don't want to do.
This has been happening to me recently at my school. I know my school like me as a teacher and now I have been there for a year and a half they are starting to like me as a person too and want to involve me in more things. These activities are only fleetingly optional because if the group is doing it everyone must do it. When they don't like you, you are outside of consideration, but when they do like you you must join in and many a Westerner is uncomfortable with the idea of forced participation, especially me.
Know more language and the fact is that you will find yourself in more uncomfortable situations than you have had hot dinners, and you may even get lulled into reciprocal gift buying. Personally, I am not comfortable in the culture of the group or in their gift buying behaviour, giving or receiving them.
Essentially, the problem is that if they do not like you they don't involve you, which is exactly what I want (sad I know) so I keep quiet and speak English. It is not like I have to look for experiences of Korean culture anymore as I am right in the thick of it with my wife's family.
Nobody is teaching any Korean lessons
Outside of the major cities there do appear to be a lack of Korean classes. I have always wanted to do a Korean class in my town in Korea, Suncheon, with other interested foreigners but opportunities are limited. Language exchange is the other option, and people can be found for this, I know because I tried but it did not work well for me. I guess I am just not motivated enough and I need others around in a class situation so that it doubles as a bit of a social gathering also.
It helps to drink alcohol
There are plenty of opportunities to meet and talk to Korean people if you drink and the people who I have known to be the most successful at learning Korean have often been the biggest drinkers. I have never been able to enjoy drinking as it does not agree with my body at all and in Korean culture it seems like most people do enjoy drinking quite a lot.
Lack of Motivation
Really, it is possible to do almost anything if you put your mind to it, but motivation is the key. The number one reason for learning Korean for me is simply to say that I know another language and show-off to my friends back home (I know that this is a very sad state of affairs). There is no practical reason for learning and I do not enjoy Korean popular culture to want to learn it for this reason.
I feel like a bit of a Philistine for talking like this because I know we should enjoy learning things for their own sake. However, try as I might, I just cannot get enthused about learning the language. My wife is not even that keen that I learn as she knows that my, at times, rather stubborn and opinionated personality could easily make my mouth talk when it should be kept well shut.
Maybe it really is all down to laziness. When I traveled to Japan earlier this year and met fellow English teachers that were teaching in Japan, they did seem to be more interested in the culture and language that Native teachers in Korea. As I mentioned on on my blog post on the anti-Korean sentiment in the Western community in Korea, the motivations for teachers going to Korea maybe more monetary than cultural, making us all lazy to learn the language. Although it does seem to be a common theme world-wide with regard to English speakers.
For me, however, this is again no excuse and I am more closely linked than most into Korean culture. I have to concede that I am simply not working hard enough. In most respects I am not as idle as this, I wake at 5.30am most mornings to run, I swim, I run marathons, go to the gym, and plan meticulously at my job, but I feel like Homer Simpson when it comes to learning the language.
I am certainly not alone in this feeling but I don't like it one bit, I have 8 months until I go back to England, let's see if I can do any better. The key is finding a reason to learn and therefore the motivation, the thing is I just cannot find it.