During my recent training to Korea, I met my new colleagues. Since my Korean skills are terrible, I had a hard time following what they were saying, but I don’t feel left out at all. In fact, I enjoyed listening to them converse in Korean despite my lack of participation in the fun. To the contrary, in my mind I was hoping they don’t feel bad about me being left out of the entire conversation because having to translate everything for me would take the fun out of their conversation. But as they are all very nice people, they would tell me the parts where they think are the most important or the funniest.
Despite not understanding what was going on, it was fun for me trying to catch as many words I can. Even if I didn’t know what the words meant, I feel a sense of accomplishment whenever I could hear distinctly the sounds they were pronouncing. They probably can’t detect my joy immersing in their conversation since I hold a straight face when I try to listen intently.
Despite what most of them say about their inability to speak English, I gradually discovered that all of them could understand and speak English to a decent extent and some had no problem conversing completely in English.
What caught me by surprise was when one of them told me, untranslated, in his exact words in English, “I didn’t study English when I was little. I only started learning English after I turned 20, so my English is not very good.” Now you tell me which part of that sentence says his English is no good. It was so perfect, I couldn’t help but say to him, “Come to Japan and I’ll show you what is ‘not very good.'”
When I ask another colleague about something, sometimes they would go, “Umm… I don’t know how to explain that in English. Hang on.” Perhaps due to my 7-year stay in Japan, I have a different expectation of people who say they are no good at English. In Japan, where most current adults first studied English when they were 13, when they want to tell you they don’t speak English well, they’d go, “No English.”
If the British were a minority, they might even mistake that for a racist comment.
Interestingly, when I headed to a Burger King outlet somewhere in Seoul (because I walked for about 10km that day, I had no idea where I was) and tried to place my order in English, the lady at the counter went quiet and almost completely began to use gesture. But in Japan, the staff would usually use what little English they know to help complete my order.
Regardless, the willingness to assist someone who doesn’t speak their language everywhere, both in Korea and Japan is something very heartwarming. It makes me feel very welcomed, so perhaps there are things more important than speaking a common language.