The Rigors of Cultural Immersion and Language Study in South Korea

I imagine that for many students going abroad to study, language learning makes up a large portion of their goals for foreign education. Sure enough, it does for me too. Speaking as someone who has continually struggled with this necessarily rigorous subject, even at home in Toronto, I feel I must impart my experience to you, just in case you happen to be thinking of pursuing language or cultural immersion abroad. I realize that this may be old hat for a lot of you, and it deals solely with my experience in South Korea, but nevertheless, heed my words!


The main drag of Yonsei after a big snow fall.

Before going abroad I had a rather romantic view of what would constitute my language study here in South Korea. I would go to a language class where, at a comfortable pace, a passionate and attentive professor would teach me the various nuances of Korean for a few hours in a class full of like-minded students, eager to learn yet striving to overcome their own unique struggles with the language. After a detailed lesson in which the teacher would ensure that the students were on the same page by answering myriad questions, we would then go out into the surrounding area (Sinchon, in the case of Yonsei University) and go shopping or have dinner or just stroll around with local friends we had made, giving us excited and enthusiastic students ample opportunity to use our newly acquired grammar forms and vocabulary. Based on this pattern, my language skills would evolve naturally at a gradual pace, and I would experience both improvement and heightened cultural awareness at a previously unimaginable rate. I mean, how could I not, right?

Having a clean study area would probably help to some degree!

Well, big surprise—life’s not that simple. Speaking to peers about language learning in a foreign environment showed me that many shared sentiments similar to mine: It’s super easy to learn a language if you’re in the country of its origin. The reality, of course, is that it’s never “super easy” to learn a language, unless you’re some sort of prodigy. A more accurate representation of the reality of foreign-language learning is this: It’s easier to learn a language if you’re immersed in it. The trick is, of course, to ensure that you’re immersed, which is easier said than done.

Perhaps the biggest misconception when it comes to studying abroad is that you will be instantly surrounded by the culture of the land you choose to study in. You may have romantic visions of living in a dorm or attending classes among native students from that country, who will be open-minded and cannot wait to converse with an intrepid North American exchange student. You may expect that you will easily befriend locals who will be eager to assist you in your language studies and make lifelong bonds with you. These idealistic notions may be the reality of studying abroad in countries where English is spoken by a large percentage of the population, but in South Korea—and, I would imagine, in many other non-primarily English-speaking countries—if you are lacking in linguistic prowess, you may find it more difficult to immerse yourself than you initially expected.

Here at Yonsei I, like most other international students, live in an international dormitory, surrounded by other international students, mostly from Europe and the United States, who primarily speak English. I was not able to register for a Korean dorm (and I’m not sure if I would have anyway, but even so, the option was not available). Moreover, my classes cater especially to exchange students and my classmates consist of nothing but. This naturally has its advantages—it is easy for us to touch base and to share helpful survival tips about things like banking or going to the pharmacy—but from an immersion perspective this has been somewhat debilitating.

The global lounge at Yonsei where international students can get info and chill.

During our orientation I was surprised when one of the speakers told us that we exchange students might be more comfortable hanging out in the Global Lounge—a space designed for but not limited to international students on the Yonsei campus—as there were “fewer Korean students there.” Certainly I can understand classes that cater to English-speakers in a country that does not primarily speak English, but I find the lengths the university seems to be going to keep us separated from the Korean students rather discouraging, despite the fact that the administration seems to feel it is within our best interest. For example, the international dorms are located on the other side of the campus from the Korean dorms, and a relatively large number of student clubs seem to be exclusively for Korean students (I applied for four clubs and got contacted by only one, although that could simply have been the result of lack of organization).

Thus the reality of my cultural immersion and language study has so far been more like this:

Every day we learn Korean for two hours in the evening, after a day of classes that are entirely in English (no surprises there) with classmates who are almost entirely non-Koreans, with few exceptions. By the end of our language class we are really tired, and the teacher takes off right afterwards, leaving little time or motivation to ask questions. I go off with friends from the U.S. whom I met in my dorm and my Korean class, and later I study with another friend, from Taiwan, and my roommate, from Indonesia. I speak English to all of them except for the rare times when we try to speak Korean together. Occasionally, when we both have time, I hang out with my language-exchange partner, but I haven’t spoken Korean to her yet. This also seems to be the reality for most of my classmates.

Befriending locals is always a good way to get immersed. Here’s me with my South Korean friend, Yumin.

I’m lucky in that I have quite a few Korean friends whom I met in Toronto, and if it wasn’t for them I would find it very difficult indeed to find an opportunity to speak Korean. Despite this, most of the time I don’t speak too much Korean beyond ordering food in restaurants.


So why am I telling you this discouraging tale? I’m simply offering a warning. Though you will inevitably have many wonderful experiences with other foreign students while studying abroad, if you want to be culturally and linguistically immersed in the country you’re visiting, it won’t happen if you sit around and wait for the culture to come to you. You must be proactive and insert yourself in situations where you are able to experience the culture and use the language you have been studying; otherwise you’ll end up being more of an academic tourist. If that’s all you want from your exchange experience (and there is nothing wrong with that, mind you), then sit back and relax. But if you’re hoping to increase language proficiency or mingle with the locals, you’ve got to get out there. I still have more than eight months of study left here, and I’m certainly planning to get out there a lot more.

Some people search for alternate solutions!

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