The Foreigner at the Table

Something tells me I'm not putting this together right... (Photo credit: Copyright All rights reserved by yourinmyhair)

Something tells me I’m not putting this together right…
(Photo credit: Copyright All rights reserved by yourinmyhair)

Sometimes, it takes stepping outside your language culture to understand the parts of it that you take for granted. So often, we think about language learning as merely a process of picking up a manageable set of grammatical rules and filling in the blanks with vocabulary. It requires tons of memorization and practice, but get those things down and you’ll be chattering away in Farsi or Mandarin or whatever language you’ve decided to dedicate your brain space to in no time.

The thing is, communication just isn’t as simple as all that. For one thing, literal translation is inadequate to interpret what a speaker intended to convey. Why is it that in English a person is a number of years old, but in Spanish, he or she has a number of years? What about face-saving expressions like “I’m sorry, can you repeat that?” uttered by a person who is decidedly not sorry?

Then, there are the rules about how a conversation is conducted. Speakers take turns. There are appropriate moments to interrupt and for clarification or to add your opinion and there are inappropriate ones. There are relevant questions and observations and irrelevant ones. You can probably remember a time when somebody with limited social awareness derailed a conversation you were engaged in over and over and over again by making inquiries and comments that did not fit.

Imagine that the person who skipped socializing day at school is you. How does the group feel about talking to you? Now, imagine that you suck at conversation because most of it is happening in a language you don’t really understand.

Congratulations. You are me.

Every day, I sit at the lunch table among Korean teachers, and they speak Korean. Of course, they speak Korean; this is Korea—this is their everyday life, and even those who do speak some English are not going to constantly choose the language that limits their expression and makes them uncomfortable over the one that they live their lives in, whether there is a speaker of that language sitting across from them or not. I know I didn’t when the seats were reversed.

I never chose to have a conversation with my colleagues in Spanish when I worked for The Literacy Center even though I have limited ability in the language, even though some of them speak it fluently, even though we were often in conversations with native Spanish speakers. Had one of those Spanish speakers chimed in with something to say, I would have listened and tried to understand, and tried to engage them in conversation a little. Then, I would have gone back to the conversation I was having in English before that person spoke up.

In the two years that I worked for The Literacy Center, this never happened. In two years, I didn’t notice that this never happened.

Doesn't anyone want to talk to me? (Photo Credit: Copyright All rights reserved by lugzgirl)

Doesn’t anyone want to talk to me?
(Photo Credit: Copyright All rights reserved by lugzgirl)

Cut back to me, now, the foreigner at the lunch table. There is a conversation happening around me in Korean. I catch a word here and there, a name, the word for “this.” Sometimes I know they are talking about the new school some teachers will be moving to in March. Sometimes I know nothing. I am silent. I would like to talk to the science teacher about where she will be teaching next year, to discuss whether she is happy about the move or not, to find out if her school is larger or smaller than ours, to find out what she thought of the teachers she met when she visited it.

I cannot have this conversation. The only thing I’ve heard to clue me in to the discussion is the word “Dongbaek,” spoken with rising intonation and her affirmative “mmm” plus slight head nod. I cannot have this conversation, and it’s not just because I don’t speak Korean and can barely tell where one sentence ends and the next begins. I can speak to this group in English, and most of them can answer me in English.

But I don’t want to speak just to hear my voice. I am not a child figuring out how this conversing stuff works. I know how to have a conversation. I want to contribute meaningfully to this one. If I ask something that’s already been asked or that is related to “Dongbaek” but not what they are talking about, I am the social failure. I am the penny on the tracks that derails the train that was taking everyone else where they wanted to go. I am the noise they are humoring until they can get back to what they are talking about.

Nope. I’m not going to be that person. Not today. Today, I will be silent until someone invites me into the conversation. Today I will wait until I know it is my turn to speak. It happens less often now that the novelty of my presence has worn off.

I am the foreigner at the table. I am silent. I am waiting.


This article and others about language and literacy can be found on

Learning the Language–Korean Class 101 Videos

There’s a lot–make that A LOT!–that I have to do to get ready for Korea. One of the more fun tasks, for me anyway, is studying Korean language.

I’ve had a lot of trouble learning and retaining languages in the past. I think the main reason is that I never really put them to use. I studied Spanish in high school and my first year of college (a practical choice, living in the Southwest), but I rarely, if ever, went anywhere that people were actually using Spanish. I didn’t watch Spanish television or movies, didn’t make Spanish speaking friends, so most of the language I had acquired faded away pretty quickly.

After giving up on Spanish, I switched to Japanese–I am a geek & do enjoy an occasional anime flick, after all–but even after four years of Japanese, my competency is extremely low. Again, I had very minimal exposure to actual language use and in Japanese, I had to start even farther behind, learning whole new orthographic and phonological systems in addition to vocabulary, grammar, and pragmatics.

The primary source of my exposure to Japanese language for a while. (I did know enough to recognize when the subtitles did not match what they actually said!)

The primary source of my exposure to Japanese language for a while. (I did know enough to recognize when the subtitles did not match what they actually said!)

Today I know about enough Spanish to have a very slow, very basic conversation, and I can write about as well as a 1st grader, but probably with a worse vocabulary. I know enough Japanese that if I hear people speaking it, I know they’re speaking Japanese, I recognize the grammatical structures they are using (i.e. “that was definitely a question” or “that was a negative statement–as in something is NOT…”), and I recognize a handful of vocabulary words, but that’s it. I can’t even have a basic conversation at this point.

So, when I decided to live abroad, did I choose a country where I could potentially develop the language skills I started when I formally studied language in school? No! Much better to acquire completely insufficient ability in yet a 3rd language!

Which is what I’m doing now. Independently. In my spare time. (Not that I have much of it to begin with, and a lot of it has lately been spent writing for this blog.)

I know that once I am in Korea, I will be hearing and seeing the language much more, and will have to interact using it, so I will pick it up, but before I get there, I would really like to have a basic survival vocabulary.

Currently, I have a native Korean speaker as a tutor (one of the many advantages of living in a town with a great TESL/Applied Linguistics program is that you get a pretty diverse set of international students hanging around), a couple of books on basic Korean, and the internet at my disposal.

If you, like me, are trying to use the internet to learn Korean I highly recommend Korean Class 101’s YouTube channel. The website itself seems to be mostly locked unless you pay for it, but there are a ton of videos available for free on YouTube, that integrate listening, speaking, reading, and vocabulary (throw writing in there too if you choose to take notes), and that use a variety of methods to get the content across.

Here’s a great example of one of their videos–which made me really hungry when I watched it, by the way–Korean street food is amazing!!!


This is what I love about this video series:

  • Important vocabulary items like the word for street food ( 분식 )1 are 1) pronounced by native speakers 2) written on the screen 3) pronounced slowly when introduced 4) visually broken into their syllables while being pronounced, allowing viewers to understand the word in a variety of ways.
  • Vocabulary is put in context–the hosts discuss not only the definition of the word being used, but when and how it is used, the nuances of meaning, and so forth.
  • The hosts’ mixture of English and Korean discussion related to the lesson is one that keeps me from disengaging because I don’t know what they are talking about, but that also exposes me to authentic use of Korean language
  • The lesson itself is focused on an authentic conversation about a given topic. Images accompany the conversation providing further context for the interaction.
  • After the main conversation of the lesson, the hosts pull important vocabulary, and teach it in more depth.

Potential downfalls:

  • If you don’t yet know how to read 한국어, the written Korean characters, these videos may not do you much good. However, there is another series on the Korean Class 101 channel that can help with that.


So far, this series is proving to be very engaging and good for helping me pick up the language (although I definitely need to practice more and take notes if I want things to really stick!!!)

Check back for more resource reviews once I finish my TEFL class and have a little more time to devote to intensive studying. In the mean time, if you know of any great resources for studying Korean, share them in the comments!



1-Wondering how I did that? I used a Virtual Korean Keyboard program.