“No one speaks English here. Learn Korean or you’re SOL!”
Plenty of Koreans speak English; the difference is if they want to speak English with you, the native speaker. Just like any person speaking a language outside of their native tongue, they get a little shy if they know they aren’t a master of that language just yet.
The majority of expats in Korea fall into 3 major groups: English teachers teaching either at public or private institutions, foreign military stationed in Korea, or foreign exchange students studying at Korean Universities. We’re pretty obvious “English Zone” speakers no matter where we go in Korea (or even in Asia). Even if you attempt to ask something in Korea, sometimes Koreans will respond in English and surprise you. Definitely do not get upset if the native citizen isn’t understanding you though; you are making the conscious decision to not speak their language if you’re choosing the route of living in Korea without learning the language.
For most parts of public transit in Korea, announcements are made in Korean, English and sometimes Japanese. Kakao Taxi and the Korean subway app are also both available in English. If you happen to be lost somewhere and run into someone who doesn’t understand a word you’re saying, don’t hesitate to pull out a translation app to assist you. Google Translate, Papago, or Naver all work as translation apps, even if sometimes the translation is a little off or sounds awkward. I definitely suggest learning some short quick phrases that are useful to you when you live in Korea (or anywhere abroad) though. Otherwise, if you choose not to learn Korean you can easily live a happy life without knowing a word anyone is saying around you in Korea.
Pro Tip: If you’re in a cab on the way home and only have card but the driver won’t accept it, starting acting scared about paying in English and suddenly the card machine will work again. This helps prevent taxi drivers from pocketing some extra money for charges when they think you won’t know the difference.* (*Not all drivers do this, but I have had this experience happen to me before.)
You may also be surprised to find that there are some words in Korean that are written out as close as possible as it is in English. Some prime examples:
- 쿼터파운더™ 치스 (kkwo-teo-pa-oon-deo chi-seu) = Quarter Pounder™ with cheese
- 와플 (wah-pul) = Waffle
- 콜라 (kol-la) = Coca-Cola/Cola/Dark Sodas
- 바나나 (ba-na-na) = Banana
- 스시 (seu-shi) = Sushi
- 아이스크림 (ah-ee-seu-keu-rim) = Ice cream
- 하키 (ha-kkee) = Hockey
- 카메라 (kka-mae-ra) = Camera
- 버스 (beo-seu) = Bus
- 택시 (ttaek-shi) = Taxi
- 어벤져스™ (eo-ben-jyeo-seu) = Avengers™
- 스타워즈™ (seu-tta-weo-zeu) = Star Wars™
I won’t deny that there are days that go by and I’m thinking to myself “Ugh. I need to go this appointment today by myself. Here we go…” But it isn’t as difficult to live in Korea if you can learn even a snippet of their language. It really shows you’re willing to go the extra mile when living abroad. Just learn how to say “Slow down” or “Please say that again” because more often than not, when responding in Korean to a native Korean, they’ll go full speed ahead and leave you in their language dust.
All in all, if you’re a linguist and can learn a new language easily or not you can survive in South Korea just fine without learning the language whatsoever. Would I recommend it? Of course! But you should be reassured if you’re nervous about how to survive once you first arrive in this country that you definitely will see more English around than you originally thought.