Over the past 20 years or so, Korea has grown to become one of the most culturally powerful countries in the world. From K-pop and K-dramas to kimchi and Korean beauty, it’s hard to escape the seemingly endless wave of Korean cultural expansion.
With so much to offer, many people wish to visit the Nation of Morning Calm. But is it possible to visit Korea without knowing Korean?
Let’s take a look at just how English-friendly Korea really is and how you can travel, work, and live in Korea even if you don’t speak Korean. We’ll even give you a breakdown of the three most commonly spoken languages in Korea. If you’re ready to live your K-drama fantasy, let’s dive in.
Is Korea English Friendly?
For the most part, Korea is an English-friendly country. Although many older Korean people didn’t have the opportunity to learn English as children, most young Koreans have spent years studying English to read, speak, and communicate with foreigners.
Nowadays Korean parents understand that educating their children in English opens the door for their children to gain new experiences studying and working overseas. After all, when it comes to getting into schools and securing a good career, the Korean market is highly competitive.
Many parents would prefer that their children study overseas where they’ll have better opportunities and receive an equally prestigious education. Furthermore, being able to speak English in Korea creates better opportunities for their children to land jobs working with international businesses.
This has led to a growth in private language academies, known as hagwons, throughout Korea. Parents send their children to after-school academies where they spend two to three hours several days a week studying English reading, writing, and speaking. Most of the time, the teachers working at these schools come from Western nations such as England, the United States, and Canada.
While traveling in Korea you should be able to communicate with most Koreans under the age of 40. They may be shy though, so be patient and remember not to be rude if they make any mistakes in their pronunciation or grammar. Remember, they’re speaking your language, which they’ve spent years studying, while you don’t know any of their languages.
Can You Travel to Korea Only Speaking English?
You should be able to get around Korea without speaking Korean. Korea is a highly cosmopolitan country with roughly 50% of the population living in its capital city, Seoul.
Within the city centers, you shouldn’t have any trouble finding someone who speaks a basic to intermediate level of English.
You may even be shocked to find that cashier’s and convenience store workers speak a surprisingly high level of English. The only difficulty will be encouraging young Koreans to practice their speaking with you. If you seem sincerely lost or in need of help, Koreans will go out of their way to help you find whatever it is you need.
One word of warning though—it can be difficult to book taxis and trains if you do not speak Korean. Korea does not play well with Google, and instead, uses its own web browser known as Naver. The majority of websites on Naver are written entirely in Korean. Therefore, if you plan to book a train ticket online, you will need help from a native Korean speaker.
If you want to navigate the Seoul subway system, you can do so using a mobile phone app made by the Korean mobile communication service, “Kakao”. They offer a highly useful subway map that includes departure times, arrival times, and various routes that can take you to your destination.
Can You Work in Seoul Without Speaking Korean?
If you wish to move to Seoul, it is completely possible to work in the capital without being fluent in Korean. That being said, your job options will be limited. You will likely have to work as either an English teacher, a freelancer, or a journalist for a local English-language newspaper.
Many young westerners decide to move to Seoul after university to become teachers in the private academy system centered in Seoul. Most of these jobs require teachers to have a university degree and either a TEFL or CELTA certification. Teachers can make a decent salary, gain access to a retirement plan with benefits, and live in Korea without having to pay rent.
Most schools and academies in Korea offer new teachers flights to and from their home countries. Additionally, teachers will not be required to find their own housing. Schools and private academies in Korea are required by law to provide teachers with accommodation, free of charge. Their only expense is to pay their electricity and water bill.
Finding a non-teaching job in Seoul will be difficult if you do not speak Korean at a native level. While it’s not impossible to find a job if you speak an intermediate or high level of Korean, most Korean companies will not hire you if you know nothing of their language and culture.
Should You Work in Korea Only Speaking English?
Living in Korea, and especially in Seoul, is an exciting and eye-opening experience that anyone would enjoy. However, you may be hesitant to move to Korea if you do not already speak Korean. Don’t let the language barrier scare you away.
Once you get to Seoul, you’ll slowly pick up some basic phrases that will make life in Korea much easier. We recommend learning to say “thank you”, “hello”, “goodbye”, and some basic restaurant Korean:
- 안녕하세요! – an-nyeong-ha-sae-yo is a typical greeting Koreans use to say “Hello!”
- 안녕히 가세요 – Although it sounds very similar to “hello”, an-nyeong-hi ga-sae-yo means goodbye and should be said to someone leaving.
- 안녕히 계세요 – Even more confusingly, an-nyeong-hi gye-sae-yo should be said as a goodbye to someone who stays in the room.
- 감사합니다 – You will hear kam-sa-hab-ni-da, or thank you, in convenience stores, restaurants, and even on the subway.
- 주세요 – Literally “please give”, you can use Ju-sae-yo after any food or object to say, “Please give me this”. For example “김치 주세요” (Kimchi ju-sae-yo), or “Please give me kimchi”.
Learning the names of some foods and how to order them will greatly help you no matter where you go in the country.
Over time, you may realize that the Korean language is fascinating and decide to learn it formally. There are plenty of options for foreigners who wish to learn Korean as a second language. You can enroll in one of the top universities to learn the Korean language or take private lessons with local Korean teachers.
Although it is not an easy language for English speakers to learn, you can reach an intermediate level within one to two years. As you make more Korean friends, you’ll pick up more colloquial phrases and understand television, songs, and your students and coworkers far more easily.
Best of all, Koreans will greatly appreciate that you’re taking the time to learn their culture and language. Koreans are very proud of their heritage, history, culture, and writing system so, by taking the time to learn about these things, you will show that you care about their country and are not just there as a tourist or a stopover.
Top 3 Most Spoken Languages in Korea
Aside from Korean, the three most common languages spoken in South Korea are:
English has risen to become one of the most common languages in South Korea because of business and enterprise. Korean corporations know that if they want to do business with Europe and the West, they must hire employees who are comfortable speaking and communicating in English.
Likewise, Korean companies understand that China is an equally powerful trade partner, especially within the region. There are many Chinese people who live in Seoul, so it’s not uncommon for Koreans to speak Chinese both for business and to communicate with Chinese immigrants.
As for Japanese, Korean and Japanese both share very similar grammatical structures, making it an easier language for Koreans to learn at school and university. Many Koreans learn Japanese in the same way that Americans often learn Spanish, and British learn French.
Traveling, working, and living in Seoul, South Korea is the opportunity of a lifetime. If you get the chance, we highly recommend taking a trip to see this amazing country. South Korea is an English-friendly nation full of kind and studious people who are ready to help you if you need it. Don’t let the language barrier stop you!