한국말 (the Korean language)

One of the hardest parts about speaking Korean for me

is keeping my level of formality consistent. Yesterday my Korean friend asked me, “Why do you keep using 존댓말 (formal speech)?” I was like, “I can’t help it! I always forget! Why? Did I use it just now?” I didn’t even realize how I had been formal until she repeated back to me what I had just said.

In English, you use the same words to speak to everyone.

You may use more slang around close friends or speak a bit differently in very formal settings, but generally, you can express yourself the same way no matter who your audience is. “I’m full.” ”Nice to meet you.” “The sky is beautiful today.”

In Korean, your audience has everything to do with how you speak.

As one of my neighbors recently put it, Korean is all about relationship, it’s about who you are speaking to, what their relationship to you is, and what they know and don’t know.  This is why one of the first questions people ask each other when they meet is how old the other person is.  It is very important to establish from the outset of your relationship who is higher in the social hierarchy (or whether you are equals).

In the US we have some concepts of hierarchy, but only in the workplace, not between friends. In Korea, you are supposed to show respect to your teachers, bosses, and elders, but also to your older “brothers” and “sisters.” I actually love the practice of calling older friends “older brother” or “older sister.” It identifies where everyone is in the hierarchy, but it also identifies you as being close to each other, belonging to the same family (so to speak).  

Sometimes I find the hierarchy thing a bit stressful. When I’m not sure how to address someone, I miss the simplicity of treating everyone as equals like we do in the US. (In those situations, I usually revert to speaking in English – an easy out for me as a foreigner.) But in general, I find the whole communal identity thing refreshing. When I call someone 언니 (older sister of a girl) or 오빠 (older brother of a girl), I show respect and affection, and I also feel cared for and protected. That form of address automatically brings us closer together than if we were speaking (solely) in English.

When my friend asked me why I was speaking to her formally,

she wasn’t saying that as a tutor trying to correct my Korean, she was asking as a friend who was being treated like a stranger. She is a year younger than me, so the only reason to speak to her formally would be if we didn’t know each other at all. When I speak informally, I express a certain closeness to her.

In Korean, you often leave off the subject of the sentence, but how formal you make the verb helps make clear who the subject is. Korean is a very concise language, but even with its conciseness and my limited vocabulary, I have a wide range of choices of how to express myself. For example, I can say, “I’m full,” three or four different ways depending on whether I’m speaking to a teacher, to a close friend, or to a waiter.

I am excited to start language classes tomorrow and dig into new grammar and vocab, but I am even more excited to build relationships with new people and use Korean to express those relationships.

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Elizabeth is an American living in South Korea who believes in destiny, miracles, and living life intentionally. She holds to simple faith in a complex world, values the beauty of the everyday, and strives for vulnerability with other imperfect humans. She is always learning, laughing, and finding herself in awe of grace.

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