Everyone will tell you that you don’t need to learn the language before you get here. And you don’t have to. But trust me, your life will be immensely easier if you start learning Korean before you get here. Some great resources I’ve stumbled across: the iSpeak Korean cd set and, the Talk to me in Korean and Learn Korean-Korean Class 101 podcasts. This site, which is like a flashcard site for Hangul characters, has also been helpful. If nothing else, learn some basics that will allow you to function day-to-day. You’ll be grateful when you get here.
While plenty of people speak English here, it’s still not something you can count on. You’ll appreciate being able to: give your cab driver directions, ask how to find something, find out how much an item costs or have any clue what’s being said when someone tells you that your bus pass didn’t work and that you need to pay the fare. This will leave you far less dependent on the kindness–and patience–of strangers. And of course you’ll be far more independent. Something really important to me. Right now I still feel like an infant because I really can only say ‘hello,’ ‘good-bye,’ ‘thank you,’ ‘sorry,’ and ‘rice.’ Oh and I can say ‘straight’ and ‘right’ in order to get a cab home from the grocery store. At this point though, this is not a language barrier but a language Berlin Wall.
What I also didn’t anticipate was losing the motivation to learn while I was here. You don’t think about how things like fatigue, homesickness, illness or even mild depression–all pretty common when you move to a new country–might make you want to do a lot of things besides learn a new language. I’m a perfectionist who likes to be good at everything before I ever even start, so the process of learning a language outside of a classroom setting is like a form of torture for me. I’ve really struggled with just wanting to cocoon and not leave my apartment (now that I have crazy fast internet) rather than deal with the pain and frustration of learning in a way that I don’t prefer. At the moment I’m looking for lessons but nothing has turned up. I may well have to get out of my comfort zone and just learn Korean in a much more trial-and-error fashion, but it will be an uphill battle. If you prefer less battle and more fun, learn some Korean before your plane lands.
Because life is easier when you can read the signs.