Home > Journal, Motivation & Attitude > First Real-World Korean-Speaking test

First Real-World Korean-Speaking test

jalAh, that exciting and scary moment when it’s time to converse for the first time after you’ve been learning on your own for a while.

Korean had been barely been a subject of my study during my first 3 years of my recent language-learning efforts, but it had been there nonetheless; once in a while I’d pick up a couple more words from songs, listen to a Talk To Me in Korean lesson that I was curious about, maybe search online how something is said in Korean, etc. However, it wasn’t until Fall of 2012, when I started the TCBP Korean Study Group at my university, that I finally managed to get back into studying Korean more regularly and seriously.

Now it was summer, yet the study group has continued since most of the students were still around, so I had kept up the study. One of my friends graduated at the end of the first half of summer, so we went out for a farewell lunch as he was going back to China and had a job lined up for him there. He told me about a Korean restaurant we should go to, so we did. I was excited because he said it was in fact run by Koreans.

Then I Saw Her Face….

…of an older woman, near my friend’s table (he got there first), so I assumed she was the waitress. Having heard me come in, she turned around and the first thing she said to me was:

안녕하세요! (Annyeong haseyo)

I was momentarily stunned; why would you greet someone in Korean like that? We’re in America here!

I kid you not: I do not remember how I responded. That part of my memory is gone for some reason. I do not remember if I responded in Korean or English, since I was not expecting to be required to switch that quickly. If I did respond in English, I probably did immediately follow up in Korean.

Turns out my evil friend told her that I had been studying Korean “for years.” Of course, the consequences of that little detail wouldn’t affect the early conversation, but I didn’t like that she might have high expectations from me. However, it may have been a good thing. since it could have been part of the reason why later, she was willing to speak Korean, giving me the chance to practice speaking a good bit.

However, anything else right after the hello, as I sat down, was in English, and she left us to look over the menu.

When she came back, we somehow got back into Korean; I think she started it, actually. She took my order (in Korean), and then when she came back with the order, we spoke a little more. The sentences I remember from the whole experience were (and these are NOT literal translations):

  • You can speak Korean?
    I can speak a little.
  • How long have you been studying Korean?
    I’ve been studying for 1 year. I am studying with a friend. (I blanked on “year”; and although it was coming to me, she herself ended up telling me what it was before I remembered it confidently enough)
  • Have you been to Korea?
    No, but I would like to go someday. Actually, the friend I am studying with will go to Korea next year. Therefore, we are learning Korean together. (Messed up a good bit in getting the logical order of the sentences and their conjunctions, and I restarted a few times before I got it all out. To be honest, I over-thought it and shouldn’t have worried too much about making mistakes.)
  • Do you live in an apartment?
    No, I live at home with my parents.
    (Missed the word apartment; she had to tell me in English.)
  • Are you ready?
    Yes. This: one gobdol bulgogi and one Ssaek Ssaek grape [a canned drink] please.
  • Me: How old are they? [Asking about her children]
    Her, in English: They are 27 and…
    Me, in Korean: Could you please say it in Korean ?
    Her: My children are 29 and 27 years old.
    Me: Ah, 29 and 27, ok.
  • Come again, have a good day! (or something along those lines; can’t remember)
    Thank you! Goodbye!
Deep conversation on life and love was not included. (Picture: Jim Carrey in

Deep conversation on life and love was not included.
(Picture: Jim Carrey in “Yes Man”)

The Abyss Analysis

Although I pointed out a couple of issues, I actually made more mistakes than that – and I don’t mean grammatical or pronunciation mistakes because those are expected and should be the least of your worries as long as you haven’t been lazy about it. This was NOT my first time speaking Korean with a native speaker. In fact, I should have posted about it when it first happened, but I did find myself a language exchange partner for Korean – actually, she found me, on italki.com. She’s nice, fun, enthusiastic, helpful, and quite mean – in a funny way, of course! Even since the first time we spoke, I had no issues practicing my speaking; it felt just like when I practice speaking Mandarin. The only difference, of course, is that I’m much more limited in Korean.

Back to my problems at the restaurant, first of all, I blanked on some really stupid things – I mean, what could be of potentially more embarrassment than not responding to a simple hello? I also did not mean to say “I can only speak a little” (조금 밖에 못해요) but rather something closer to “I have a long way to go” (아직 머렀어요), but it just didn’t come to me.

Second, while I know my formal speech (존댓말) well, I found it funny how much extra effort it took just to add the 요 – I’m pretty sure I actually said 조금 밖에 못해………………….요!

Third, I mentioned already that I over-corrected myself, both mentally (slowing-down my speech), as well as orally (slowing down the other person by forcing them to hear my restatement). This especially happened as I tried to better form or pronounce verb conjugations. Don’t do this! Better to make mistakes and keep the conversation moving!

We the Jury, Find the Defendant…

Actually, it went pretty well – just not as well as usual. I did not actually forget all that I preach, and was mindful and aware enough of what was going on to mitigate it some. The only reason we didn’t get past those relatively basic phrases was because she got pretty talkative in English, and began talking (to all  of us) about how much she thinks input is important and how she strongly recommends heavily listening to radio and watching TV, even giving us details on certain TV packages that have Korean channels. She did this with her sons, who were growing up here in America, to ensure their level of Korean.

So, as you read about my little failings in this instance, the real message I’d like my readers to take away is: don’t worry about it! These things happen! As I said, I’ve spoken Korean before – in fact, probably over 10 times on Skype, and I’ve exchanged a few random phrases with friends in person. But for some reason, I tripped up more in this case than others. You will have bad days. This could even happen on the first few times you speak to someone, but you can’t be discouraged. Many factors come into play, whether it’s nervousness, subconscious concerns, or everyone’s mood. In my case, there were small, added pressures since the waitress was older (introducing the need for formal speech + the issue that older people’s speech can be harder to understand), my friend was there (he knows I’ve been learning; I expect to prove I can speak some with this waitress), and I also want to prove to myself that I can speak to an adult, native speaker. All of these can actually ruin your speech if you’re worrying about them before and during speaking.

If you start worrying when speaking more than when you are practicing, you’re turning your speaking into a performance, which it shouldn’t be. In almost anything, I think, unless you’re really good / near-perfect, confident, and/or lucky, performances tend to not go as well as practice, so over-worrying will definitely result in problems – just like when I worry too much over an upcoming piano performance of mine.

Don’t hold back! Your own inhibitions and concerns can hold you back more than any person – who tend to be happy and excited to see you try to speak their language.

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