Semester Abroad, Global Correspondents Breaking Out of the English-Speaking Bubble

October 1, 2019
By Rebecca Zaynidinova, CAS '21

Rebecca Zaynidinova is one of the Semester Abroad Global Correspondents, writing and sharing her experience abroad during the Fall 2019 semester. Follow along with the group of correspondents on our blog and look out for their student takeovers on the @pennabroad Instagram.

Semester Abroad
Yonsei University

With my friends’ impossible expectation of “You better be fluent in Korean by the time you come back from Korea!” ringing in my head, I landed in Incheon Airport on August 24th, 3:30 p.m. Flash forward to now as I sit in a cafe, trying to eavesdrop on Korean conversations, frustrated that after a month, I have not improved enough to understand much more than the grammatical structures. So what went wrong? Why hasn’t the Korean language permeated my brain through osmosis? I am surrounded by Korean everywhere, all the time. Or am I?

Before I came to Korea, I thought that by virtue of being in Korea, I'd naturally learn Korean. However, I was soon hit by the reality of how difficult it is to break out of the English-speaking bubble and meet local Korean students. All of my classes, except one, are exclusively offered to international students, so all the new friends I have made are other English-speaking international students. Furthermore, we end up taking the English out of the classroom every time we go out, and before we know it, we speak and hear only English for 90% of the day. Needless to say, this has been a difficult realization, as my primary goal for coming to Korea is to become fluent in Korean.

As most of us do, I poured my struggles out to and sought advice from the trusted Google and YouTube, and after scheming, I came up with some ways I can sprinkle more Korean in my environment. I have yet to test some of these methods, but here is what I came up with:

  1. Three words: Language. Exchange. Partner. I have yet to meet them, but I really hope that I will learn a lot.
  2. An old method that everyone recommends: pocket-sized notepad for writing down new words I hear or read. I have about four pages of those, and now I really need to get onto actually memorizing them.
  3. The next one is something I just can’t bring myself to do because for some reason, it’s hard for me to get myself to watch shows and movies: Korean variety shows. They’re fun, the actors’ speech, and speed are natural, and vocab is up-to-date. But I think I’m the only person in the world that you’ll have to force to sit down and watch TV, so this one will be a bit of a struggle.
  4. Webtoons! I love reading Webtoons. I’m a slow reader with a short attention span, so I hate books. As I said, I also find it difficult to get myself to watch movies and shows. But Webtoons are a perfect combination of reading and viewing. Now I need to challenge myself to read them in Korean. It’s a formidable process because again, I understand the grammar but have to translate at least a quarter of the words. However, the language used in Webtoons is vernacular Korean speech, as opposed to Korean books, which use many elements and words that are only used in writing (i.e. imagine using “moreover” or “furthermore” when talking with a friend over coffee. It’s like that).

I’m coming to realize that learning Korean, even in Korea, will take A LOT of intentionality and A LOT of going out of my way. A choice is before me: to put in the astronomical effort, or to leave Korea knowing as little as I came here knowing. I know that if I choose the former, I will not regret, so wish me luck :)

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The Semester Abroad (SA) program offers undergraduate students the opportunity to study in a new global community through extended study for a semester or year. Penn Abroad partners with top institutions around the globe and collaborates with Penn’s undergraduate schools to offer programs for students across academic disciplines.

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by Anna Zhou, SEAS '25