Being a Caucasian minority in Asia, most Koreans assume (correctly) that I'm American and I speak English. Conversely I assume that Koreans don't speak English. When this assumption turns out to be wrong, I'm very surprised.
The other day I was walking down a deserted street by myself carrying groceries and thinking about what I should blog about next. All of a sudden the cutest little Korean girl who couldn't have been more than four years old, ran up and threw herself around my knees. She looked up at me and said "HI!" I looked around to see if we had an audience or something, it was just so surreal. I smiled, said hi back, entangled myself and continued on my way. About a block away I hear her scream "HOW ARE YOU?" I laughed, said I was fine and waved goodbye.
Korea is a country that has dedicated itself into being "international" and part of that translates into learning English. Because of that drive, I have a work visa and a job with one of the hundreds of private institutes (hakwons) that teach English to children up to high school students. In addition there are thousands of private tutoring lessons with college students and adults.
This weekend I went to five live music clubs and in most of their sets, they had English covers. We danced to "Twist and Shout," "Play That Funky Music," and "Got to Be Real" to name a few. In the dance clubs we go to in Itaewon, the music usually features English lyrics, although they tend to be repetitive and completely silly at times.
English is placed on clothing and many items found in stores. Buses and subway signs and maps feature English and Korean both. It's gotten so out of hand, I've been told that there is now a law requiring Korean writing (hangul) to be somewhere on store signs! The downside of this prolific use of English is that it often is misspelled or grammatically incorrect ("Konglish") with hilarious or bizarre results!
It's surreal to me that the language that a Chinese person and a Japanese person use when they meet is my language. By some bizarre twist of history, my native tongue has replaced Greek, Latin and French as the international language of communication. I look around me at all the incredible efforts to learn English and count myself equally lucky that it came to me so easily. Additionally it's refreshing to live in a country that doesn't feel culturally threatened by bilingualism! I eagerly look forward to moving to an even more linguistically international environment this year. Diversity makes a country stronger, not weaker!