Speaking and Listening in Korea

I had a phone call today that prompted this blog.  The phone rang, and I picked it up. I didn’t recognize the phone number, but I knew it was in Seoul, so I figured they probably didn’t speak English, so I should respond in Korean.  I picked the phone up and said, “Yoboseyo” which is how you answer the phone in Korea.  The woman on the other line began speaking, and she was speaking a million miles per hour!  I said, “Chon chon hee malhaseyo” which means “please speak slowly,”and it was just as if I wasn’t even on the line.  She just kept throwing those words out like she was shooting a machine gun!  I got a word here and there, but she was just speaking too fast for me to get much of it.  Finally, I said  again, “Chon chon hee malhaseyo! Ne-ga oo-e-gook-een ee-ye-yo!”  Meaning “Please speak slowly. I am a foreigner.”  However, it was if I didn’t exist, so I ended up hanging up on her.  She didn’t call me back. She didn’t care if I understood or not.  I figured out that she was a telemarketer because she kept saying “kokekneem” which means “customer.”  She didn’t accomplish anything because she refused to slow down.

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There are specific times Koreans do speak like a machine gun shooting bullets. If you are in a regular conversation with them in Korean, they speak normally. If they are preaching, they usually speak normally.  However, if they stand up in front of a group and read a speech or read a Bible verse, look out!  If their mouth was a machine gun, you would be dead in a minute!  There are no pauses, just word after word as fast as they can.  There are no voice inflections or dropping of the voice to let you know a sentence is finished.  They just keep shooting!  They do the same thing when they lead prayers.  They forget anyone else is in the room and just spit it out faster than their brains can think it.

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On Sunday mornings, the church reads a passage of scripture together. It is several verses long. If I read the Korean Bible, I read it very slowly and think because Korean is a really hard language, and often, I know a word, but it takes me time to recognize it because it may have some strange ending on it I haven’t seen before or I am not used to. Or perhaps, there are new vocabulary words. I have a Bible with definitions of new words at the bottom.  If my daughter or son in law are sitting next to me in church, and a word pops up I don’t know, I quietly ask them what it is so I won’t get lost. Sometimes they know, and sometimes they don’t. I have worked hard at trying to learn the religious vocabulary because I want to understand when I go to church or chapel and because I wanted to be able to teach Bible classes in Korean.  I teach a Bible class in Korean now, and it isn’t always easy.  However, when he church reads together, they put the scripture up on a screen in the front, but there is no way that I could even move my mouth as fast as they do when they read that scripture.  When they do it, I look the scripture up in English and read it silently to myself.  There is no way to keep up with them, and I wonder if they even think about what they are saying or if they are just mouthing the words.  I would never read the Bible in English as fast as they read it in Korean because I want to make sure I understand everything I am reading.  I am a contemplative reader and really enjoy understanding and thinking about what I read.  When I am finished, I can tell you exactly what I read and discuss it with you. It is not just their speaking, though.

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If you go through the drive through at McDonald’s, you can just bet they won’t listen and will get your order wrong. If they get it right, it is amazing!  They are too busy talking to even know what the customers are saying.  I make myself understood and be sure they got it right, but somehow, it didn’t sink in. I even have then read it back to me, and I read the receipt to make sure it is right. I went by there the other day for lunch, and I ordered just a plain small hamburger. I asked them not to put any onions, pickles, or mustard on it, and just to put ketchup.  They seemed to understand. How hard its that?  When I got it, it had just the meat and the bread, so I sent it back telling them I had asked for ketchup.  When they brought it back to me, it had ketchup and pickles.  (I am rolling my eyes!)  How can they get “Put pickles and ketchup on it” out of “Put ketchup on it”?

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Usually, when I go through McDonald’s, I am not alone, so I let whatever Korean is in the car order thinking they will be more likely to listen to and understand a Korean when they order.  However, it doesn’t matter who orders, Korean, American, Bangladeshi, etc.  They will not get the order right.  My older American friend who has been in Korea for many, many years said he never knew you were allowed to change the order, but he thought you were supposed to just order it just as it is on the menu, but the Koreans say it is not normally done, but acceptable, so we try. However, the person taking the order will not listen at McDonald’s. It is just a fact of life.

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Koreans don’t speak to be understood.  Koreans speak to be heard.  They don’t listen to one another, and they don’t expect anyone to listen to them.  The purpose of speaking is not communication in Korea. That lady who called me this morning could care less whether or not I understood anything she said.  She was doing her job. She had a list of numbers to call, and she was calling them and giving her spill, and she didn’t care  whether the phone call did any good or not. Perhaps she was reading something.  I hope when the Koreans read scriptures they think about what they are reading. I hope when they pray, it isn’t just spitting out words.  If I prayed or read that fast, my brain would not be engaged. My oldest son is a D. A., a very important lawyer.  When he was growing up, he had a tendency to speak the way these Koreans do when they read out loud. He wanted to get up in front of people and speak like a machine gun spitting his words like bullets, and I knew no one would follow what he was saying if he spoke that way, so I slowed him down.  Now, he has a good job speaking in front of people everyday. He stands up and argues cases in the courtroom.  If he was still speaking too fast, he wouldn’t get his name in the papers as much as he does for winning court cases. because no one would be able to follow when he spoke.   We need to care about whether people understand what we say, and we need to listen or communication doesn’t take place.


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