Things that still throw me off (re: English communication in Korea)

1. “I see” as a response.

In Korean, you can use “알았어” (alasseo) to mean “Gotcha” or “Okay, sounds good” or “okay, I acknowledge and acquiesce with what you’re saying,” whereas in English (at least in my experience), “I see” as a response to someone typically has a connotation of “I’m uninterested” or “I get what you’re saying but I don’t approve/I don’t care” or “I’m annoyed with your words. Let’s end this conversation.”

So when Koreans say or text “I see” to me, I can’t help feeling strange at first, like, Did I annoy them? Was what I said boring? WHAT’S GOING ON HERE? Then I remember that in their minds, it’s the equivalent of 알았어, a.k.a. “oh, gotcha” or “sounds good!”

2. Misuse of the word “embarrassed.”

I’m not 100% sure, but I guess the Korean translation for “embarrassed” is a word that includes connotations of “shocked/surprised,” or “taken aback/caught off guard” – things that have nothing to do with feeling humiliated, mortified, or ashamed, all of which are certainly synonyms of “embarrassed” in English.

Therefore, I’ve had several instances where, after explaining an unexpected situation to a Korean acquaintance, they respond with “I think you were embarrassed.” And even though I now kind of know what they mean, it still throws me off, like Wait… why would I be embarrassed? Did I do something embarrassing? Should I be humiliated right now? I actually question my behavior for a second before I remember it’s a translation issue.

3. Misuse of the word “maybe.”

“Maybe” is supposed to mean “possibly,” “it might be,” “potentially,” right? Well, not in Korea. People say “maybe” but they mean “definitely / you must / you should / it will happen.” As in, “Maybe you will teach this class” means “You WILL teach this class, and you don’t have a choice.” “Maybe you will come with me” means “Come with me now.” “Maybe he is not at school today” means “Yeah, he’s definitely absent.” I still sometimes hear the “maybe” and think it means “maybe” (silly me), then realize (perhaps minutes or hours later) that it wasn’t a “maybe” at all.

(A somewhat related misuse is “You should.” For some reason, some Koreans seem to use “should” when they mean “must / have to,” like “I think you should come to the meeting” might actually mean “you must come to the meeting.” Or “You should teach a 3-day camp” probably means “You have to teach a 3-day camp.” I’m not quite sure why this happens. It’s not everyone, but just some people.)

4. Incorrect question syntax.

Countless times I’ve been caught off-guard by conversations like this:

Co-teacher: “You are doing XYZ.”

Me: “Oh, okay.”

Co-teacher: “You are?”

Me: “Oh, I don’t know!”

Co-teacher: “I don’t know either; I am asking you!”


Students: “Teacher, [XYZ Korean Teacher] is more than 30 years old.”

Me: “Oh, more than 30?”

Students: “OH! TEACHER, REALLY?”

Me: “Wait… what? Nonono, I don’t know! I thought you knew!”

To ask a question in Korean, you simply use a rising intonation with your statement (e.g. “There is a meeting” and “Is there a meeting?” uses the same words, but you make your voice higher at the end for the question). We do this in English too sometimes, but I think we use certain facial expressions or tones to make it clear that it’s a question.

Since the question format of starting with the verb (“Do you / Are you / Is she” etc.) is more complicated, I find some Koreans just use rising intonation to ask questions in English – but when they do it, it’s barely noticeable (to me at least!). Thus it ends up sounding like a statement, leading to much confusion for everyone involved.

Communication is an endless quest (or struggle, depending on the day). The end.


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