South Korea is another popular tourist destination in the far east, receiving well over 10 million tourists each year, over half a million of them Americans. But is English widely spoken there and can you expect to get by there without speaking Korean?
English is not very widely spoken in South Korea overall, although you will have better luck in the capital Seoul, where there will be more English speakers in the main tourist areas. Outside of the capital you will have a harder time finding locals confident in speaking English, though they are friendly people and will help out as best they can.
Actual statistics on the number of English speakers in South Korea is difficult to find, but in broad terms the situation there seems very similar to Japan, where the population are taught English in some schools, but are very reluctant to actually practice it in spoken form. They can read and write it much better than they can speak it, and overall fluency among the general population is still quite low.
That said, just like Japan, visitors there report that the language barrier and the lack of English will not stop you getting around. Many people take short stays there with no Korean and still manage to get by with a little bit of pointing, gesturing, and help from hotel staff. Some people even report staying there for several years with no problems knowing hardly any Korean.
How to Get by in Seoul
The vast majority of English speaking tourists will go to the capital Seoul, which is good since this is where you will find the most English speakers. Staff in all the main hotels will all speak decent English, as will some younger people you meet on the street. Like the Japanese though, some South Koreans get scared and shy of being approached and asked to speak English and some may run off!
Similarly, you should be fine in bigger shops and department stores – staff will usually speak at least basic English or be able to call over someone who does. Restaurants are a mixed bag, but many have pictures on their menus anyway so you can just point at what you want to order if need be. Sometimes menus are in English as well, though not always.
The major tourist spots in Seoul, like Insadong, Myeongdong and Hongdae also have information centers to help out any tourists who are stuck or lost, with all the staff there speaking English. These are the go-to place if you are not sure where you need to go. Tourist attractions will also have descriptions in English as well as Korean.
For getting taxis, drivers will rarely speak English so it is always a good idea to keep your hotel card to give to the driver, and also get the hotel staff to write down the destinations of where you want to go in Korean to give to the driver to avoid any confusion. The signage around the capital is very good though, often being in English as well as Korean.
The metro system in Seoul can be a little more tricky, often being reported as being OK but not quite as tourist friendly as the ones in Tokyo for example. The exit guides there are reported to sometimes be a little unhelpful regarding which stops tourists should get off at. There are however some excellent tourist bus services which can also help you get around.
As with Japan, it is always a good idea in Seoul to have Google Maps and Google Translate at the ready on your phone in case you do run into any problems and are struggling to converse with the locals in spoken English. They will have a better chance of understanding written English and are not so confident in speaking it so always have this option available.
Any tourists who decide to venture outside of Seoul will likely struggle to find many English speakers at all, and will have to rely even more on the stereotypical tourist miming and gesturing, together with a few basic phrases and some phone apps to help get by.
Why is English Still so Rare in South Korea?
The reason why the prevalence of English speakers is still quite low in South Korea again boils down to exactly the same reason we found for Japan – English is taught in schools there but in a very dry theoretical way and students never get the chance to practice English verbally to become truly proficient at speaking it.
Just as with the Japanese Government then, the South Korean government are ploughing money into educating their youngsters in English, but in a way that is never going to truly allow most of them to be good enough to converse in it on a day to day level.
Most of the learning is written and vocabulary based, with some simple written tests but little in the way of regular verbal practice. As a result, when a South Korean is approached by a tourist hoping to engage in English, they will often shy away even if they have been taught it, for fear of their pronunciation or grammar being wrong.
They get so little chance to practice it in daily life unless they are working in tourism or hospitality. In this way the few people who are competent in spoken English there are the ones who are forced to use it regularly because of where they work. Nothing beats practical use and so downtown Seoul is the number one place to find English speakers in South Korea.
Some Basic Korean Phrases
It will be really helpful to know some basic Korean phrases to help you get by there, even just to introduce yourself to the locals before asking for help. People of all nationalities always appreciate tourists making an effort with the local language, however small. Here are some of the more common words.
|English||Pronounced in Korean as|
|Do you speak English?||Yon-guh haseh-o?|
|Please talk slower||Chon-chon hee malsum-heh chu-seh-yo|
|Where is......?||.........Oh-di iss-oyo? (say location first)|
|Where is the railway station?||Chihahchol-yuk oh-di Iss-oyo?
|Where is the bathroom?||Hwadangshil oh-di Iss-oyo?
|I need a doctor||Ooi-sa pil-yo-heyo
|Please call me a taxi||Tek-shi bul-loh juseyo|
|Please take me to.....||..........oo-rahh ka-juseyo|
|How much is it?||Olma eh-yo?|
|Check/bill please||Kehsan-heh juseyo
|Do you accept credit cards?||Kadoo pad-ooh-sehyo?
- Essential stats on South Korea:
- Population: 51.8 million
- Time zone: EST +14 hours; GMT +9 hours.
- Currency: Korean Republic won (KRW) ($1 = 1315 KRW; £1= 1556 KRW at time of writing)
- International calling code: +82 (see here for getting a working local SIM card/number when abroad)
- Drives on the right
- You can also get a pocket Korean phrasebook to take around with you here.
- See here for a popular travel guide for visiting South Korea. See here for a guide specifically for the capital Seoul.
And then some practical essentials:
- Luggage allowances – see here for an excellent guide on luggage allowances (checked and cabin) for all major airlines worldwide.
- Banking – If you don’t want to get stung with high ATM fees, check out our article on the Wise Borderless Card, which allows you to open up balances in many different currencies (including South Korean Won) and spend for free on your card.
- SIM Cards – If you’d rather not be messing about with physical SIM cards, E-SIMs (digital SIM cards) are now available. If your phone is unlocked and E-SIM compatible, you can take advantage of Airalo‘s cheap, data only (no calls/texts) E-SIM cards, available for 200 countries, which you can download to your phone. With customized cheap E-SIM packages tailored for your data needs and length of stay. Click here to view Airalo’s E-SIMs now (almost all countries covered). Pay for what you need, for how long you need – no getting ripped off with tourist SIM cards and roaming charges.