Language-exchange cafes and groups promote cross-cultural understanding
Ross Kang didn’t see a future as an industrial parts buyer at LG. What he really enjoyed doing was learning English with native speakers, but couldn’t find comfortable places to conduct the meetings. So Kang left his stable job to create a business based on that experience. The first Culture Complex language and culture exchange cafe opened in 2005 and the CEO hasn’t looked back.
“Foreigners, especially ones who just got to Korea, know little about Korea and they need help,” says the 35-year-old. “Lots of foreigners get help from other foreigners, but it’s not enough.
“They want to practice Korean and there are lots of Koreans who want to help and in turn want to practice English. We just provide a place for Koreans and foreigners to exchange languages so they can help each other.”
With a constantly rotating community of expats employed as English teachers or in other international businesses here in Korea, the pool of foreign language nationals in Seoul and the surrounding areas is a vast resource for introducing different cultures to Koreans. The international population has grown significantly in the past five years, according to recent reports.
Last year the Ministry of Justice reported the non-Korean population at a high of 1.4 million, roughly 3 percent of the population. Predictions show the number of foreigners will triple by 2050.
As the English language has also become the de facto world language, learning it has become almost a necessity for many Koreans.
“Our country doesn’t have any natural resources, so we have to import everything,” Kim Hyo-soo, an import-export shipping manager, says. “Unless we export, our country could go bankrupt soon. In order to export, we must speak English. I think that’s why we need English and it’s definitely a good thing to learn another language.”
That need is what Ross Kang banked his business model on. And his idea has paid off. Kang said the business started turning a profit after the first month. After successfully opening the first Culture Complex in southern Seoul, Kang and his partners decided to open other cafes in and around Seoul. There are now seven cafes in total including ones in both Bundang and Incheon. Koreans pay a membership fee of 90,000 won per month, but it’s free for non-Koreans.
On a Wednesday evening at the Culture Complex Bundang branch south of Seoul in Seongnam City, many language partners are busy studying together.
Language exchange partners Jacob Porter and Lee Yang-gung (Yonhap News)
Jacob Porter, a 23-year-old American who teaches English near Bundang is paired up with 23-year-old Lee Yang-gung. “I think the Koreans who go to the cafe benefit more from the language exchange because they pay for it,” says Porter, who has only been going to the cafe a little over a month. “But there are times now where I’ll be in a group of Koreans or in an elevator where I understand some Korean.” In contrast Lee, who’s been going for three months, says, “my English has improved a little.”
Kim Hyo-soo is also involved with language exchange but has had more success with setting up his own meetings. Although Kim said he would be interested in going to Culture Complex, he doesn’t think the payment system is fair. “The cafe gives the opportunity for both foreigners as well as Koreans to learn something new, so I think both should be charged,” he says.
But besides cafes, there are also numerous other opportunities for language exchanges. Some like Kim set up one-on-one exchanges, others join informal groups or ones promoting cultural activities.
Mannam International is a volunteer organization that brings together expats and Koreans. Ham Eun-jou, their press liaison, says volunteering with them “allows foreigners in Korea the opportunity to serve the community in which they find themselves, while meeting international friends and learning about different cultures.” It was only started last year but has already hosted various events from planting produce on Korean farms to preserving oak trees on Bukansan. They also have language classes for not only English but also Chinese, Russian and Spanish.
“Through the work that Mannam does we hope to reach far further than to only those who are living in Korea,” says Ham.
Obtaining a more global viewpoint is one of the reasons why language exchange is so popular. But as for which nationality benefits the most is still in question. “From my experience, even if foreigners live in Korea, it’s not easy to improve Korean because Koreans always want them to speak English,” says Kim.
“Besides, since we have been studying English for a long time, our English is better than their Korean, so, many times it’s more comfortable to talk in English to each other.”
Kang does say that learning about different cultures still has incidents of misunderstanding or misinterpretation. “Many foreigners come to our cafes to meet friends and learn Korean, but sometimes they fall in love with Korean girls and ask them out,” says Kang. That’s where he says the cultural differences really come out because sometimes the Korean women aren’t sure if it’s OK to hold hands or what to do if their male date puts their arm around them.
“They understand that there’s a cultural difference but they ask me, ‘What should I do? He did something, is it normal?’” says Kang. “But Korean girls are shy and not used to speaking out so I just tell them that if they don’t like something to just tell the guys. After that I think they’re OK with it.”