Q: Many North Korean refugees struggle to learn English. Many refugees who drop out of college cite English as a major reason. What was the moment you realized you needed to learn English to adjust to life in South Korea?
Suhyeong, female, arrived in South Korea in 2015
I studied basic English when I was in North Korea, but I feel like a baby at English here. What I learned wasn’t good enough and because there was so much propaganda, I didn’t learn anything useful outside of North Korea. I have been eager to study English here, but because I have three children, it hasn’t been easy, and my experience at a hakwon was not good.
I encountered Konglish shortly after I arrived in South Korea because I was lucky to get a job quickly. But I couldn’t understand so many things that my South Korean co-workers were saying. Sometimes a colleague would ask me to bring something, but I would bring the wrong thing, and they would laugh all day about it. It felt cruel because they would whisper about North Korea, but it did wake me up to the reality that I need English to survive here.
Sung, male, arrived in 2014
There are so many times that I have realized that I needed English. I had studied some English in North Korea, but it seems that I learned everything the wrong way and that my teachers weren’t good. It seems that my pronunciation is so bad, even people who can’t speak very well want to correct me.
When I took an English class at a hakwon in Seoul, I could see there was a big difference between me and native South Koreans, even the beginners were so far ahead of me. When I applied for university here, I needed help with my essay; it was clear that I could not write an essay in English on my own. There have been so many times that I could see that I needed English. I look forward to the day that I can have a deep conversation in English, and that the person can understand my pronunciation.
Jiyeon, female, arrived in 2017
The first moment I thought about trying to learn English was after I escaped to China. I saw many Hollywood movies when I was there; that kind of became my hobby. I became curious about the English in the videos, and it started to feel like English could be something fun.
The second moment I thought about learning English was when I was suffering from depression here in Seoul. I didn’t want to come to South Korea; I got tricked by a man who lied to me. I haven’t been enjoying my life here, I haven’t been active, and I haven’t been making friends. I don’t know what will happen, but for the first time I think there can be a positive change through studying English.
I recently learned that I could study with English speakers willing to teach me 1:1. I fear South Koreans because they are so quick to judge North Korean refugees. I heard from a friend studying with your program that the foreigners don’t judge us, they just want to help. I hope if I can learn English that people can forget about my North Korean accent and just consider me to be a human being.
Casey Lartigue Jr., co-founder of the Teach North Korean Refugees Global Education Center, compiled these statements from interviews with refugees.