Speak Korean, the language of love

SEOUL, South Korea — Language exchanges here are a tried and true way to learn Korean. But some young male expats are saying that’s not all they use them for.

“I’d say most people use it for dating, the Koreans and the foreigners definitely,” said Andrew Kim, a Korean-American English teacher in Seoul. “Most of the friends I know have all dated a girl from [a language exchange website]. I’d say pretty much 100 percent. I never met a guy who said I want to meet this girl just to learn Korean.”

For those with a predilection for the local women, Kim says language exchanges are the perfect way to play the field and meet “open-minded” females.

“I’m no Casanova, but I’ve had several one-night-stands from [language exchanges]," he said.

An American English-teacher recruiter here who asked to go by just “Lee” due to the sensitivity of the subject (many Korean men begrudge cross-national romance) described a similar experience.

He has engaged in five different language exchanges, and like Kim, they have all been with young, attractive Korean women, he said.

“It’s a good way to meet girls. I wasn’t too worried about learning Korean,” Lee said, adding that he doesn’t “even really know Hangul [the easy-to-learn Korean alphabet],” despite his year-long stay here.

The two Americans rank among more than 22,000 other foreigners who work in the English-teaching industry in South Korea. And with a language-hungry population that faces pricey school costs, these opportunists say there is no shortage of eager study partners — who may or may not have purely academic intentions.

Kim and Lee say they organize their steamy study sessions through various language exchange websites, such as hanlingo.com, mylanguageexchange.com or iaminkorea.com. On those sites, the two bachelors connect with girls who meet their dating standards. Usually, the websites have profiles, which, crucially to Kim and Lee, include a picture.

Many profiles state that in addition to language exchanges, the site members are looking for friendship or culture exchanges. Often, they convey a desire for casual conversational meetings, rather than structured academic lessons.

Some women’s profiles include a no-boyfriend clause, requesting female partners only or emphasizing their exclusively scholastic intentions.

A few of the sites even have an outright “interested in dating” option, blurring the lines between a dating and language-exchange website. The vast majority of the language exchange websites are free, though a couple have deluxe options you can pay for along with standard free membership.

As a testament to how well-recognized the dual purpose of language exchanges is in Korea, The EV Boyz, an expat boyband here, made a popular music video about the topic:

“I’ll be the subject to your predicate,” sings the song’s protagonist about the fictional Korean girlfriend named “A-E.”

In the ditty we learn that A-E has to be home at 10 p.m., and the protagonist never meets her family because “Daddy doesn’t like wheyguks." ("Wheyguk" is Korean for foreigner.)

That last lyric alludes to some Korean male’s resentment of romance between foreign men and Korean women. In the eyes of many Korean men, promiscuous foreigners, exploiting the appeal of their exotic looks and culture, seduce unsuspecting Korean women only to ditch the damsels later on.

Such animosity culminated in the creation of the “Anti-English Spectrum,” a 17,000-member organization dedicated to hunting down delinquent foreign-born English teachers. Following an onslaught of bad press the group has since changed its name to “Citizens for Right Education.”

But despite the suspicions of many Korean men, not all foreigners arrange language exchanges with intent to dally, said John Woods, a college English professor here.

Woods says he has a sincere desire to improve his Korean in the study sessions, with the attractiveness of the teachers simply a plus.

“I just typically want to learn Korean from Korean girls because they’re prettier," Woods said. "Not that I’m sexist, it’s just that I’m a guy.”

He suggested the relationships that develop out of language exchanges usually do so in mostly an organic way.

“There’s a time period, no matter what you’re doing, you have a short attention span for an hour or two and afterwards you develop an appetite and then you go out for dinner,” he said.
Woods says language exchanges have helped his Korean a lot because he takes them seriously, preparing questions and bringing materials to class.

However, others say the exchanges aren’t academically productive in the least. Kim and Lee say the meetings have done virtually nothing for their Korean. A complete dearth of linguistic ability on the one hand (typical of foreign students) matched with usual proficiency on the other (typical of Korean students) constitutes a dynamic not so conducive to learning, they say.

Patrick Brown, another English teacher in Seoul, said that none of his language exchanges have significantly improved his Korean and at one point he “got the distinct impression” a certain partner wanted to date.

“She spoke really good English. She’d lived in the States for a couple of years, she didn’t need to learn anything,” he said.

Indeed, guys aren’t the only ones with a game plan, says Amy Kim, an avid Korean traveler who preferred to go by her English first name because “especially the Korean guys really hate the ladies that want to just meet white guys.”

Amy got to know her boyfriend through a language exchange.

For her the rationale was simple:

“‘So you’re living in Korea and I’m very interested in learning English, so why don’t we study together?’”

A month later she and her former study-partner were dating.

“He’s cute and sexy, so how can I avoid a guy like that?” she said.

“Some of my friends just want to do the language exchange to meet a white guy or whatever foreigner,” she said. “Maybe they just try to have like a new experience… because they’re [foreigners] more liberal and look different.”

Lee agrees with that sentiment, emphasizing both parties aren’t “clueless.” “Neither side is dumb, they know what’s going on,” he said. “Why have a photo on [a language exchange website profile] if you’re just trying to meet up for a language exchange?”