The problem with languages is that they can’t be learned overnight. At best it takes at least a few weeks before a student can master the basis of a language and pronounce words at a reasonable level. However, when arriving in a new country, you need to be able to speak from day one, so learning some of the language before you arrive can be very helpful.
When you first arrive in Korea, the Korean alphabet can seem so alien and incomprehensible that doing anything seems impossible. Luckily, learning the alphabet is easy and can even be done on the flight to Korea so if you are reading this article in the airport whilst waiting for your flight to Incheon then don’t panic. The alphabet may at first look like a bunch of random squiggles, but it is actually very logical and uses simple shapes like lines and circles so can be learned in a few hours. Try learning it in just ninety minutes here (https://www.90daykorean.com/learn-korean-alphabet). Once you have learned the alphabet then this unlocks the rest of the language, from pronunciation to learning new words by reading signs. Once you can read, you will never pronounce ‘Seoul’ as ‘See-ole’ again. Also, by just noticing place names in Korean you can start to build up a mental map of your neighborhood quickly so you won’t feel so disorientated.
During your first few days in Korea you will likely need to take a taxi and order food in a restaurant. Learning the basics for these two tasks will go a long way towards making your first week easier. Learn the words for ‘left’, ‘right’, ‘school’, ‘station’, ‘pull-over please’ etc. and suddenly taking a taxi will be a lot less daunting. This, combined with the ability to read Korean and therefore take the bus, opens up the whole of the country to you. Without it, you are limited to spending your time in areas that are near a subway station. Once you have mastered using a taxi, work on ordering bus tickets at the bus terminal and you will be able to travel to areas not accessible by trains. Most people who visit Korea only see the standard tourist sites but those who can speak Korean can get off the beaten track and visit places such as Andong and Ulleungdo that are beautiful and unique but tough to reach.
Unless you want to spend your first month in Korea eating KFC and McDonalds, then being able to order food is vital. One of the best things about Korea is its wide variety of foods, and if you are unable to order foods then you are selling yourself short. Learning food through translation can be difficult, so learn some basic words such as rice, pig, cow, water, beer etc. and then try to learn the food through pictures and detailed descriptions of the ingredients, this can be done by looking through Korean foods on Wikipedia for example. Choose the ones that appeal to you and memorize their names, then ask Koreans where you can find somewhere that serves that food. The actual process of eating the food will reinforce your memory. Once you know a few types of food, learn some basic restaurant phrases. Also make sure you learn how to ask where the bathroom is. In fact, learn that phrase (hwa-jang-shil odi-eh-yo?) before you even learn how to say ‘hello’. Often the bathrooms are not inside the restaurant so can’t be found without asking (or they require a key which you will be given if you just ask where the bathroom is).
Another reason to learn Korean before coming to Korea is that counterintuitively the longer you have been in the country, the less you will need your Korean skills for survival. For example, once you know where the subway station is, you don’t need to ask ‘where is the subway station?’ Some things like setting up a bank account require a high level of Korean, but once a bank account is set up, using the ATM is easy (especially if you press the ‘English’ button). As a result, learning the basics before you come to Korea gives you a much better chance of actually using the basics than if you learn them later on.
If you want to learn Korean to a high level, then speaking Korean with Korean friends is a must. However, if you can’t speak Korean then most of the friends you will make will be non-Korean speakers or Koreans who speak another language well. This makes it difficult to increase your Korean speaking time as the dynamic of your relationship with your friends will be one where Korean is rarely spoken. Once people make a friendship group, they often don’t change it, so you can find yourself stuck in a situation where you live in Korea but spend all your time not speaking Korean. If you can already speak Korean then you can make friends with Koreans who wish to speak Korean instead of English. This will give you more chances to practice, which will help you improve your Korean. Speaking to Koreans in Korean gives you a deeper insight into Korean culture, for example the hierarchical system is far more apparent in Korean conversations than when the same people speak in a different language. Such a large amount of the Korean culture and way of thinking is lost in translation that foreigners who cannot speak Korean often end up with a completely different view of the country from those who can speak Korean.
Speaking Korean will also allow you to live an easier life in general. If you can speak Korean then you can get food delivered to your house when it is cold or raining (or you want a lazy night in), you can ask for food that you actually like rather than just pointing and hoping for the best. You can ask shopkeepers if they have any extra stock in the back or ask baristas to watch your bag while you go to the bathroom. If you wait until you arrive before you start learning Korean then you will feel like you have wasted an opportunity. Languages take a long time to master so the sooner you start learning the better.