Mokpo Language Exchange: Speaking and Sharing Together

Photos courtesy of Mokpo Language Exchange

Mokpo residents have an excellent communications resource at the North Town Café, in Hadang, behind Formo Cube. Every Wednesday evening, the Mokpo Language Exchange is available for both Korean and international residents to meet and enjoy each other’s company, teach, practice, and learn their languages of expertise. This bridges barriers that occur if different people groups do not interact with each other.

Current Korean group members communicate through Facebook about the group’s discussion points and activities before attending, while current international group residents invite other interested international friends to attend. Kelsey Rivers, Gwangju News’ print editor, is an international two-year participant and enjoys what the group offers.

Rivers explained that the Language Exchange’s time is divided into two parts. Before participants meet, a topic and associated discussion questions are posted earlier in the week for Korean and international participants to consider individually. When they gather at 8 p.m., the group talks in English about the topic and answers the questions for one hour. Then at 9 p.m., the group switches languages, from English to Korean, for the next hour. The format from 9 to 10 p.m. is slightly modified, for high-level international learners to discuss a topic using Korean, while low-level international learners are partnered one-on-one with a Korean to work through a Korean textbook.

Rivers joined the group soon after moving to Korea. “I wanted a safe, non-judgmental space to practice Korean, since I didn’t have access to a Korean classroom.” Rivers stayed in the group not just to learn Korean, but also because of her growing relationships with both the Korean and international residents in the group. “I love this group because of the friends I get to hang out with each week … and this group is also an interesting way to learn about many diverse cultures.”

Lee Shinae, one of the group’s founding members, said that her English ability was very low when she first started attending. However, she was determined to learn, because she desired to travel and did not want communication limitations while exploring. Over time, the group helped her to improve her English dramatically, and she has made lifelong friends.

Rivers has learned how important offering hospitality to others is in this group setting. “There are times when a newbie will sit there quietly, not say a word, and then never come back to another meeting. But if [I] go up and talk to that person, give them the opportunity to find their voice and make a connection, then they will come back and be more confident the next time. We have the power to help others feel more confident in their language ability, which is awesome.” While participating, Rivers has also observed changes among group members. “We have learned to be more sensitive to other cultures, to not be judgmental and to be better listeners.”

The Mokpo Language Exchange also enjoys “second round” drinks and/or noraebang singing sessions after their meetings, as well as gatherings for parties and social events. “We also have a yearly Christmas party, a sports day and a summer weekend trip. These activities keep the group feeling very tight-knit,” Rivers said.

Lee’s advice to Koreans desiring to learn English is to first make a friend with an international resident and then to keep communicating with that friend, no matter how difficult it may be. For the longest time, she didn’t notice a difference in her ability, until one day she was trying to text her friend, but she got impatient, so she just called her friend instead and had the conversation in English, over the phone. Speaking in a different language over the phone, and having it be a successful conversation, is one of the hardest things to do. It was at this point that she realized that she had improved so much.

Rivers sees promise in the group’s growth and progress. Even with the number of international residents of Mokpo coming and going constantly, Rivers mentioned that the group has learned to navigate through these fluctuations. She added that the primary Korean group leaders of Mokpo, who stay and participate in this group, provide the best support. Because of these consistent Korean members, Rivers knows the Exchange Group will continue going strong for many years to come.

Interested Korean residents can search for “Mokpo Language Exchange” on Facebook. For anyone with any more questions, they can contact either Lee Shinae or Kelsey Rivers, the group’s Korean and international representatives.

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