Bridging the language barrier

Aqilah Rahman

Fluent in four languages – English, Mandarin, Malay, and Korean – Florence Loh has done various kinds of interpretation work in the country, ranging from a court case to the construction of Sultan Haji Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien Bridge.

For the latter, she interpreted all four languages for engineers from South Korea, the United Kingdom, China, as well as local engineers. “I was there from the construction site until the pillars at sea 40 metres up,” said Flo. Now a full-time Korean tutor, Flo said she’d never expected learning Korean would bring her this far.

Born and raised in Brunei Darussalam, Flo started learning Korean in 2012 when she was studying at Universiti Brunei Darussalam (UBD). She was preparing to study in South Korea as part of her Discovery Year, a study abroad programme for UBD students.

“I thought it would be safer to learn the basics first before I flew there,” she said.

She previously studied Japanese, but after coming back from South Korea, she knew right away that Korean was for her.

After graduating, Flo studied independently and sat for the Test of Proficiency in Korean (TOPIK). She scored an Advanced level grade (certified) then became a freelance interpreter/translator and a Korean tutor, giving online lessons.

Florence Loh started learning Korean in 2012 at Universiti Brunei Darussalam (UBD). PHOTOS: AQILAH RAHMAN
Florence Loh at the National Hangeul Museum in Seoul

“So here I am, creating a strong base for new learners. If their base foundation is strong, they will go up from there,” said Flo. One of her students managed to get a Korean government scholarship and is now in Busan.

Asked what the most effective way to learn Korean is, Flo said it’s different for everyone.

“Personally, the most effective way is to actually put yourself in that environment,” she said. This includes travelling to South Korea alone and meeting the locals. “Just chat with the old ladies at the food market, meet new people, make native friends.”

Speaking is the hardest part, she said. Some learners are hesitant to speak at all because they’re shy and afraid of making mistakes.

“I always tell my students to go out there, make those mistakes. As long as you’re able to say it out in Korean, it is considered a success. That’s the first crucial step.”

Flo recommends getting comfortable speaking in Korean first and then slowly focus on correcting the grammar.

Aside from speaking, exposure to native speakers is also essential for language learning, she said. However, even without that, she believes it’s possible to learn Korean through self-determination, motivation and passion.

She also finds the following effective for her: listening to podcasts, watching dramas, and mimicking the intonation and pronunciation of actors.

Ultimately, it varies for each person, she noted. Some people can pick up things just by watching Korean shows, drama, and YouTube.

As for self-study, she said it’s good but only if you have a steady base. “It’s best to have a professional guide to learn the correct pronunciation at the start instead of correcting it later,” she said.

In terms of study resources, many options are available online, each with a different approach. Some are detailed and structured, while others are more casual and direct. As for her, she prefers to use several resources instead of sticking to one, especially for grammar.

When it comes to learning a language, one particular question often pops up – how long does it take to become fluent?

“I really can’t give a definite answer,” said Flo. “But I can say for sure the more hours you put into it, the faster you will become fluent. The larger your vocabulary bank is,
the better.”

It also depends on how you define fluency, she added. To her, fluency is being able to convey your message successfully to the other person, and that you can understand each other.

“I think that’s fluent enough,” she said. “Not touching on professional areas, just daily life conversation.”

Based on her experience – not studying every day but using the language every day – it took her about five years to become fluent.

“Learning the language is one thing. Knowing the culture is also another helpful way of studying the language. In Korean, there are a lot of honorifics and polite ways to say something.”

It’s a huge time investment, but learning Korean has also opened up many opportunities for her.

“I’ve assisted the Korean Embassy in Brunei for events too, especially when South Korea President Moon Jae-in visited.”

At the time, she worked with the Korean Culture and Information Service, an affiliated organisation of South Korea Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism. She helped in interpreting the South Korean media team when they arrived
in Brunei.

She has also worked with the Consul from the Korean Embassy in Brunei for scheduling the President’s wife Kim Jung-sook’s schedule visit in the Sultanate.

“Learn a new language today, you never know what future lies ahead for you,” added Flo.