In my experience, it isn't hard to find a Korean person who speaks English at a decent level, in Seoul. Some with a strong Korean accent, some could pass for an "international Asian" (as I heard some people say... whatever that means).
Spending a couple of days in Busan, I observed this isn't much the case. Sure, most of them could understand the most common words used like, "smoking" (for smoking area) or "hot" (for the beverage). But in most of my encounters, they're more likely to speak Japanese than English.
But even in Seoul, most of those who are quite versed in English, still show a bit of struggle when communicating verbally. A couple of pauses, hesitation, bad grammar, or what I dreaded most-- Konglish. But I'm used to it. So being in Busan and noticed English isn't as popular, should I meet someone who can speak [even just a little] English, my expectations weren't high (yes, it's presumptuous-- sue me!).
With such low expectations, it does impress me whenever I meet someone who can converse in English. What surprises me most is when they do, they do it well. They can construct a complete sentence without pauses or the need to think for a couple of seconds before verbalizing. On top of that, they don't have a hard accent. To me, it is refreshing to hear locals who speak the language at an international level. Just how it's supposed to be.
With my new found fondness of the people of Busan, I give compliments to everyone I converse with in English. I am honestly enthusiastic about it. Sort of paying back the compliments I get whenever I speak Korean. Back then, even when I struggle and could only come up with a single sentence, funny grammar and funny pronunciation included, I still get the "Hangeugmal chalhae!" comment. This time I give it back and I meant it. It is well received too! I always get a bow and a "thank you" in return. This makes me a happy visitor.
What bothers me though, is when there are fellow Filipinos around. For four times I happen to be near a group of Filipinos when I praised a Korean for his/her good English, I got the weird looks and snickers, along with some murmurs and whispering while staring and laughing. The worst was the last one as the comments were deliberately told loud enough for me to hear.
At a coffee shop...
Me: Is there a smoking room here?
Attendant waves at the tables outside.
Me: Just outside?
Attendant: Not all the tables outside. You can see on the left, there's a separate section. That's where ashtrays are available and you can smoke there.
Me: Oh, I see. Wow! Your English is really good!
Filipinos: English is good daw, o. (A sarcastic remark by mocking the phrase).
Attendant: (smiles and bows) Why, thank you.
Me: You said everything well. And you sound like Gummy (A Korean pop star. I was talking about her talking voice as it's a little husky, like Joss Stone).
Attendant: Gummy? Wow. Thank you.
Filipinos: Naku! Pasipsip ka pa. Di mo rin mailalabas 'yan. (What a nose browner. You can't take her out on a date anyway).
Attendant: Have a good day, sir.
I ignored the comments as I don't really want to be bothered that much. But what pissed me off was when I had to deal with them for a couple more hours. They happen to be on the City Bus Tour that was in. And I overheard their attempt to speak English (loudly, I should add) so pathetic, it hurts my ears. No, it's not good at all. The strong and distinct Pinoy accent, the bad grammar, and the fact that they weren't dumbing it down to communicate with a Korean. They were talking amongst themselves!
This may be just a chain of special instances as I do know Filipinos can be reliable when it comes to the English language. I'm Filipino myself, and I know I'm fluent. But I'm talking about setting standards. The way we learn English in the Philippines is different from Korea. And here in Korea, since they learn the language mostly at a later age than Pinoys do, it takes a lot for them to do it well. It takes to get into private schools and more studying than we do. And despite all the hard work, sometimes it just doesn't stick to some of them. To me, it's unfair to set standards so high and expect the locals to be fluent when they attempt to speak the language. The fact that this particular attendant spoke better than my nearby kababayans, shows me that she's one of the few who truly made through her classes. She has done well and deserves the appreciation.
But of course when it comes to Filipinos, my expectations are very high. More so, when they boast about it or mock the ones who struggle with it. We get exposed to the English language as soon as we learn to talk. Our alphabet says it all. So when a Filipino boasts or mocks yet unable to deliver, it really gets on my nerves. I can forgive the accent. I don't mind the "uhms" and "ahms" or even an occasional bad grammar or wrong pronunciation. After all, it's not our first language. However, I do not feel the need to acknowledge if a fellow Pinoy is fluent. Saying, "Wow, you speak good English!" to a kababayan is just like saying, "Wow, you can talk." Again, it's a matter of setting standards.