Speaking Of Learning The Language

So it's one thing to know the Korean alphabet , but another thing completely to understand the language.    After about a week here I could wander around downtown, reading the signs, and pronouncing the words, but so what?    It was fine with things that already had English names, but were just written in Korean Hangul script.    So, hello to "Pa ri su Ba ge te", but not much practical use beyond that.    Still, the theory went, that if you walked around reading the signs, you'd eventually pick up words by osmosis.

It was a fine theory, for which there was some supporting experimental evidence.    I'd been in non-English countries before, and had always managed to snatch a little ruidmentary grasp of the language needed for tourist survival.    Here it was more than a little different though.    I soon discovered that what makes French, or Spanish, or even German so easy to understand, is that basically, no matter how different, they're all springing from the same sources (Latin, or Greek), or they're just generally Indo-European Languages.    Basically, a reasonably shared vocabulary makes it easy to comprehend, if not speak.    The word 'verde' is Spanish for 'green', and that's fine, since the English word "verdant" implies lots of greenery.    My other favourite (overused) example of this is the spanish word for 'arrow'.    After you've seen 'fleche' in context, it's easy to associate that with the profession of "Fletcher", and without trying, you've learned a new word.    And you soon get the hang of speaking it from just stringing nouns together, and eventually adding the verbs and adjectives much as you would with English.    Three cheers for Indo-European grammar!    Hurrah!

Welcome to Korea.    It's just a tiny bit different.    No one is 100% sure where the Korean langauge originated.    There are vocabulary and grammar similarities with Chinese and Japanese, but that's of very little use to you as an orient-ignorant Westerner, regardless of how many European languages you can say a few phrases in.    This time you're learning an unrelated language, and you're on your own.    Still, in some ways, Korean has a much easier grammar.    For example, it doesn't have articles, nor does it distinguish between singular and plural.    So "shinmun" can mean any of:    "the newspaper", "a newspaper", "newspapers", "some newspapers" or "any newspapers".    That simplifies things more than a little.    Better again, like English, it doesn't assign arbitrary "genders" to the nouns.    No 'le / la', or 'der, die, das' here.    I guess one drawback of this is that it creates a little ambiguity in the language in this regard, but then there are aspects of English that, I'd guess, Koreans would find a little vague.    Like what?    Well, in English, we'd distinguish the emphasis of the sentence, by the pronunciation of the spoken language, or the context of the written words.    In Korean though, you explicitly state whether the subject or the object is most important in the sentence, by appending a particle to the appropriate noun.    It's a little odd to get used to, so I never did - but at least it's there. :)

What really makes Korean difficult is the absence of a common root vocabulary with English.    There are plenty of loan words that have made it across from our language to theirs.    I guess there was no point inventing a new term for PC, or DVD, but apart from those things, it's pretty slim pickings for the native English speaker.    After a while you can start to notice similarities between related words.    This is especially charming when the words don't appear to be related in English; "maek-ju" is beer, "so-ju" is a Korean spirit, "podo-ju" is wine, "bekse-ju" is a rice wine, "dong-dong-ju" is a thick, soup-like, alcohol, and 'o-ship-seju' is a popular drink too.    It's not long until you come to associate the ending "ju" with alcohol.    Totally misleading since Gwangju, Gyeoungju and Gongju are all Korean cities. :-)    Still, sometimes you make the linguistic leap, and it lands you more or less where expected.

Still, there are words that just don't translate well into English, and this is partly what I love about learning a new language, ... seeing what words don't fit into your English-defined thoughts can tell you a little about the culture of the people who developed the language you're studying.    I had a discussion today with a Korean teacher about a word that means "feeling a little sick in the Springtime, and especially sleepy after meals".    I feel sick in the cold, wet, (European) Winter, and feel sleepy after big meals all the time - but my friend was adament that it just applied to Spring.    Thinking back on it, I remember another Korean telling me about always feeling sick in Spring, but I thought she was just a weirdo. ;)   

Another word is "juk-ji-bop", which refers to "a method of covering large distances with small steps".    I asked my Wushu instructor (who's a bit into meditation, tai-chi and other hocus-pocus) about this, and he swore to me that it was possible.    He'd never done it, or seen it done, but he swore to me that it was possible - apparently his instructor had told him he'd seen someone who could do it.    So why aren't these people famous all over the world?    On the face of it, it seems like they can bend space to their will, and change "absolute" distances...    Maybe the type of person who can achieve this just isn't the kind of base ignoble selfseeker who'd be lured by the money?    Real or imagined, it's a word they have and we don't, a concept in their mythology, lacking in ours.

It's not all so esoteric though.    My favourite example is the Korean word "adjumma".    The first time I came across it, a Korean with very broken English was explaining this totally unknown word to me:

Adjumma is woman.    Adjumma is very strong.    Adjumma is very powerful.
I was obviously unenlightened, so eventually it was explained via the dictionary...    What do you think an Adjumma is?    A strong, powerful woman?    The dictionary says: "A married woman".    We'd tend to say "Mrs." for this person, but as the local (unmarried) Korean woman tried to explain, the word "adjumma" means so much more.    A lot that happens in Korea goes on age.    People commonly ask you your age as it'll help them to know where to fit you into the heirarchy of their relationships.    Even for family members, there are different words for "younger brother" and "older brother", and even then, each of those changes depending on whether the sibling using them is male or female!    In short, gender counts, and age counts.    So in our school for example, the person who's been teaching there the longest, is also the person who is oldest.    This would normally mean that she'd be the senior teacher.    Not so.    She's older (35) and unmarried - almost left rotting on the shelf by local standards.    And so the senior teacher in the school has less teaching experience, and is a little younger, but as she so-often says herself - "Yes, but I am adjumma."    Roughly translated: "Show me some respect!"

Today I came across a new one - we were talking in class about the possibility of North Korea invading the south.    Teacher, no.    They is not hurt us.    We are i-san family. Now I told the kid that there was no English word for that - as far as I knew, "ee san" meant "two mountains".    I guess that's a nice description for a nation split down the middle.    A poetic way to describe the North / South divide, a "two mountain family"?    Later I looked it up in the dictionary... yes, "i" is 'two', and 'san' is indeed 'mountain', but ah!, "i-san" means "divided".    Oops!    I guess we do have that concept in English - Interesting derivation of the term though. :-)

Another nice nonsense pasttime is to compare and contrast Korean proverbs and expressions with English equivalents - or to see where no equivalent "folk knowledge" exists...    For example, it'd be pretty easy to think of an English proverb equivalent to the Korean:
"You lie down, and then spit in the sky".
Or with a little more thought, you could probably guess what
"The film stopped"
might mean?    Certainly if I told you it in the context of massive consumption of Korean alcohol?

So yes, it's certainly slow, and potentially painful, but learning Korean can be really rewarding and, I think, worth the effort.    I speak better Korean than any of the ex-pats I know.    Of course, this doesn't mean too much.    "Better than the expats" is roughly akin to saying "Funnier than Shindler's List ", or "Smarter than President Bush" ;-) ... learning Korean is a no-go area for most foreigners here.    I was enthusiastic about it when I arrived, but now I've been here almost seven months, I have to take a hard look at my progress.    I spent roughly the same amount of time in Latin America, and picked up a lot of Spanish - mostly tourist stuff, but by the end I could hold my own in a reasonable conversation.    Plus I was always travelling around, being forced into contact with all sorts of characters, and struggling to make myself understood every day... you couldn't help but learn Spanish.   

Here though, I'm a disaster.    It's much easier to learn Romance Spanish than Korean anyway, but my situation here doesn't help.    I live with a native English speaker.    My firends are all either foreigners, or Koreans who speak English.    Pretty much all the people I work with have decent English.    Plus no matter how much I learn, I'll never catch up to someone who's been speaking my language since elementary school... so what's the point in trying?    You could still force yourself to learn, but at the end of the day, you can get by with a few phrases or a lot less.    Then you tell yourself it's not a world language anyway, and you're only staying here a year, and when are you ever going to use Korean aside from that.. and ....    And before you know it, you've been here half a year and learned next to nothing.

It's sad, but that's just the way it's happened.    Still, I wish I'd made the effort to speak the local language.    I feel like the type of foreigner I've often held in contempt.    Way back when I was writing the rant about water I had a follow-up diary entry in mind.    On the Level II water, the Resivoir Water, there's a sign.    At the time I recognised the characters for "mul", ie. "water", and undernearth there were three bullet-points...    My plan was to do a little dictionary digging and find out exactly what was being said - find out exactly what that water was good and not-so-good for, and use it accordingly.    It'd be a major expat coup to discover we could make Level II water safe simply by boiling it... could it be that simple?    It still could be, but I've no idea.    On a day-to-day basis, it was just easier to bring a bottle to school, drink my fill and take two litres of mineral water home with me every so often...    Everything here has been like that.    Knowing Korean would solve a lot of problems, but there are ways around almost anything with enough Konglish, some handsignals, and a smile.    I've never progressed beyond the basics of Korean, and at this point, I never will.

Still, I can take some solace from the fact that even a sketchy knowledge of Korean helps me to teach my kids a little better.    Koreans have a letter I can't pronounce properly - it sounds half-way between an "l" and an "r".    The flipside of this is that I can understand why my students are always mixing those two letters up.    The same goes for letters like 'p', 'b', 'f', 'v' - Korean just doesn't have as many consonants as we do.    Similarly when I'm teaching them to read the time in English, I make sure that they can distinguish between a watch and a clock - since in Korean the same word serves for both.    Little things like that give me some comfort from my knowledge of their language, and it's always fun to throw in a bit of Korean when the kids aren't expecting it. :-)

On the other hand, I wonder how much any of these kids are learning from attending our english academy.    All we're doing is taking money from their parents, under the pretence of teaching English, but our number one concern is profit.    With some students, and some classes, I feel like I'm making a difference to them, but with most of them?    I met a Korean guy after a mountain hike... he'd driven up to a local lake with his adorable little daughter - she said "hello" in English.    I was as nice as nice could be (trying to scam a spare seat in the car with them).   

Hello.    How old are you?
I'm nine years old.
How are you today?
It's sunny and warm.
She's been attending an expensive english academy for almost two years, besides learning English in school, and this appeared to be the extent of her ability.    Her father said he couldn't really afford the academy, but since all the other parents were sending their kids, he didn't want his daughter to be at a disadvantage, so she goes to English academy too.    It's a waste of time and money for most kids, but the parents seem sucked into it, unable to guage just how much their children aren't learning.   

If you're a Korean parent reading this, all I can suggest is that you take your kids out of an academy, and instead hire an english speaker to come to your home and tutor your kids.    At least they might learn something that way.    For top quality, preferably hire a native english speaker... maybe an Irish guy with a web journal? ;-)    It's entirely a coincidene that the solution I suggest just happens to favour my wallet rather than my boss' :-)

On the other hand, maybe traditional methods work best.    It was once the custom when learning a new language that students here would study their page of vocabulary or grammar or whatever the lesson was, and then when they'd have the information memorised, they'd traditionally rip the page out of the book, roll it up, and eat it.    In this way it was believed that you could digest the knoweldge you'd just consumed and it'd stay inside you.    My kids aren't learning much in the academy - I guess anything's worth a try!   


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