Saturday, December 6, 2008

On speaking (or not speaking) Korean

Everyone told me that I would learn Korean so fast once I came here and I was surrounded by the language all the time. This is the common misconception of people who don't live abroad and people who go abroad to actually study a language. I'd like to think that if I really were surrounded by Korean all the time, then I would pick it up very fast, but the reality of my life here is that my actual contact with non-English speaking Koreans is minimal and I have to really put in a lot of effort to grasp even a basic understanding of the language.

At our hagwon, we're not encouraged to learn Korean at all. In fact we're really supposed to keep up the English environment. Sometimes I cheat and let my kids try to teach me a word in Korean, and most of my classes have figured out that I do know some basic Korean because sometimes I'll answer their question, even though they may ask a friend in Korean, or because sometimes if they want to romanize a Korean word I'll ask them to write the hangul and I'll romanize it for them. Certain words stick out in head when I hear them talk. I don't think I'll ever forget words like sonsaengnim (teacher) and yompil (pencil), since I hear them all the time. Sometimes my students will quiz me on my Korean. Usually I don't let them play this little game, A) because it usually means they are trying to get out of doing classwork and B) because I like to let them think that I know more than I do so they don't try to get away with anything in Korean. But, on the rare occasion that I do let them play this game they are always amazed by the fact that I can speak Korean. "Woowww! Teeeeacher!!", then they will keep asking me questions until my ignorance of the language is fully demonstrated.

Even outside of school, though, the skills I do have in Korean are rarely used. We're all experts at ordering food of course... that doesn't take much skill. I do find it incredibly useful to be able to read the hangul since so many Korean food restaurants do not have a bilingual menu. I don't know how so many foreigners get by without even learning the alphabet. My technique for finding what I want on the menu is searching by the last syllable. Rice dishes usually end in the word bap (rice) and noodle dishes usually end in the word myon (noodle). Other words I look out for are jjigae and donkasu... the other foods I usually eat. Ordering is easy because you can just say one of this and one of that... add on chuseyo to the end to make it a full sentence, but not even the Koreans always say that.

When I go out shopping, I get to use my Korean a little more, but in many places they speak a little English... or at least know their numbers. Sadly, because numbers are one thing I'm ok at understanding. I get frustrated when they only speak English, because I hate being treated as a stupid tourist. But, on the flip side, I get frustrated when they don't speak a word of English because I can't understand what they are telling me.

I always get asked where I'm from, and when I answer them back in Korean they kind of jump in surprise. I guess there are so few foreigners that bother to learn, or at least bother to speak it with English speaking shop owners that they are so impressed. Even by saying thank you and hello and good bye gets a wow out of them. I think that they don't understand why foreigners bother to learn Korean, so when someone even puts a little effort into it, they are quite taken aback.

I guess I can understand that. Why would anyone learn Korean? I mean, obviously I want to, but of all the languages in the world its probably one of the least helpful. The Korean peninsula is probably the size of Georgia... maybe a little bigger. Spanish is spoken throughout all of Latin America, not to mention all the immigrants in the US. But more than just that, I think that Spanish is used by many peoples and cultures. Korean is spoken by Koreans. They are more than just a country, they are a nation. I guess it is a nation state by my political geography terms. It's not a world power, like China. It has no "cool" factor like Japanese. Does Korea have any cultural exports? None that I can think of. So... why learn it? Well... the jury is still out on that one for me. The only reason I have is just a personal challenge.

Anyway, I'm going to keep working at it. Maybe some day I'll be able to have a real conversation. That's my goal. I'm getting there. I know past present and future tense and I have some good, useful verbs under my belt. Next I need to start focusing on nouns because I'm severely lacking in that area. I'll keep you updated on my progress...

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