If only I had my own Babel fish…

This is kind of old news, but I’ve quit my Korean classes. It was a minor scandal. As happens occasionally, my seemingly innocent decision to bow out was met with a touch of offense. But I managed to talk things out and (I think) things are okay.

It wasn’t so much the teacher or the class, but rather that the whole thing was in Korean. I mean the whole class; no English was spoken. So I never knew what the topic of the day was and I never knew what I was learning. It felt more like an intermediate class than a beginning class. I was lost and frustrated and not learning much.

I’m thinking of this now because I was talking about this frustration with my assistant a while back. Remembering this conversation, he just now gave me a present: a beginning Korean language book, in English. And this got me thinking about learning languages in general. Korea is, of course, obsessed with English. But ask any foreigner (and many Koreans) and they’ll tell you that the teaching approach is way off. Students learn vocabulary and take tests. What they should learn is conversation and writing. Communication is about interacting using a familiar code; and codes include nuance that can’t be judged in an exam. As a result, students seem terrified of trying because it feels like they’re being graded on precision.

As for learning Korean, there seems to be a focus on small talk. How’s the weather? What’s your favorite color? What does your father do for a living? These are all fine questions, but I’ll never ask them. What I need to know is Who’s in charge? What time is the next bus to Hadong? I’m getting off here but my friend is going to the next block. I guess this all sounds overly practical and cold. Maybe it has something to do with cultural differences. Koreanness is more about getting along and feeling comfortable where as Americanness is more about personal logistics.

I do most of my Korean speaking in two places: in a taxi and at a restaurant. I’ve gotten decent at both (although many times I’ve wondered what exactly will come to my table after I’ve ordered). The reason is that this is where I absolutely must use it. I can’t imagine needing (or even wanting) to recall what my favorite color is in conversation. Thankfully, this book that my assistant just gave me is full of practical stuff. I plan to put it to good use.

Incidentally, sometimes I get into a car with a Korean friend and he’ll have an English language CD playing. I love these because they’re hilarious. “Hey Dan, how’s it going?” “Not bad, Steve. How’s the world treating you?” “Can’t complain.” I don’t know… if my Korean friend ever started talking to me like this I’d ask him if he was feeling all right. I’ve heard others that are better and they get me thinking about the strangeness of the English language. “She sells seashells down by the seashore.” “She sells them.” In the first sentence, the nouns are important so they get the emphasis. In the second, the verb is what’s important. If you emphasized the verb in the first and the object in the second, it sounds funny.

What else? It’s Friday. I’ve got a bit of a cold, but I’m going out anyway. This promises to be a week of stimulating visual illumination fun. Tonight is a laser show on the beach and then tomorrow is the big event: apparently the biggest fireworks display in all of Asia. I’ll be sure to bring the Lumix.

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One Response to “If only I had my own Babel fish…”

  1. Your Korean language class sounds exactly like ESL classes here in America. The teacher can’t speak all the languages of his/her students, so it is all in the language you are learning – a crash course. It’s not like taking a foreign language in your native country. Eventually they teach you how to shop for stuff, order in a restaurant, take a bus, go to a hospital, etc. You should hang in there.

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