Hanguk mal

After two years of living in Korea, I’ve finally gotten serious about learning the language. Or at least trying to. Depending on whom you talk to, Korean is either a relatively easy language to learn or a impenetrable one. I can understand the views on both sides. Koreans like to break things down to the essentials and it can seem very economical (“university, go please”). And yet the details are maddening.

I’ve been going every Tuesday and Thursday night, for two hours each night, then spending a few additional hours studying. When I got back from vacation, I called the institute I wanted to attend near my neighborhood. I was given a test which revealed that my reading and pronunciation was good but my vocabulary was not. The problem was the institute didn’t have a  class at that time for my level. So I put up a Facebook message and got a few people at my level to commit and the school made a class for us. There are now about seven of us, all within a fairly wide radius of that upper-beginner status. I’m now a month in and it’s killing me.

My affinity for new languages is about the same as my grasp of mathematics, meaning pretty bad. I’m good with objects, concepts, visuals, and tangible things, or at least imaginable ones. I’m not good with variables, like symbols and numbers arranged into seemingly random patterns. This is Korean. First, there are the symbols themselves. Foreigners like to tell you that you can learn Hangul in a day. This is an exaggeration. Yes, you can learn the symbols quickly. But to actually sight-read Hangul (ala sight-reading music) you have to practice for a long time. It’s still an effort for me to read quickly, and with my mild dyslexia I occasionally turn things upside down and backward in my head if I go too fast. (I was the kid in kindergarden who spelled his name backwards.) Still, it’s a brilliant code, and I have fun working it out like a puzzle.

Then there is the vocabulary. This is what I really struggle with, and I’m sure it’s a common problem. Take, for example, the syllable 전. It’s in the verb “to call” (전화하다) and is also part of the word for “morning time” (오전) in addition to many, many other words. So when my brain goes through the mechanisms to remember a word for something, I have to conjure these symbols into syllable chunks and hope that I’ve arranged them in proper order. It’s a very abstract thing. I took three years of German in high school. I can connect “machen” to “make,” that’s pretty easy. There’s a residual process at work. But with Hangul I’m plucking things out of the air and hoping that they’re arranged properly. From Korean to English, my vocabulary is good. I can whip through my flash cards in no time. From English to Korean is not good at all because I have to imagine the symbol arrangements. I suppose this means that I hear better than I speak, which is probably also a common thing.

Then it comes time to structure all this abstraction into a sentence or phrase. Again, the structure is not that difficult, but you’ve got a seemingly infinite number of what my teacher calls “markers” or “stems” added to words. These markers are used for conjugating verbs, but also identify something countable as a thing, or machine, or animal, or paper, and on and on and on. Then there are the direction markers, time and place markers, making requests, subject, object, plural, etc, etc, etc. It took me a while to remember that the word for “go” (가) is also a subject marker.

I have an additional handicap, although it’s a mild one, in that I don’t teach English. I didn’t even know what “conjugate” meant, and I’ve forgotten all of the rules of grammar. It’s all instinct for me. Then there are the speech practice games that everyone in class seems to know except me.

Korea, as many people know, is mad about learning English. It’s the reason so many foreigners are here. As frustrating as Korean is for me, I’m sure it’s the same for Korean English students. I sometimes laugh at my students for being so shy for not wanting to try and speak English out loud. But I get it now. I’m terrified to speak Korean it in front of a Korean I know like a colleague or friend. I know certain phrases, but I shy away from using them because it makes you feel exposed. In class I had a frozen moment a while back when I was giving my students a homework assignment. I know the word for homework, and I thought about saying it. But I didn’t. I didn’t want to look stupid. But the past week or two I’ve been using Korean phrases a bit more in class because I’m more comfortable. And they get a kick out of it, just like I laugh when someone pulls a certain English phrase out of nowhere and surprises me.

I don’t know how far I’ll take this. It depends on what the next five months bring. But I’m determined to make some progress. I’ll be happy when I can actually use complete sentences in a conversational manner and understand what we discussed. Even if it’s just talking about the weather. I’m not there yet.


6 Responses to “Hanguk mal”

  1. idlewordshipdotcom Says:

    I have the same problem with math, I like it, but it doesn’t like me.

    Do you ever use the http://babelfish.yahoo.com? comes up with some pretty whacky translations sometimes and really needs to be perfected.

    This one is awesome http://www.indiana.edu/~koreanrs/kordic.html and you can save it with mozilla and use it offline, too.

  2. Yahoo Babelfish is hilarious because it’s so literal and … bad. A better one is this – http://www.worldlingo.com/en/products_services/worldlingo_translator.html – but it’s only marginally better.

    The Indiana U site is fantastic. I’ve surfed around that site a bit. Indiana has a real Korea connection for some reason. I have a friend there now and we’ve had professors from there come and give lectures at my uni.

    This is another great Korean language site: http://onebitekorean.blogspot.com/

  3. I’ve been asked several times my opinion on whether I think you’ll ever come back to the States. My answer has always been yes, and my reason has always been because you haven’t learned the language. How oculd you possibly be happy living in a place where you don’t understand the native tongue?

    Are you going to make me change my answer?

  4. > Are you going to make me change my answer?

    Well, kind of. :) I have maybe different reasons for wanting to learn. Even if I don’t stay… If I go back to the U.S. without having *some* grasp of Korean I wouldn’t feel right. So as I get closer to the possibility of going back in August, I see this as my last-ditch effort. On the other hand… If I’m going to be here for a while, I *have* to learn the language. I have no choice. It’s part of the big plan. I would say that most foreigners here don’t have to learn it. It’s not necessary for survival. You can live a great life here without knowing more than a few phrases.

    There are all kinds here. There are foreigners who have been here 12 years and still can’t read, which is amazing. Then there are others, some who have only been here a few years, who have made a real effort to learn it to the point where they’re pretty damned good. This always impresses me because it takes a huge amount of time and effort and desire to get there.

    Your reason is actually half right. But maybe that’s better left for private conversation. :)

  5. Hi there!

    I’m David Burke, a friend of your folks — mostly your mother, but I’m also a fan of your dad. I’m in the writing class that I’m sure you’ve heard about. It’s a very positive enterprise and has enriched my life.

    I’ve long believed that your mother and I have a good deal in common — possibly because my name is “David” and I was married to a “Carol.”

    You are in an interesting position, I would think. The newspaper business is suffering tremendously, as I’m sure you know — and it’s not solely because of the economic turndown (as I’m sure you know).

    I gave your line of work a try back in the 90s — taught a few comm courses and advised a few student publications. It wasn’t my “calling,” but I have no regrets.

    I’m now retired and living in a self-imposed exile here in Merced. I could afford to buy a house here and am planning to hang onto it until values go up enough that I can sell out and fund a move to some other spot — where, if past history is an indicator, I’ll only stay for a short time before getting back on my stone and rolling away yet again.

    I just found your site — your mom gave me a broken URL and then we figured it all out last Wed. I’ll check back from time to time and maybe give you my two cents worth on some topics you broach. I might have tackled the Pope-dope thread, but I’m just as outraged as you; it’s no less than the death penalty for some Catholics — just awful. If there is such a thing as sin, the pope’s a sinner…

    Well, the URL I’ve inserted in the header here will take you to far more of my writing than you’d ever want to see. It’s my collected works from our writing class. Don’t feel obligated to spend any time there.

    But your mother is also enshrined on that site: http://mercedwriters.proboards.com/index.cgi?board=carole

    She’s one of just a few who have actually figured out how to post their own work and I hope she’ll add some back issues to her own collection — I’m sure she has many more than I as she’s been in the class much longer.

    Take care. And thanks for being a non-ugly American overseas. We need all of the P.R. that we can get.

    David Burke

  6. Hi David…. Thanks for visiting. Feel free to throw in an opinion any time. I eventually gave up on the Pope discussion. I thought we’d reached as far as we could go with that one and any more would have been two people talking past each other.

    Take care and keep writing!

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