Monday, October 24, 2005

Why it's hard to learn Korean

It really didn't occur to me at first how very much I get to speak English here. That's probably because I was so new and so overwhelmed by how jarring it was to walk down streets awash in hangeul characters with only bits of the alphabet I've come to know and love peeking through.

But I was thinking about it today at school as I was teaching what felt like my eight billionth class. I speak English a lot. All day. And I am paid to not speak Korean, in fact, and to take points away from the children who are heard speaking Korean...Ah yes, the points. The teacher giveth and the teacher taketh away. Points for being a good student, getting your workbook out in a timely fashion, winning a game, sometimes even forming a sentence correctly. Points are great, because they totally motivate the younger ones. The older kids, who are so totally over the points reward system, have to be motivated in other ways. But I digress.

So yeah: Korean. I disappear into my cozy little Ding Ding Dang world each day at 11 a.m., emerging only for a short lunch break which is usually easily handled in the vicinity. On days when I have no lunchtime errand (post office, store) I can pretty much get through with no more than "hello" and "thank you" since they'll tell me the total I owe either in English, with their hands, or by showing me the numbers on the cash register or a calculator. Then shortly after 8 p.m. I re-emerge into the Daegu night and have to start trying to process the Korean language all over again.

Weekends could be my best chance to learn and practice Korean. This past weekend was of no use for that. Friday night and Saturday I slept a lot, what with my new sore throat/Asian bird flu/hepatitis/insert hypochondriacal suggestion here. Also on Saturday I was hanging around the house awaiting the long sought and oft-promised repairman who was to bestow hot water upon our household. He arrived in the morning, but had to go get a part, so he came back that afternoon. In between I pretty much sat, lay down, rested, sat some more, and so forth.

The fun bonus of the repairman visits was that it turns out the downstairs landlady has a twentysomething son who speaks English! He came up with the repairman each time to translate, and we chatted a little bit while repair-dude was in the closet behind the hobbit-sized door doing things to the water heater. Landlady's son lived in Australia for a while, so he actually does speak the English, and he was nice. He said the last time American teachers lived in that apartment it was two boys who drank a lot of beer and had noisy parties. I said I don't have noisy parties. He also looked at my Lonely Planet guidebook to Korea and was intrigued that it had a (very small) section on North Korea. "But we're not allowed to go there!" he said.

"Well, you and I aren't," I told him, "but she is" - I motioned to my Chinese roommate - "and Lonely Planet is headquartered in Australia and writes for the Brits and Canadians and so forth. You have to go through Beijing and very few people go, but it can be done." I offered no further statement about my desire or lack thereof to do such a thing. He was fascinated. He also wants to hang out and do something. I might try him out as a friend. It was hard to tell if he was planning on flirting with me or not. I am of course not planning on returning the flirtation.

When I finally left the house Saturday it was cold and I still felt like crap, so I couldn't be bothered to do much beyond wander the neighborhood a little, eat, go on-line, watch two gyrating dancers on a platform outside a building blasting dance club music, and buy some more apples from a street vendor to take home. I also spent a lot of this weekend on the phone (in English).

Sunday I went with one of the Korean teachers at my school and an American friend of hers who teaches at a different school to the International Oriental Medicine Expo at the big fancy-schmancy convention center. It was really interesting, but lest ye be picturing a marketplace teeming with herbs and teas and aphrodisiac antler powders, it was super-modern and very conventionally convention-like. We wandered up and down the aisles, we had water massages and circulation tests, we sampled samultang and lotus-flower tea, and we watched lots of professionals do their thing networking and selling and handing out business cards.

One booth displayed the work of Komsta, the Korean Medical Service Team Abroad, a humanitarian relief organization that has been bringing Oriental medicine services to other countries since starting with Nepal in 1993. There were amazing photographs, including recent work in Sri Lanka and other tsunami-affected countries, and as I watched the video accompanied by an instrumental "Born Free" I got really choked up. It was nowhere near as cheesy as it sounds. I just really love it when people are nice to other people and try to help those who are disadvantaged. There aren't very many people who really do that, you know. We all talk a great deal about it. "Many are called but few are chosen..."

Furthermore, it got me thinking about resistance to medicine, especially "Western medicine" (my own and others' resistance). I recently discussed with my sister the pros and cons of vaccinating babies, as she knows some people who have apparently decided to opt out of getting their children's shots. When you see pictures of people lining up in a Himalayan village to get treatment from an international medical team it makes you reconsider scoffing at the medical advantages you have, I think. Now, those who know me know I am no fan of over-the-counter cold medicines, because they seem to treat the symptoms, not the disease, without really speeding the healing process (for me). But I just think about how we can do amazing things to relieve suffering (like: wiping out polio) and I think the romanticizing of "natural living" can be taken too far. People used to die a lot of ugly deaths that are totally preventable now. I like to think, a la Noam Chomsky and Lewis Thomas, that we the human beings are perhaps working with our knowledge and experimentation toward some greater good we know not of.

Wasn't I talking about learning Korean?

I also have another confession. After we left the Expo, armed with herbs and sample packets of a liver tonic -- good for my newly self-diagnosed hepatitis that one machine's test results print-out convinced me of when it said my liver is my unhealthy body part -- I parted ways with the girls at a big intersection where there just happens to be a TGIFriday's. And, well, I was hungry and I'd been sick and I was tired and so not in the mood for tofu infiltrated by oysters and clams, nor spicy rice with unidentifiable pungent aromas, nor a noodle of any sort. So I went in. I ate Western, treating myself to soup, a baked potato, and a salad with bleu cheese dressing. Plus a soda and saltines. Ahhhhh, I was in heaven. I am also happy to report that TGIF does a birthday song here in Korea as well, though I couldn't make out a word of it, so if you think you can escape the candlelit desert and clapping wait-staff just by fleeing the States, think again!

It was interesting to spend time with a fellow American, but as I said, I didn't speak much Korean over the weekend. American girl is near the end of her stint here, eleven months down and one to go, so she's totally winding down where I'm just getting wound up about all things Korean. I asked her how her language skills were. She said she hadn't learned all that much, one reason being how discouraging it was each time she attempted to speak it. People either stared blankly, gave up quickly, criticized, or just ignored her attempts to use a few words or struggle through interactions. I've noticed that, too! It's nothing like any prior conversations I've had any place when trying to speak a foreign language. It can be disheartening. I definitely want to find a Korean class.

On the other hand, one of the other Korean teachers at school said she was impressed how quickly I'd learned to read the hangeul, that ususally the ENTs (English Native Teachers) take months, not weeks to learn the sounds. Then again, she also said I sound like a six-year-old reading. And boy, do I! It takes me so long to sound out a line of text, syllable by syllable! It's great fun, though. I cannot remember a time when I did not know how to read English; my learning to read predates my earliest memory, so this is a new sensation for me, and a terribly interesting one at that.

My roommate and I are also working on my plan to learn some Chinese. She said I have good pronunciation and a talent for languages. I do love them so. I will be happy if I can pick up a little Chinese this year, too! A billion people speak that one!


kangmi said...

I offer my encouragement for learning Korean. I know how hard it can be to learn it in the kind of environment you describe, but it's one of the best things you can do for yourself while living in Korea.

Even long-time foreign speakers of Korean experience the same kinds of reactions you do. Getting used to it might take some work, but it's part of the territory.

My own site (kangmi) is currently down, but you'll find links to online Korean language study resources at Let's Learn Korean.

Best of luck. It's a worthwhile path.

raine said...

If only the same efforts were made providing help and medicine to countries and people that need it that are made getting Dunkin Donuts and TGIFs in other countries!!