It turns out that one of my uncles-in-law works in an engineering company where amongst other roles he teaches immigrant workers to speak Korean. I asked how quickly they learned and was rather disappointed to discover that they apparently reach a basic but workable level of fluency within two months. Since they are mainly Thai and Vietnamese he told me not to be put off because he thought their languages - or grammatical structure at least - had much more in common with Korean than English does. But I couldn't help feel discouraged because I became comfortable with Japanese sentence structure a few years ago, and Korean is similar, so it just made me feel I should be doing better.
In fact, when I add together the sixty or more hours I work each week with the amount of time I spend rushing around Busan for various reasons it's a wonder I have any free time to study at all, and I remind myself on an increasingly regular basis that I didn't come here to learn Korean. Even so, I thought that being immersed in a Korean family and lifestyle would give me an easy path to fluency, and it really hasn't. I think the problem was that I had no previous knowledge of the language at all before coming here, and for a long time that made every conversation that went on around me little more than noise, so I've spent the months lost in my own thoughts on the whole, thinking about trading and dreaming of pizza. I'm sure someone with more motivation or a greater head start in the language would have done a lot better than me.
A couple of months ago I decided to start making the time to study formally and on twenty-six days so far I actually succeeded, usually for no more than thirty minutes admittedly, but it's a beginning. Since I find my learning requires constant reinforcement though, missing odd days here and there - and sometimes several at a time - has been a real setback. My plan was to build up my vocabulary using Declan's Flashcards program, starting with fifty words and adding another fifty every time I scored 80% or more. I alternate between Korean to English and English to Korean, going through both each day if possible. Of course, an increasing vocabulary means an increasing amount of time is required to run through every time the word pool expands, but it was never going to be easy. As of today I'm up to a vocabulary of 294 words, which when slotted into some standard sentences allow me to say important things such as 'what's for lunch?', 'where's the bathroom?' and 'you need a psychiatrist' (well, 'head doctor' had to suffice in that instance but I think I got the message across).
Predictably though, this has far from unlocked the world around me. Understanding around one word in thirty does allow for some inspired guesses to be made as to conversation topic, sometimes even correctly, but if anything it merely adds to the frustration. The fact that Busan has its own accent distinct from the more standard Korean (or Seoul pronunciation) I am generally learning presents another difficulty, though curiously the woman in the flashcards program sometimes sounds like she's speaking with a Busan accent, so my accent is all mixed up anyway. Still, rather than existing in my own world while people talk around me, I can at least now listen intently to their conversations and find the effort slightly more rewarding. I also have the satisfaction of knowing that the people around me are beginning to be more careful about what they say in front of me...
There is another odd downside I'm discovering. I'm reminded of The Hitchhiker's Guide's Arthur Dent who leant bird-language because it sounded so beautiful, only to discover that all birds talked about were air-currents, wingspans and other bird-related trivia. I'm already beginning to wonder from the snippets of conversation I am deciphering whether I'm going to be sorely disappointed, and perhaps even, like Arthur Dent, driven slowly mad by what I hear around me. After all, how many times can you hear people say 'I'm on the subway' when they answer their mobiles underground before it all starts to seem mundane? There really is no choice of course, but while I hope to continue studying Korean, it lies somewhere down in fifth or sixth place on the priority list of things I'm doing, so realistically I'm not going to make great strides forward, but I feel like I've made a serious start at last.