Saturday, April 21, 2007

Strong Language

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.


The exciting and talented James said...

Hello again Mike,

while I've been here a long time, my own Korean ability is very good, and fluency IS one of my priorities, I still have many of the same problems with it that you do!

I have a bad tendency to go on and on about things(!), so for now my only advice is that most Korean learner's frustrations with learning the language stem from Korean's lack of experience with dealing with learners; in other words, unless you speak Korean fluently, in a perfect accent, then most Koreans will not even realise you're speaking Korean. The few that do will reply to you as if you were Korean, rather than choosing simple words for your benefit, and will be very unforgiving of any mistakes.

That this is normal and natural behavior, considering how few foreigners speak Korean, doesn't help! Even my Korean relatives, who know how good my Korean is on some abstract level, still have a conceptual block that prevents them from understanding me or even trying.

So my Korean family too have not helped with my Korean, and I am also mute all day, lost in my own thoughts. I'm jealous of Japanese students of Korean, mistaken for Koreans and so spoken to in Korean all the time, and angry that everyone attributes their better ability to Korean's similarity to Japanese. To get 2 hours continuous Korean speaking practice a week, I have to pay a tutor.

But, I've finally figured out ways to overcome the lack of speaking and listening practice, via the internet. Speaking of which, if you're ever interested in spending more time on Korean, I have much more advice and many recommendations about courses in Busan and what books to use. Actually I'm quite jealous of you in a way, as there's a plethora of materials available these days, whereas I took whatever I could get when I came here in 2000.

Sorry for the length, I tend to rant once I got started on the purgatory that is learning Korea!

James in Gwanganli.

Mike said...

Hello James,

That's such a really great response I feel like framing it; I haven't been here that long, and have only scraped the surface of the language, but I already suspect there are a great many truths in what you've written.

I'm developing the feeling that when I say something Korean there's usually an awful pause while the victim thinks "is he trying to speak Korean?", which is often followed quickly with panic and mental shut-down. To be fair, my ability and accent are both poor, and yet I've already experienced real frustration when I've felt people aren't making an effort to understand even the single word in a single word sentence. I mean, how hard can it be to understand? I never had this trouble talking to Japanese people when I was learning Japanese. It's downright discouraging.

It's both heartening and depressing to realise that my experience isn't an isolated one, and at least it sounds like you have the kind of level of fluency I can only dream distantly of.

You're right about the technology benefiting language learning these days - things are much easier than when I was learning Japanese ten years ago. Still, I might drop you a line about materials and courses at some point because I can see the day coming when I need that tutor myself. Don't be too jealous of me though - I still have a very hard slog ahead of me - and believe me, I'll make it look hard!

"The purgatory that is learning Korean... in Korea". Brilliant.

Ewha said...


Unfortunately, I can more than relate to your fears that understanding some of the "noise" around you will bring disappointment. And, I love your "Hitchhiker's" analogy! (Arthur Dent and the birds are one thing that's stuck with me in all the years since I read those books.)

On some of the few occasions my employer and his family have translated snippets of their conversation for me, I've been struck with how much of what we say is mundane and barely worth the effort to understand.

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