Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Busan e-FM Week 5: Learning Korean

About 'Open Mike in Busan'


There’s a bit of a background story to this. I was originally scheduled to talk about Festivals in Busan, but then the North Koreans attacked Yeonpyeong Island the day before the show, and suddenly I had to find something more depressing to talk about. So I chose learning Korean.


For my fifth week on Busan e-FM’s “Inside Out Busan” show, I thought I'd talk about something that perhaps is my biggest problem in Korea – and that’s the Korean language.


I didn’t begin learning Korean properly until 2007, even though my wife and I started dating in 1999. Sometimes I think because I met her in England, and we spent our first few years together there, I didn’t really have the incentive to learn Korean that I might have had if I’d met her in Korea, because I didn’t have to speak Korean with her.

More than that, I think if I’d met her here, I would have started socialising with her friends, and eventually met her parents, and this would have provided a very powerful motivation to learn the language in order to create a good impression. Instead, by the time I got to Korea our wedding was only a few weeks away, and in so many ways it was a done deal whether I spoke Korean or not; everyone was stuck with me.

Slow progress

Of course I have made progress in the last three years since I started learning Korean, but it feels like that progress has been painfully slow. And honestly, I can’t help thinking that everyone else is thinking the same thing – that I should be a lot better by now.

If I could turn the clock back, and know in 2007 what I know now, I’d have quit my job and studied full time. But back then, I wasn’t expecting to stay in Korea for very long, and as a financial trader I became quite immersed in the Credit Crisis, and so my job took up a lot of time. And actually the older I got, the harder it got. Also I see now that I made mistakes in my approach to learning Korean.

How not to learn Korean

I learned a lot of vocabulary. I thought then I could make myself understood. When I studied Japanese part-time I learned about 1,200 words in a year, and it really just felt it was all coming together when I stopped. But that didn’t really work with Korean – even now my Korean vocabulary is only about 800 words. I really needed to get out and speak Korean more, but actually because I work for myself it’s easy for me to spend a lot of time at home. So in fact on many days, it’s like I don’t even live in Korea. Sometimes I think it’s harder to study Korean in the Internet age than when I studied Japanese before the Internet really became popular.

The Internet is destroying the ability to concentrate and learn

Back then – in 1996 – I used to read the experiences of people who’d been in Japan for ten or twenty years, and they were often totally isolated, so they had to learn the language. Now I can live in Korea, but spend all my time during the week on the English Internet and then watch American TV on Hulu at the weekend, in addition to the TV channels showing English programmes.

We think the Internet is this great thing because it brings people together and makes us less isolated, but sometimes I think it’s a curse when learning Korean – for precisely that reason. The Internet makes it easier to keep living your old life now, even if you move countries.

Creating a more immersive environment

I should try and create a more immersive environment for studying, but I’m afraid I’m really too busy with my job to be properly motivated. I tried to do little things like use a Korean version of Windows, but most of the time I get my wife to read the error messages and ignore everything else. My smartphone is Korean language only, so I just don’t use it fully – it doesn’t really help me learn. I should probably switch off all the technology and stop watching things on Hulu.

Doesn’t living with a Korean family help?

Living with a Korean family doesn’t help much. They speak in a local dialect, and because my Korean is poor it really throws me off. For example, instead of 왜 my mother-in-law says 와, she asks me if I’d like 사가 and I think... what is that? And even if I can remember that 사가 is 사과 [apple], there are so many other words and pronunciations that confuse me. It’s actually really discouraging because the more I try and communicate with her, the more problems we seem to have, over really basic things. And then there’s the ‘I-told-you-this-once’ problem.

The ‘I-told-you-this-once’ problem

I’m surrounded by Korean family or friends, and someone says something – in Korean – which later they assume I know, because I was there when they said it. But being there is not a guarantee of understanding. And when you ask about it later they say “I told you this once”. Anyway, the main problem is that I feel like some kind of 5 year-old child who doesn’t understand what the adults are talking about.

Making mistakes and levels of politeness

The other problem with living with a family is remembering the levels of politeness. They confuse me, I make mistakes, and I end up discouraged. People don’t mind if I make a mistake, but in English there’s basically one way to say hello and one way to say goodbye. Here, it depends on whether you’re speaking to a superior, an equal, or a junior – so there are at least six ways to say hello and goodbye – maybe more – and several ways to say everything else. It seems I’m often too polite and ‘respectful’ to my juniors, so apparently I lose face and then people maybe don’t treat me with as much respect – so I’m told. I really hate all this hierarchical stuff.

The perils of learning Korean with your spouse

I don’t really practice Korean with my wife. I think a lot of people who aren’t married think that if they marry someone who speaks a language they are learning, it will really help them with that language – but actually I think the typical experience is that it really doesn’t. Good teachers are good diplomats – and diplomacy is usually the first casualty of marriage.

Where do I go from here?

I’ve looked into attending Korean classes – or doing something more formal – but it never really fit in with my job. Sometimes I get letters from the local immigration office for programmes, but they’re only written in Korean, which means I just get the executive summary from my wife, because she’s very busy as well.

I think the government is trying to help immigrants, but I think generally we fall into three distinct groups – migrant workers, imported Asian wives, and Westerners. Once I was sent an invite for an online forum, but after I did a lot of translation work to register for it, I found it was almost all Asian women who’d married Korean men and were learning how to cook Korean food. So I gave up on that.

I’m going to keep working on my Korean. I have to. Last year I was at the Immigration Office to extend my visa, and they said it was better to have language skills if I wanted to extend if for longer. So you know, it made me feel like the Korean government were getting a little bit impatient with me. And I’d like to work my way onto an F-5 visa – permanent residence – but I think there’s going to be a language requirement for that. I don’t blame them though – I have very strong views about ‘multiculturalism’, so I think if I can’t learn Korean soon then I should leave Korea.

Busan e-FM
Inside Out Busan

Air date: 2010-11-24 @ ~19:30

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