On The Experience of Learning the Korean Language

I swore after I returned from Turkey to undertake a number of life-changing reforms, and one of these was the serious—the very serious—pursuit of the elusive Korean language. I lightly studied and gave up on this linguistic Proteus, this language isolate, several times, but for the past two weeks or so I’ve started spending real money and throwing real time behind what many people consider to be one of the most difficult major languages for English speakers to learn.

Now I am not the typical white American who speaks only two languages, English and bad English; I have a smattering of Spanish and French from high school and college, a little Latin and less Greek (which I can read and write); a few words of German, Italian, and Japanese gleaned from an appreciation of each nation’s cinematic traditions, as well as a minuscule knowledge of Chinese calligraphy chiefly thanks to its relatively widespread use in the Busan metro. Travels to Turkey, Georgia, and Southeast Asia have also provided me with a polite acquaintance with Turkish, Kurdish, Georgian, Thai, Karen (maybe), Cambodian, and Indonesian. If I think hard I can say hello, thank you, yes, and no, in these languages. My friendship with an Iranian family has also thrown a few more interesting Farsi words into the mix (I can tell Ahmedinejad that I’m stupid); two classes on Islam and the Koran did the same for Arabic. And don’t forget the Yiddish slang that is intrinsic to virtually any American Jew’s secular upbringing.

But as of this moment I am fluent in no language except English—and as of this moment the second language I speak best, the second language I’m most comfortable with, is Korean. What else can nearly a year and a half of life in Korea do to you?

The evolution of my knowledge surely follows a typical course: I arrived here knowing virtually nothing about anything, and, at first, very slowly, gained an awareness of how to read and how to say hello and thank you—and it took me so long to learn how to say hello because hello in Korean, an-nyong ha-say-yo (안녕하세요), must be one of the longest greetings in any language. The tones linked to each of those syllables, their rhythm, can vary significantly depending on the speaker, and it also didn’t help that there were two other levels of politeness, one above and one beneath, that changed the form of the greeting incomprehensibly for a rookie. Honestly it probably took a month before I felt comfortable greeting anyone in the native language here, and after that there was almost no progress at all for half a year. I learned a few random words of vocabulary from a free, terrible class I took once a week for two months or so, as well as from my young students; I learned the word you hear most often from young people, cheen-cha! (진짜!), really!, and how to say hello on the phone—yoe-boe-say-yo (여보세요). In short, I was getting almost nowhere. Linguistically I had little to show for the ten months I spent here before I met my Korean girlfriend.

An old method of writing (unfortunately no longer in use) combines Chinese characters with the Korean alphabet.

I initially believed I could absorb the language through osmosis with little or no effort on my part, that just by listening, just by being around people speaking this language all the time, I could just somehow miraculously learn to speak it perfectly. Like in the movies. That sentiment’s ridiculousness is self-evident, but I think that if I were living with a Korean family that spoke no English, and that if I lacked an English-speaking co-teacher at work, my progress would have been more rapid. Still, even now, after so much time and effort, I still occasionally cannot tell the difference between spoken Japanese and Korean, and I am almost just as clueless in one language as I am in the other.

After I realized that osmosis was impossible, I decided to give up on ever learning Korean. I thought I would leave this country after a year and never return, because at the time I utterly despised this place.

Then I met my girlfriend. And that’s when things obviously began to change. The language became more beautiful and more interesting to me. One of the roadblocks on the path to such enlightenment had, in fact, been a conviction that the language was simply ugly—and conversely, my girlfriend tells me Koreans say that English has a very greasy sound to it. As I took a greater interesting in learning the meaning of things I came to believe in a silly vague pet theory, that universally beautiful things and concepts (such as the idea of beauty itself) always possess beautiful-sounding words to represent them—that the word ah-lum-da-oon (아름다운), beautiful, sounds beautiful to the Korean ear—and that the same goes for ugly things and ugly words, sticky things and sticky words, ridiculous things and ridiculous words, etc., etc. This also dovetails with a notion that the true essence of a language can somehow be decoded by analyzing its onomatopoeias. If you have not figured it out already, I am not a linguist.

So far the most beautiful words I have found in Korean are these: car parking, ja-dong-cha joo-cha-jang 자동차 주차장. The word automobile, 자동차, ja-dong-cha, to me sounds like a car going over a bump. This should remind many people of cellar door and should likewise inspire Korean filmmakers along similar lines. The best thing about “car parking” is that you see it everywhere, of course, and thus can sigh in ecstasy while uttering these wonderful syllables from heaven.

How to use letters to put together one of the blocks in the Hangeul alphabet, which is really a syllabary, with each block representing one syllable.

But Korean also appears to possess an unfortunate number of very common words that do, in fact, sound like English swears. The syllables Ho and Suk are common in Korean names; one food company is called Chunho, and the number of dongs I’ve seen is truly staggering. Gook, the word which means “land”, and is used to describe many countries, including Korea itself (“Hanguk”), is an outdated English racial slur for Asian people which American GIs probably picked up from the Korean soldiers they served with in Vietnam—this is likewise one of the reasons we call Korea Korea and not Hanguk or Daehan Minguk (Great Han People’s Republic), which are the South Korean names for this place (another is Namhan (this sounds a little nicer!)). Likewise, there only appear to be two beer companies that are allowed to sell beer in South Korea, Cass and Hite, and since the swill they market here tastes like ass and shite, respectively, certain foreigners have responded by providing these companies with the appropriate nicknames.

The most unfortunate Korean name I have ever heard belongs to a very nice fourth grade boy—a Mr. Hung Chul. My girlfriend does not think it is so euphonious either.

Today, for the most part this is what I hear when I listen to any random Korean conversation:

Hello Korean Korean Korean Korean Really Korean Korean Korean Korean Yes Korean Korean Five Thousand Won Korean Korean Korean I understand, yes, yes, yeeeesss!

But my studies have pushed me further than I ever thought I could go. There was one occasion a few weeks ago when a young student asked me an incredibly obvious question that I had already answered several times before; he asked me in rapid, normal Korean, and it somehow sounded as if someone were speaking to me underwater—I knew the root of almost every word but had only a passing acquaintance with the each root’s grammatical attachments (i.e, just like having a conversation underwater!). I was able to answer him again but he insisted on checking with my Korean co-teacher to ensure that he had made himself understood.

Hangeul as written the way Koreans never write it, as simple lonely letters, from left to right, no longer a syllabary...

So after I met my girlfriend I did a little on-again off-again private tutoring but still only made slow progress. I studied in my spare time. I used new words with my girlfriend as often as possible and really tried very hard not to give her a blank face whenever she said even the simplest Korean phrases to me. I came to realize that learning a language is this amazingly remarkable combination of dreary repetition with absolutely the most difficult, most terrifying mental flying trapeze act you could ever hope to attempt. Learning new grammatical forms (and there appears to be an endless supply of them) is something like balancing on top of a syringe with one bare foot while boxing an enraged gorilla and trying to soothe a shrieking infant as you are also using your free foot to play one of Bach’s Goldberg Variations on piano inside the core of an erupting volcano. On top of that, you can repeat the same word thirty times and then forget it ever existed the next day.

This language and the Korean language could not possibly be more different from one another. Just to start, multiple Korean words fulfill the function of single English words, and vice-versa; for example, two meanings for okay, are you alright?, and do you understand?, use two different words, kinchanayo (괜찮아요) and agessumida (알고있음니다, which took me ten minutes to spell due to the discrepancy in pronunciation so I could be wrong), in Korean. And this is just the beginning. In effect, you have to unpack every sort of meaning and construction in English you can possibly imagine, and then somehow rebuild everything totally from scratch all over again in a completely different way. It starts with realizing that the order of the words is subject-object-verb, and not subject-verb-object, as in English; then you learn that the order of verbs is also reversed, so if you use two verbs, you have to squish them together and then turn them around again—I want to go home in English becomes I home go want in Korean—and then someone tells you about a different kind of tense you don’t understand where the order of the words is actually verb-noun and you throw up your hands and say what am I doing with my life. On top of that everyone speaks really fast—I cling to one word I know while the rest of the sentence roars away from me like a rollercoaster—and old people just mumble incomprehensibly.

A license plate from Seoul.

To give you an example of an easy grammatical construction that is in fact totally illogical and like a stab in the back or a fuck you to anyone who would try to make sense of this thing, “more than I thought”, saengakboda daw (생각보다 더), is a combination of think (생각하다), see (보다), and more (더). Why. Why. WHY?? Articles are called particles and go after practically everything—subjects, objects, verbs, adjectives, everything. You thought they were difficult in English? Think again. Adjectives and verbs are almost conjugated the same way, which should remind some readers of the imaginary languages in Borges’ Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, that make a mockery of Western conceptions of time and space. Korean is, in effect, a madhouse—a madhouse!—and if I can speak it like a caveman by the end of my sojourn here I’ll consider myself a very accomplished young man. This is not Spanish. This is not French. The ancestors of the Korean and English languages diverged tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of years ago; English and Spanish are practically identical twins in comparison.

In essence, you have to learn how to balance on top of a syringe with one bare foot while boxing an enraged gorilla and trying to soothe a shrieking infant as you are also using your free foot to play one of Bach’s Goldberg Variations on piano inside the core of an erupting volcano—again, and again, and again, until it becomes like second nature. As Tolstoy says, there are no conditions to which a man cannot become accustomed.

None of it makes sense. The same goes for English or any other language. But we have to express ourselves and this is how our ancestors organized the random sounds they were able to produce—and if I want to uncover the mysterious world of Korean casual conversation, untranslated Korean novels and poetry, and poorly-translated Korean films, this is the only way: slow, steady, mounting terror.

Just a few of the seventy million people whose language isolate is causing me such sleepless anguish. Shame on you, Koreans! Shame!

This is my program so far, and I’m already planning on ramping it up because it isn’t enough: three incredibly difficult formal intermediate classes every week totalling three hours, plus two hours of one-on-one conversational practice in between. Next week I’m hoping to pack on as much extra conversational practice as I possibly can, because I’m the worst student in a class that usually consists of less than four people and it’s really not a comfortable feeling when everyone in the room believes that you should be back learning simple numbers in the beginners class with the poor little puppies wagging their tales over the simple vocabulary our teacher tosses into their mouths every few days just for the hell of it. But I would rather suffer the shame of being the worst in the intermediate class than giving up and going to a class full of people who don’t know how to tell you what year it is in Korean (and I can do that! ee-chon-sheep-nyun!).

I’ll write a sequel to this post when I’m further along the journey to fluency—because, this time, I’m not giving up. This baby’s mine.

The adventure continues here and here.

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4 thoughts on “On The Experience of Learning the Korean Language

  1. Amanda says:

    I stumbled upon this blog while looking for Korean. Good luck to you! I am trying to learn it also and I am a Caucasian American with not a drop of Korean blood in me! So far I know I love you, hello, maknae, oppa, and I think that’s it. Keep trying! I am doing it with you!

  2. A passby korean who cannot say english fluently. says:

    haha. It was quite funny. Don’t try to fully understand the Korean language itself. As you know, koreans used korean-way-changed chinese character long time ago(grammatically, in use), Till the king se-jong made han-gul to unite the pronunciation of the changed and lower illiteracy rate. So, it would be great help to learn chinese character to under stand han-gul. But there’s many of words that natually born as a han-gul(mostly nowdays).

  3. Gail says:

    wow, i started korean about 2 weeks ago, i found their alphabet easy-peasy & have memorized more than 20-something characters so far. I can just about pronounce different syllables by staring at each one carefully for about 30 seconds trying to get each different sound right. I learned one of those sentence structure-thingies for describing or calling something something (like; ‘my name is Fred’) i have only knowledge of one single particle so far ‘nun’.
    So it’s been plain sailing up till’ now,but after reading all of this i feel like the difficulty may be beyond my comprehension, i think i’ll try to at east get all of the basics right & perfected then maybe take a uni course if i think it’s possible to try being fluent. Of which the possibility is very low. Good luck with your studies! (from a British english speaker~)

  4. hiddenconnections says:

    I need to write a new update about how things are going. As some things have gotten easier others have become more difficult. Gail, can I ask why you decided to learn the language? My only advice is to find a conversation partner. I suspect that even the best university classes are pointless without one.

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