Upping The Korean Ante

In New York I vowed to study Korean.

My vacation from the university has lasted two months, and during that time I’ve probably spent about two hours with my favorite textbook, available for free in its entirety online. Back in Korea it would be a good week if I could put in an hour reading and then another hour practicing the grammar points with one of my wife’s friends, who is hoping to marry a Korean doctor who lives in New Zealand—these two meet up every six months but he only texts her, never calls, and seems finicky about putting a ring around the woman who is desperate to marry him.

I need to take things up a notch, because two hours a week, combined with daily jolts of practice with my wife, still resulted in my forgetting many of the numerous ways one can wield the Korean language. English teachers in Korea rarely learn Korean and appear to regard it as being not only completely useless but also impossibly difficult, but the foreign workers who staff Korea’s factories as well has the foreign brides who have married into the country—who far outnumber the English teachers—appear to have the opposite opinion and the opposite ability. They have to learn the language, and so they do. We don’t have to learn the language, and so we don’t. For me, like the distant relative I met in Massachusetts who spent six years teaching English and playing frisbee in Austria (what is it with English teachers and frisbee???), speaking a foreign language, and speaking it well, is one of the more amazing things a human being can do, even if in places with more linguistic diversity (let’s choose Mali) it’s not uncommon for normal people to speak multiple different languages fluently.

But in New York, where I want to live, and perhaps even settle, a fluent knowledge of Korean (and perhaps one or two other impossible Asian languages thrown into the bargain) may be the key to repatriating myself and my family. I like living in Gyeongju, it’s probably the best place for a family to live in Korea, but the difference between that and my one and only home in Brooklyn (which my family left when I was six) is like Heaven and Earth—to use the parlance of a Samsung executive, talking about iPads and Notes.

My new goal is this: rather than an hour of reading and an hour of speaking a week, I want to do the same amount every day. It’s ambitious, and I’m not sure I can achieve it—I need to locate a quiet room (how many such places exist in Korea?), and find and pay someone or perhaps even several different people to agree to not speak English to me (the going rate is about ten dollars an hour)—and I need to burn through this textbook and then perhaps a few more before graduating to Korean novels and newspapers, so as to get an advanced score on the TOPIK test. Strangely, perhaps even ironically, a real knowledge of Korean may be my ticket out of Korea. If not, at the very least I’ll have become that cool guy who knows a bit more than the right way to order a beer at a bar—and I’ll be able to have real conversations with my wife’s family.

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