Friday, April 17, 2009

On learning Korean part three

The language stories I shared in the previous posts are a dime a dozen. Sometimes I forget they are funny, they just seem commonplace. So here is the question this blog aims to answer, "With so many hazards associated with not learning Korean, why doesn't everyone just shut up and learn it?" This is a multi-faceted answer so bare with me.
Most Koreans have never heard a none-native trying to speak their language. English speakers are used to a myriad of accents and slang that bitch slaps the Queen's English with phrases such as "Hella good." When I approach, blond hair ablazing, I send Korean listening comprehension running for the hills. Here is a typical scenario, I have taken many liberties but trust me none of the awkwardness is hyperbole.

Scene three: Leslie walks into a restaurant, parched looking to order water. She sits at a table, and a Korean waitress begrudgedly approaches.
Leslie: "Mul juseyo (I would like water please)"
Waitress stares silently at Leslie half shielding her eyes. A voice from off stage narrates the waitress's thoughts.
Waitress: "Ah my eyes! Is all blond hair so reflective? I wonder if it is real, maybe she won't notice if I touch it."
The waitress reaches out and rubs Leslie's hair between her thumb and index finger. Leslie notices, yet reiterates her request.
Leslie: "Mul juseyo."
Waitress: "The hair is definitely real. She is going to expect me to speak English. I hate speaking English, I'm so terrible at it, this is so embarrassing. What is she doing here, I bet she teaches English. I love her nose, I wish my nose was so big. Oh man is she talking again."
Leslie (a little more desperately): "Mul juseyo"
Waitress: "Wait was that Korean. Maybe... I can't tell... it almost sounded like it."
The waitress shakes her head at Leslie and leans in closer. Seeing she finally has the waitresses attention, Leslie repeats her question for the fourth time, pronouncing every syllable and straining her vocal cords with the added effort.
Waitress: "Yes that was Korean. Wow, I'm so happy she is learning our culture, I bet Korea helped wean her off the drugs. Hmmm, but why is she asking for cigars."
Leslie stares at the waitress, dehydrated and dejected. The waitress stares back, dazed and confused.
Leslie (in English): "Water, please!?!"
Waitress (out loud): "Oh water!"

End scene.

Jokes aside, this is my life. I spend a lot of time trying to learn Korean. It is almost an obsession. I can't stand not understanding the people/world around me. I read children's books to my co-teacher, listen to Korean tapes and complete lessons on Rosetta Stone and Live Mocha. It took me a month just to realized all Koreans were not actually yelling at me. Here are some of my challenges.
There is at least three different ways to say the same thing, which phrase you say depends on who you are talking to you. Lets say someone asks me where I am from. If they are older I have to say, 'Mi guk es aw wa sub ni da." If they are my peer, "Mi guk es aw wa saw yo." If they are younger, "Mi guk es aw wa da." So if I finally retain a phrase, I can only speak to one third of the population.
Koreans pronounce double consonants that do not exist in English. These are called aspirated consonants. The ssal/sal: rice/flesh story is a perfect example of the folly when these consonances are mispronounced. Here is the difference between a Korean listener and an an English listener; if someone says "Tanks very much" after I have just opened the door for them, I realize they were attempting to say "Thanks" based on the context of the situation. Additionally, I had heard my language butchered prior to that moment. Koreans are not prepared for me. If every syllable is not perfect, there is no comprehension. It took me two months to actually receive water in a restaurant.
I'm used to English spoon feeding me things such as subjects and contexts. Korean is so implicit even if I know every word in a sentence, I have no idea what it is trying to say. Subjects are optional/nonexistent, and the same phrase can have a completely different meaning depending on the context or tone. The word for eight is also the word for arm, kwuainchanayo is "are you OK?" and "yes, I'm OK". Koreans often times don't understand each other because the meat of the conversation is what is not said rather than said.
It is for the above reasons many foreigners are not a fool hardy as I and don't learn the language. However, Korea has challenged me to a dual, and I will not leave until I am fluent. I have decided to sign one more year at my school, I have become rather attached to sipping cigars and munching on flesh.


Anonymous said...

hahaha! It is even true when speaking to Koreans who speak english that most things about the conversation are grammar optional and often unspoken.

Great post, though. I feel enlightened.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful entry...i love your insight. I also love how your competitive nature has risen to challenge an entire language. Good luck.