Wednesday, February 13, 2013

"I don't speak the language...

...Latin yes; this Eastern babble, no."- Bhuta, Help! (the Beatles movie), 1965

In four and a half years here, I've acquired shockingly little Korean; I can say "I have a book" or "I have a pencil" or "I have a bag", or, in a dazzling display of virtuosity, "I don't have a duck".

There was the time in Daegu when I told my little-kid class, in English, "I like to drink kopee", which means "I like to drink bloody nose", rather than "I like to drink keopee", coffee. They thought that was pretty funny. Brats.

Of course, I can read hangeul, the Korean alphabet, which my friend Bob, who has been here just as long, can't. (Ha ha, Bob, I rule.) But that's of extremely limited use when I don't know what most of the words mean. I know computeo and keop and keopee and left fieldeo and centeo fieldeo and right fieldeo...

Hangeul was the world's first methodically designed alphabet, as commissioned by King Sejong (the guy below). Give me a minute or two and I can make all the noises in the word balloon, but the only words I recognize are "Sejong" and "people".
I've tried, kind of, to learn more; I had a brief beginner course back in Daegu and I have bought so many books, generally used and marked down, that I can't recall them all offhand; I have Korean Made Easy (can't be done) and Survival Korean and Korean for Dummies (they weren't kidding... it doesn't bother with the Korean alphabet) and phrasebooks from Lonely Planet and Berlitz and Jimmy's A-1 Korean Emporium and Muffler Shop.

Before I ever came over here, I got Rosetta Stone, which is useless because we don't learn languages the same way as adults that we did as children. And I don't really think one of the first words they needed to teach me was "elephant". Maybe I should have learned it better, though, as in the line for Safari World at the Everland theme park I tried to amuse some little kid by saying "Koyangi" and making elephant noises and waving my arm like a trunk... later on I remembered that koyangi means "cat". (Koggiri is "elephant").

 This is us.

And I tried "iSpeak Korean", an audio program of useful phrases that loads onto an iPod... but that interspersed "That's too expensive" and "My hovercraft is full of eels" with my Pink and Clapton and Eagles songs. That can really harsh your mellow, dude.

I tried to register for a free class last spring, but when I went to sign up right after school, I found that the course had been filled up by 8:05 a.m.

I had just about given up--after all, I get by pretty well without a solid knowledge of Korean. But not being able to speak to people really adds to my isolation. I live such an American life, limited to a few TV channels that play the same few movies over and over, or going to the mom-n-pop store and only being able to say "Hello", "How much is it?", "Thank you", and "Goodbye". I'd like to say, "It's really cold" or   "How is your cat?" (Although around here the answer might be, "Needs more salt.")

Ladles and jellyspoons: the hardest languages for native English speakers.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, my school arranged for a teacher to come after school once a week. (They did that last year, but she never got past hangeul, the alphabet.) I decided to try one last time.

The teacher this time was very nice, but she had no idea of how to teach anything. She would ask what random phrases we wanted to know, teach us how to say them, and move on... no order, no logic, no system. So I was ready to give up again, maybe once and for all...

...when we got a notice that she had other commitments and we were getting a new teacher.

Ms. Jeon is very good. Last week our class consisted of Kris, our art teacher's husband,...

Kris is an artist who's making waves here; you can buy his stuff (like this) on coffee mugs.

...Qin Jie, our Chinese Chinese teacher; and me. I was 'way ahead of them, since they're new in country and I'd had a class. Ms. Jeon's English is limited, and I knew the very basic stuff we started with, so I went as a go-between. I hope I was more helpful than insufferable; at my age, I'm very open about my strengths and weaknesses, and I know I can be infuriatingly smug. But it went really well.

Last evening, only Qin and I could make it, and we learned a lot more. To my dismay, though, Qin had to help me understand some of it... Ms. Jeon's English knowledge may be finite, but her Chinese is excellent, so she rattled off a lot of grammatical info to Qin, who translated for me. (spoken Chinese--nasal and singsong, to my ear--and Korean are really distinct in sound, but Ms. Jeon spoke so fast I couldn't always tell which one she was using.

Many Korean words are homophones of Chinese words, Ms. Jeon's explanations to her are more extensive than Qin's to me, and Qin is after all a language teacher, so she's progressing a lot faster than I am. If she can teach Korean kids Chinese in English (with her Chinese accent and their Korean accents), she can help teach Korean to an American by translating Chinese to English. Got it?

I get very frustrated when I struggle to learn stuff in front of other people. (That's another of my many flaws that I'm aware of.) But the class went well and Qin and I get along very nicely. We live next door to each other, so we talk over what we've learned on the walks home. Maybe, as soon as I get 30 years younger, she'll go out with me.

Next week, we should have our full complement of students: Qin, Kris, Amber (the art teacher), Casey (the other English teacher), Harry (the Korean-Australian gym teacher), and me. Amber, Kris, and Casey have basically no Korean at all, so it will be interesting to see how Ms. Jeon keeps us all involved.

Already, in just two weeks, I've learned to tell a taxi driver, "Itaewon Yeok ga juseyo" (Please take me to Itaewon Station), rather than "Itaewon Yeok juseyo" (Please give me Itaewon Station.)

At this rate, I will be fluent in hanguk-eo in the year 2525.

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