Saturday, 1 June 2013

Learning Korean


My Korean teacher is a badass. That's a horrendously overused word and I don't toss it around lightly. He earned it. He teaches Korean with an attitude like, “Oh, it's you people again. Well, I'm just going to think out loud about Korean now, maybe write some things on the board. It's part of my process. You're welcome to stick around and experience it if you wish.” But then when the time comes he is very careful about actually going around to each student in the class of about twenty and making sure they have all, individually, understood the concept he has introduced before he moves on. Sometimes he'll pick somebody at random and quiz them. He doesn't hand out undeserved praise, and he'll laugh at incorrect guesses – but not in a way like “Haha, God but you suck,” more like “Look, we are learning a language! Isn't this cool?!”

He also has the looks to be an actor, a penchant for tardiness, a distant preoccupation that suggests a storied past, and a fine wardrobe and sense of style. When I got singled out twice in two classes I thought he was being hard on me, but then I realised he was actually just treating me like an equal to my peers. It's only that I've grown accustomed to being condescended to. 10 times out of 10 I'll take the teacher, or the friend, or the stranger who makes me work for my keep over the one who thinks I can't tie my own shoelaces. A few weeks ago he introduced us to a number of K-pop fixtures, because, after all, this is “Enjoyably” Study Korean, so it's not all writing drills and call-and-response. This turned out to be a great excuse to show off Bubble Pop during class time. As if you need one.

Before we could get to this, though, we had to endure a fairly brief and painless quiz. I'm finding hangul to be elegant in its complexity, as every time I think I've more or less grasped the gist of how letters come together to form characters, I run across one in my blogsailing that stops me dead. I had this faulty idea that all characters were made up of two to three letters; I've actually seen some with, like, six. I'm horrified by the knowledge that Korean has spelling, and it seems to be every bit as bemusing as that of English. In Japanese, you can write a character incorrectly, you can use the wrong one, you can mishear a long vowel or a double consonant, but you can never actually misspell a word. I've sort of grown accustomed to the idea that words in foreign languages are just written the way they're written.

On the other hand, whenever the day comes that I first decide to sit down and read something in Korean of my own volition, even if I have to look up every third word, at least I'll just be able to type it into a dictionary and get the meaning instantly, rather than hunt through a radical table making tactical use of the clipboard. Maybe if I tried to read 1Q84 in Korean I'd be more than 15% of the way through after working at it for six months. I'll tell you one thing that Japanese has over Korean, though: If I see a Japanese word I don't know, I can scan over a character, or even part of a character, and work out an idea of what it might mean, maybe even look at the tsukuri and guess at one of the Chinese readings. I can't say for sure, but I imagine you could probably study Korean for several years without ever realising that the connection between hwisa (会社) and sahwi (社会) is more than coincidental. Realistically, my own Korean etymology is unlikely to ever reach that level. I am still quite satisfied with my gradual progress towards Korean semi-literacy however, and was even pleased to find that (ka) has stopped saying フト to me. Unfortunately, the 0101 on the side of the Marui Building now says 이이 (i i).

For the quiz, we were given a list of 21 words to memorize, 10 appeared on the test, and we were tasked with translating them from Japanese into Korean. To study, I sat down a few times for a few minutes each and did a little bit of rote memorization. Quizzed myself when I started feeling confident, took another look at the ones I got wrong. It was great. It felt like good, honest work. My level of success enjoyed a direct relationship with my level of effort. See, the point where I'm at in Japanese, I'm starting to really dig into the meat of the language, and everything I learn is all abstract concepts, subtly different technical terms, and grammar points that have usage notes like “only to be used immediately after a refreshing rain on a fine summer's day when the speaker is wearing purple socks, barring any exceptions as detailed in Appendix Q.” For this Korean test, I memorized words like “dog” and “I.” Kasu is kashu. Toro is douro. Great, got it!

Korean, at this point, is still something I can sit back and relax with, the way a hockey player might relax with an exercise bike after a tough practise. It's still a toy, a parlour trick, not something I'm using to communicate with people, yet. I haven't experienced frustration at not being able to express myself adequately, or had my pride injured through not knowing something I should have learned by now. There was definitely a time, after I'd mastered the basics but before I stopped sucking at it, that I had a lot more hate than love for the Japanese language. I was Rocky, Japanese was Apollo Creed, and the first movie had just ended; I was lying beaten and bloody on the floor, and for a while there I seriously considered giving up on it completely. It was just too hard. The grammar was too alien, the kanji too numerous. Every time I reached a new plateau I saw that the peak was farther away than I'd thought. But I persevered, the sequel came, and this time I won. Japanese started working for me. But it was a long and lonely road to get there, and if I continue with Korean, eventually I'll arrive at the same crisis.

All of this raises the question of how far I plan to go with my Korean. It'll never be as good as my Japanese is now; I know at least that much. Japanese has almost a decade's headstart, I started learning when I was still physically almost a child, and this is the language of the country that I intend to spend my life in. It dominates my attention, and I can't see any other hobby ever displacing it (unless, to continue the above analogy, Korean turns out to be Ivan Drago). My interest in Korean is much less fundamental; it comes from a desire to speak with Koreans, maintain numerical parity with Europeans, and impress Japanese. In any case, I don't think I'll ever just stop learning now that I've started, but if I can get to the level where I can maintain a simple conversation – ask for directions, talk about mutual likes and dislikes, invite a girl to a hotel – I think I'll be satisfied.

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