I keep having very humbling moments that remind me to think twice before getting frustrated with students who appear to be making no progress whatsoever.
The latest one was last week during my Korean conversation class. My teacher had decided that I wasn’t being pushed hard enough – particularly as I can speak English in most of my work and social encounters. Because of my job, I don’t have to make the effort you would expect of someone living in a country where English isn’t really spoken much. And so, I will now speak only in Korean during our lessons, she said gently but firmly, ignoring the panicked look on my face.
Do you know what it’s like to have someone talking to you in what sounds like a bunch of “ong”s and “eun”s, and knowing that you’re supposed to be able to understand most of what they’re saying, yet not being able to pick out more than the first and last word of every sentence? I kept asking her to speak more slowly, and she rather pityingly demonstrated how slowly she was in fact speaking by saying in English “I………………………….. am………………………. speak………………………… ing………………………. like…………………………….. this!“.
I struggled through an “at the shops” roleplay. Which, by the way, is harder than you’d think, owing to Korean’s way of expressing values of money. You don’t just say the number of thousands as you’d see it written down, like 35,000 being thirty five thousand. Instead, you say the number of ten thousands followed by the number of thousands: three ten thousand five thousand.Maybe this doesn’t sound that complicated, but I find it really hard to put into practice.
Anyway, then my teacher sets my book in front of me and says something like “Now we’re going to learn to tell the time”. I am totally guessing this, based on the fact that there were a lot of pictures of clocks, and that we spent the next half hour practising telling the time. In a rather depressing coincidence, I had spent that afternoon practising telling the time with a group of 3rd grade children, and getting privately annoyed with them for repeatedly making “silly mistakes”. Well, as I sat there squirming under the gaze of my teacher, struggling to say “What time is it? It’s 4.45.”, I learned what it’s like to have somebody talking at you in a foreign language and expecting you to be able to talk back because, well, you should be able to by now.
Plus, I’m 28, not 8. Which makes it even more humiliating.
And the children are definitely much better at telling the time in English than I am at doing so in Korean. But honestly, you wouldn’t believe how hard this language is!! Did you know that they have two sets of numbers? One set is used for ‘tangible’ objects, things you can physically see and touch. One bottle, two people, three books. Plus you’ve got to use a different ‘counter’ word for each thing, but we’ll not go into that now, because I also need to inform you of the other set of numbers – the numbers you use for things you can’t physically touch or see. Time, basically. One day, two years, three weeks. But the ‘tangible’ numbers only go up to 99, so you’ve got to switch to the other set if you’re talking about a large number of things, like money. And for some bizarre and utterly unfair reason, you’ve got to use one set of numbers for the ‘hour’ part of telling the time, and the other set of numbers for the ‘minutes’ part. To me, having learned one set of numbers thoroughly and then realising that there was a completely different set to learn, too, it’s like saying the first part of the time in English and the second part in French. What time is it? 6:45. Six hours quarante-cinq minutes. 3:20. Three hours vingt minutes. It is very, very confusing, and I am unlikely to ever be able to give the answer to the question “what time is it?”.
By the time I work it out, the answer will have changed and I’ll have to start all over again.