If at first you don’t succeed…

I started learning Korean last night.

This may sound like an odd statement coming from someone who’s been in Korea for nine months and has mentioned attending Korean lessons on several occasions throughout that time. However, Korean is a very, very hard language. Even the Koreans will tell you this. Actually, they’re kind of proud of the fact that they’re the only ones who can master it, whereas half the world seems to be able to pick up the silly little language that we speak.

Anyway, as seems to be a very common pattern amongst foreigners in Korea, I launched into my studies with great enthusiasm, spent hours on end learning grammar rules and conjugating verbs, and then gave up in total frustration and despondence when I realised that no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t manage a basic conversation. Sod that, I don’t need to learn this stupid language, I declared in annoyance, committing to a life of miming, pointing, and painstakingly writing things down in hangul.

However, it’s just not practical. You feel like you’re missing out on so much when you can only speak English and so few of the locals can. I hate that the only Koreans I can have conversations with are the select few who’ve persevered with English, and it annoys me not to be able to chat with friendly taxi drivers and motherly ajummas. I don’t like not being able to answer basic questions in shops and restaurants. I especially hate not being able to express myself when something’s not right – like the taxi driver’s going the wrong way, or the restaurant got the order wrong.

And so, off to the opening class of a new Korean course I went, flanked by Terri and her sister, South African Friend… ah, heck, I don’t know. Three? This is just getting confusing. Anyway, the class was held in the teacher’s school – by day, she’s a kindergarten English teacher. So there we all were, sitting on tiny little coloured seats at miniscule desks, each one with a freshly sharpened pencil and an eraser on it. Suddenly the roles were very much reversed, and it’s amazing how quickly you can go from being a kindergarten teacher to, well, actually being at kindergarten. South African Friend Three and I got told off for giggling and scuffling with each other. The guy behind us was made to stand in the corner. All in good fun, obviously, but it was amusing to watch our demeanours change as we became the children instead of the teachers.

It also made me realise just how much we expect of those poor children. The teacher started off talking only in Korean, but soon gave up when we absolutely refused to try to understand her. The kids don’t have that option. Not only that, but even after she’d explained everything in English and written the answers on the board, we still stammered over them. And when she sneakily changed the order of the questions she was asking us, we didn’t even notice – we just read them off in the order that they were written on the board. I can’t remember how many times I’ve done that to my classes and then gotten annoyed with them for not paying attention. I thought it was just laziness. How difficult is it to just LISTEN, for crying out loud?

Answer: erm, extremely. It takes every little bit of concentration in your body to follow what’s being said, process it in your mind, come up with an answer, and put it into a sentence structure that is completely unlike any speech pattern that comes naturally to your brain. Even when the answer’s right there on the board, and it’s something perfectly simple like “I’ve been in Korea for 9 months”*, it still requires concentration to read it when it’s written in a foreign alphabet that still looks like a bunch of weird symbols to you unless you focus. And when you’re focusing on doing that, you’re not really listening to the question – and so it is that you’ll answer “What do you do for a living?” with “I”m 28 years old”**.  Or, in the case of some of my students yesterday, you’ll answer “What colour is it?” with “It’s a circle.”. Having my teacher say, with a patient smile, “No, you didn’t listen to the question…” threw me, because I felt confused and panicked and, well, a bit betrayed, actually!

However, the class was great fun and really practical, because she taught us some things that we really wanted to know – namely, how to answer taxi drivers’ questions using more than one word or a confused shrug. Our taxi driver on the way home was delighted to have three excited, chatty girls telling him all about themselves.

But my favourite part of the evening was when I answered the teacher’s question about my age. “I’m 28 years old” I said haltingly (Korean numbers are, as I believe I have mentioned, a pain in the backside). The teacher looked faintly surprised, and then laughed. “I think you made a mistake,” she said, pointing at the board where the numbers were written down for us. “Did you mean 18?”.

Yessssssssssssssssss.

* Although it’s not actually that simple, as it’s more like “I Korea in 9 months have been.”

** I have, obviously, started refusing to use my Korean age since I “turned 30” at the lunar new year.

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4 thoughts on “If at first you don’t succeed…

  1. Wow, that is a role-reversal. And you have just reminded me why I gave up on Arabic and Greek (two languages I was really interested to learn) back in high school. It was enough work just reading the letters. I couldn’t imagine conjugating verbs or constructing whole sentences! For what it’s worth, I can still at least sound out Greek words, but the Arabic is all gone.

    • The sounding out of words is at least useful for things like shopping and place names, particularly as there are lots of product names which are just English written in the Korean alphabet! But yes, it is extremely mentally draining to concentrate on grammar, too. I’m finally getting to the stage where I can read a bit more quickly, but it’s still definitely at the level of a very young child still learning to read!

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