As much satisfaction as being an ESL teacher brings me, it has also had a disturbing side effect… on my vocabulary. This seems to be a generally recognised and shared symptom amongst English teachers in Korea, and there are times when you’d wonder how on earth we manage to do our jobs, when you hear us groping desperately for words, and mixing up our verb conjugations. My vocabulary has been gradually shrinking since I first got here, and I’m starting to feel a bit like this:
Why does it happen? Well, there’s the obvious explanation, which is that we’re living in a country where the majority of people don’t speak our language, and we don’t speak theirs. Our day-to-day interactions in shops, train stations, taxis, restaurants etc., are therefore as basic as you could possibly imagine. Probably more so. It makes for some very comedic moments, but also a great deal of frustration (both for us and for the Koreans). I was sitting in a taxi just last night, wistfully trying to remember the last time I got into a cab and casually explained to the driver exactly where I wanted to go. Nowadays, it’s a whole saga, whereby I give the name of the nearest landmark to my destination, and then use my limited Korean vocabulary to guide the driver from there – “Left… right… go straight… next left… here please!”. If that fails, I just get out and walk. I find myself saying less and less when I’m in these situations, simply because there’s no point. I suppose I’m getting used to choosing only the words that are absolutely essential, and cutting out everything else.
But those are only brief interactions of a few minutes here and there – my job is where I spend the majority of my time, and that’s where the real vocab-rot sets in. I teach Korean children, most of whom cannot speak any English when they first come to me. I quickly learned to cut out all non-essential words there, too! And in fact, as I’ve continued to learn about the job and figure out my own teaching style, I’ve actually been training myself to only use words I know the children have already learned in the programme we use. This basically means that I spend all day every day using only the English vocabulary of a Korean 5-year-old. “Hello! How are you today? Good? Did you enjoy lunch? It was delicious! What’s the weather like today? I like your ribbon!” Don’t get me wrong, they are very bright children who understand more than you might imagine, but I swear, there are days when I think my brain is going to crumble into a fine powdery substance if I hear the word ‘delicious’ one more time.
Oh, delicious. Korea has ruined that perfectly harmless, formerly pleasant word for me. I don’t understand why I hear it as much as I do here. I can’t say I ever noticed it before I moved to Korea, but I’m certain it must have been present in my life – perhaps in a vague, subtle, inoffensive way, much like a pet fish you just have to shake food at now and again. Here, it plays a starring role in my daily life – more like a hyperactive puppy who hasn’t yet been house trained and insists on bouncing around everywhere, yelping to get your attention. Everything is delicious, or not delicious. Not only delicious, but very delicious, or sort of delicious, or more delicious than the thing that is not all that delicious. There are multiple levels of deliciousness, and all of them use the word delicious rather than synonyms.
The Korean equivalent is “mash-ee-saw-yo!” (roughly translated: “this has a delicious taste!”), and it seems that that’s the only word in the entire language that exists to describe one’s food. You say it while you’re eating, and you say it when you’re done eating, and you say it when you’re explaining why you enjoy a particular food, and you say it when you see a picture of pretty much anything edible. There is apparently no other word. Even the opposite, for describing unpleasant food, uses the same verb in the negative: “mash-op-saw-yo!” (“this does not have a delicious taste.”) And for some reason, it is necessary to state aloud the deliciousness (or absence of deliciousness) of every piece of food you taste or see, every single time.
I was horrified to discover recently that I can no longer think of alternative ways to talk about food. It’s either delicious, or it’s not delicious. The other day I was discussing favourite foods with my elementary students, and I wanted to scream by the time I’d finished and every single child had answered the question “Why do you like that?” with “Because it’s delicious!”. Instead, I smiled encouragingly while my brain died a slow and painful death. I really fecking hate the word delicious now, you have no idea. It grates on my nerves when I hear it, and I want to smack myself in the face with a shovel every time I hear it coming out of my mouth.
(Incidentally, one of my favourite movie scenes of all time!)
I think I will prepare an entire lesson on alternative ways to discuss food, and teach it to every class in the school before distributing a useful handout to all the staff, including myself. The really disturbing thing about all of this is that I – the alleged writer and general fan of words – was intending to conclude this post with a list of alternative words that could be used to describe food, but failed to think of a single one.
Other than “yummy”, that is.