Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Why I Can't Speak Korean

Many people ask me how I could have been in Korea for as long as I have, (about 7 years), and still not be able to speak the language. Oh I can speak taxi and restaurant. I can say enough to a girl at a pick-up bar to get my face slapped. But I really can't speak Korean. I am not alone. I know half a dozen people who've taught English in China. All of them have been there for less than 2 years and speak Chinese much better than I speak Korean. I have known several people who've taught in Japan and most of them speak the language. It seems to me that most people who go to Japan or China pick up the language fairly easily. But I've known only a few who have picked up Korean. The majority of us who spend time here in Korea, for some reason or another, or a combination of many, just don't learn the language. I stayed in Japan for 3 months and learned more Japanese than I have Korean in the 7 years I've been here. If that sentence made any sense. If I give you my list of reasons it'll sound like racism or sour grapes. So I'll illustrate one of the reasons for you.

Today I went to pay rent. I pay monthly. When I finished I said to the couple who are the collectors for my landlord, "Tal maen weol manayo." Tal maen means next, weol means month and manayo means see you. Tashi manayo means see you again. Tashi means again. Ask any Korean what these words mean individually and they'll tell you. But say "Tal men weol manayo" to them and you get looked at like you are a blathering idiot. Much like the couple did to me today.

The couple who I pay rent to is very nice. The husband speaks English pretty well and they have helped me on numerous occasions like when my gas was turned off or when I tried to negotiate for a new air conditioner. They are not dumb or mentally handicapped in any obvious ways. But neither of them had the slightest idea what I meant even though individually they knew what each word meant. This is a phenomenon I have only experienced in Korea. In every other country I've gone to if you say something a little incorrect they can usually figure out what you are trying to say. Not here.

So I had to say in English "See you next month." Then the guy translated for me, "Daeum dal manayo." And I think there might have been an indicator thrown haphazardly in there. As usual.

I looked up Daeum and dal in the dictionary. They mean next and month. But when I said tal maen the guy immediately said, "Next," and when I said weol he immediately said, "Month." The individual words in the two sentences have identical meanings. It would be like someone saying in English, "See you after the following 30-day period." Not many people would say that in English but I don't know any moron who wouldn't understand it.

It just gets incredibly frustrating! When I learned something in Japanese I would say it to someone and it would be understood. If it was a sentence structure I could substitute words and it would be understood. You can't do this in Korean. It's almost like they have separate sentences and separate words for every single occasion in life. No interchange is possible. I can't tell you how many times I've learned some Korean phrase only to be met with the thousand mile stare when I say it to a Korean.

I'll give you an even more incredible example and believe it or not this REALLY did happen to me. I was getting copies made at school. I needed 10 copies. Korean has many different terms that mean "piece" or "unit" of something. They are different depending on shape. Just one of many examples of totally unnecessary difficulties in the language. The word for a flat sheet of something, (like paper), is jang. So I said to the copy room woman, "Ship jang jusayo." Thousand mile stare. I thought she didn't hear me so I said it again. Still no sign of comprehension. I was absolutely positive that ship is 10 and jusayo is "give me" but I was leary of the jang. I shouldn't have been because I had used it for getting copies before and it had been understood. But from person to person in this country you just never know what they'll understand. Another reason why trying to learn the language is like banging your head against the wall.

So I pointed at the paper I wanted copied and said, "Ship," put the paper down, held up 10 fingers, showed her some money and said, "Jusayo." She started to panic. She looked all around for the guy that's usually there who usually does the copying for us foreigners. He was not there. She looked like if she could she would have pulled out a cyanide pill and swallowed it. Luckily there was another student there with a bit of sense who said to her, "Yeol jang! Yeol jang!"

Another unnecessary complication in the Korean language is the numbers. They use different numbers for different occasions. There is no pattern at all. So I was supposed to have used the word "yeol" for the number 10 instead of the word "ship". "Ship" is from the Chinese-ish number system they use here and "yeol" is a more Korean system of numbers. I've since been told that you use the Korean numbers up to 20 and then switch to the Chinese ones. For photocopies that is. For other things the rule may not apply. So I guess the other times I had used "jang" effectively I had been getting more than 20 copies. But still, imagine someone asked you this: "Please give me tenth copies." Do you think you might be able to understand them??? Good God!

It's not just the language that makes it so hard for people to pick up Korean. There are all kinds of extra, (again unnecessary), indicators in Korean like reul, eul, gay etc. They don't add any meaning to the sentences usually, just difficulty. Even if you miss one of these the listener will often just give up trying to figure out what the hell you are saying. The Korean people, (in general), are the absolute worst you can imagine for dealing with beginners at their language.

There now I'm sounding all racist. I can't help it, it's just a fact. If you want to learn Korean, learn it from a young kid or someone who is NOT Korean. They don't really know how they speak. And they REALLY don't know how to teach. Generally.

In Japan there are tons of very good books on the language. In Korea there are none.

I have seriously considered going to a kindergarten full time and learning with the kids there. I'm still dead serious about doing that. I think that would be the best bang for my buck as far as learning this language. But I really doubt I'll do that. So I doubt I'm ever going to learn Korean.

I could go on and on giving individual examples of how things like the situations above have repetitively shot down any attempts I've made at learning Korean. But it just wears me out thinking about it. And when new friends, acquaintences and students ask why I haven't learned I just can't tell them the truth. I usually just say that their language is hard. I don't say it's ridiculously hard and the people just make it harder.

Actually that's not true. I HAVE said this to several of my Korean friends and they've agreed with me. Now I guess I could just refer them to this website. Blogs are excellent!


The Histrionics of a Fat Housewife said...

The most helpful thing I've found to being understood while using the Korean language is confidence. If you say anything without complete and utter confidence, you will get that head cocked to one side look of complete confusion followed by the cheek slurping sound made famous by Pagoda students.

Show no fear! They smell fear!

Great post, Dave. I'm linking this one. It definitely answers that age old question: Why haven't you learned Korean yet?

Mike said...

Try spending 8 hours a day, 5 days a week for 15 months attempting to learn Korean, only to show up in Seoul and get the blank stare when you tried to test your skills! You hit the nail on the head, my friend: no interchange is possible. Unless you have memorized the exact combination for the exact situation, no soup for you. Don't worry, though. English will be an official language in Korea soon enough (so you can then be thought of as incoherent in your native language as well).

God, I miss the place.

Dave said...

Heeey! Big Mike! Thanks for the comment. Wow, it must suck KNOWING the language and still having to deal with the comprehension Nazis. I often think I'm better off never having learned the language. Like on my date with April. We were wandering around Hong Dae and twice she got offended by assholes who were saying things like she's a princess who found her prince or shit like that. I couldn't understand cuz they said it in Korean. And luckily for them they were gone before she could translate. But I KNOW I would be in jail or would have long since been deported if I could actually understand these idiot. There are a LOT of ignorant poeple here still. It's probably not safe to learn the language yet for me.

Diane's Playground said...

Hey, it's Heather and Mike's friend Diane, we met a few are so right! I'm laughing hysterically. However, I'm more concerned by the fact that as I read the things you said, I was having trouble translating, until I read what the Korean person told you it should have been and then I was like, Oh, that's it! So I'm a little frightened that I actually remember those types of stupid things like which numbers with which identifiers and such...I think I need to be committed. Oh, and Mike is so right too! But Mike...only 8 hours a day? Surely you jest...what about all the bullshit studying for that stupid test that really doesn't have anything to do with how much Korean you don't know...LOL