Sunday, October 21, 2007


Enjoy the Small Victories of Learning Languages

As the summer of 2002 began, I was determined that I would make long-distance running a habit of mine. I woke up early in morning, before the Chattanoogan heat and humidity would saddle my journey with an extra couple sandbags of sweat, and jogged the oval-shaped track on Southern Adventist University’s campus.

The entire oval was one-fourth of a mile, so I decided that I would start by doing four laps on it. My build is naturally thin, so I figured it was only matter of time before it adapted.

My body did not agree with this reasoning, because it knew something that I did not when I was making these plans: one mile is still a pretty long distance to run.

I attempted to convince my body that it could do it by breaking the task down into small victories. While the body would play the Washington press core, always drudging up and using whatever negative sentiment it could find, I assumed the role of the White House press secretary, assuring it that everything was going to be fine if it would just be positive for four more years … I mean, laps.

“The mouth needs water,” the body would tell me. “It’s dry and wasn’t properly watered before the mission began.”

“It’s okay, we’re 1/8th of the way there,” I would respond.

“Pain has been reported in your sides and will continue to worsen unless there is a change in strategy,” it would tell me.

“We’re halfway there, so stop emboldening the aches,” I would respond.

“That sensation in your shin is not soreness, it’s the beginning of a stress fracture,” it would tell me.

“We’re three-quarters of the way there, and we owe it to our brave fighting shins to complete what we’ve started,” I would respond.

I learned a lesson through these experiences that has remained with me to this day: people who enjoy distance running are psychotic, and should be treated as such. Law enforcement should be called upon to lock them in appropriate treatment centers, provided law enforcement can catch them before developing shin splints.

However, I can recognize that distance running is one of many tasks that requires one to recognize and appreciate small victories. If a would-be distance runner gave up at the first sign of difficulty, he or she would have to accept their inferiority in all-important categories like “resting heart rate” which are used everyday to determine one’s status in life.

Likewise, if one gives up early on in their attempts to learn a foreign language, they are missing out on the many memorable embarrassments that lie ahead.

Virtually all foreigners who come to Korea arrive without even knowing how the people here say “Hi.” Then, they spend the next several months, maybe years, wondering what the people are saying about them. This often happens to those of us who work for the SDA Language Institutes, especially in the churches we attend.

The first few times, all we hear is: “Blah blah blah blah Robert York blah blah blah, blah blah blah blah blah …”, and we are at the mercy of whoever is working as a translator. After a few months, a few works that are often used occupationally by the natives start are learned, and a little progress is made.

Then, we can hear: “Blah blah teacher Robert York blah blah blah blah people blah blah Korean blah blah women blah blah clap blah blah…” In time, once one learns the local writing system, it become apparent that most concepts that weren’t realized until after Korea discovered the West still have their English names, but in Korean pronunciation. This why my health insurance card is addressed “Robotuh Yokuh”, and signs in most department stores have one sign pointing to the “escalatuh” and another to the “elebatuh.”

Then, the message you hear is “Blah blah teacher Robert York blah blah term break blah blah blah Korean women blah blah clap blah blah.”

There are many other things one can try in order to make the language more decipherable: buying a pocket dictionary, taking classes, or maybe making one of the natives your significant other. I’ve tried all of these things, and I learn new words all the time. It’s rarely enough to understand exactly what a person is saying about me, but it’s often enough to guarantee that I understand the topic.

The translator is still necessary, however, if only to fill in the blanks.

“We’re heard that teacher Robert York proposed to his girlfriend during the term break and is going to get married. Many of the people who come to Korea do end up marrying Korean women and staying here, and we hope that he will do the same. Please clap for him”

“In case you don’t know who teacher Robert is, he’s the one six rows back with the bright red face.”

As I spend more time experiencing the language and culture of this place, there are sure to be more experiences like that.

It beats shin splints, however.

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