Sunday, February 24, 2008


On Wanting to Give Up

About four months after I began taking Korean language classes, I was eager to begin testing what I had learned on some of the locals.

I began approaching people the people around me, hoping to strike up a basic conversation with them. I would start by telling them, in Korean, that I was studying the language. I would make sure to do this in full view of my fellow teachers who were foreigners and had not yet made the commitment, in terms of man hours or monetary units, that I had.

At first the natives that I speak to would say nothing, but look pleasantly surprised while waiting for me to demonstrate more.

“I study at Seoul National University,” I would say. “You know Seoul National University?”

They would confirm that yes, they did in fact know about the largest university in their country, the Korean university that they consider their Princeton, the university that most of high schoolers study 12 hours a day in the hopes of attending.

“I go on Mondays and Thursdays,” I would continue, boldly venturing into linguistic terrain where few with my skin hue have dared. “It’s very interesting but difficult.”

My etymological escapes continue unabated until, contrary to all my best-laid plans, they ask me a question. In Korean.

“What are makdoifs dusldak?” they ask. The question is probably elementary. In fact, there’s a good chance I learned it earlier, maybe near the beginning of my studies. That being the case, it’s no longer relevant, because in my brain those syllables have gone back to no longer seeming to fit with one another into any meaningful inquiry.

I lean closer, turning my ear to person, encouraging them to say it again in the quixotic hope that it will make more sense the second time.

“What are makdoifs dusldak?” they repeat.

There is only one thing one can do in this situation. Only one form of communication which all cultures, at least all of the ones I’ve met, understand: the shrug.

“I don’t understand,” I say, with my palms at chest level turned toward the ceiling.

“What time are your classes?” the patient Korean person says, this time in English.

“Oh,” I say, and since “oh” happens to be used heavily by both languages, I can tell myself that I’m still speaking Korean. However, the foreigners I was hoping to impress are probably not feeling any more compelled to study than they were four minutes earlier.

“He spent that much money and he still can’t answer that question?” they probably say to themselves.

It’s okay, I tell myself. It’s only four months that I’ve been studying. The students in the English classes I teach sound better because they’ve been studying longer.

And so I look to my own students for inspiration. Though most of my working hours are earned in our textbook office, I do teach one class every morning at 7 a.m. I generally request to teach the highest levels that we offer, because the topics are more advanced.

I also prefer them to our lower-level classes because I’m not fond of looking at students who are beginners and saying, “If you are absent one more time you will fail,” and having them look back at me, smile their smiles of blissful unawareness and say, “Okay!”

Our institute offers six levels of classes. Should they graduate, they will probably not sound like natives but they will be able to use English in a professional setting. Lately, I’ve been teaching Level 5, which includes questions such as, “What would happen if the US military left South Korea?” in its textbook.

Not an easy question, even for native speakers of English, but these are, after all, elite-level students. They’ve been learning English since they started high school and they should be able to answer an elite-level question like that one during tests. Of course, it goes without saying that they will prepare for a question like that if they know it’s going to be on a test, right?

“I think North Korea attack South Korea, because South Korea’s power is … not good,” one student says, and I begin to wonder if my vocabulary will be that limited after I’ve been studying their language for many years.

“I think North Korea is very dangerous our threat,” another one says, and I begin to wonder if I will be putting Korean words out of order years from now.

“I think the Korea’s stability is very dangerous,” another student adds. As you can probably imagine, this answer makes my happiness very sad. Not only do these sentences make me wonder if studying a foreign language is worth the years of effort it takes, they make we wonder if I accomplish anything by getting out of bed in the morning.

If that’s what I’m going to sound like years from now, what’s the point?

Even so, I call the academic office at SNU in the last week of February, to find out if I passed my most recent class and see if I’m actually making measurable progress.

“Excellent!” comes the non-native but professional-setting-appropriate voice from the other line. “You had an average of 96.”

That means I can advance to third level at SNU. It also means that, for the second term in a row, I’ll receive the excellence award they give to those with a 95 or higher. The certificate will be addressed to “Rovert York” and my supervisor in textbook development will hang it up in our office.

I may still give up studying Korean someday, but not yet.


Rest assured that you are studying one of the hardest languages in the world for a native speaker. You in terms of class hours for the State Department language course on Korean, it has the most, even more then Arabic.

Start with simple things that you can practice everyday (where is bathroom, hello, I'd like to order...) and then branch out to more complex words.
I mean a native ENGLISH speaker.
Thanks for the info. I verified that at the Department of Defense site. If I ever master Korean, Spanish will be a breeze.
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