Sunday, March 30, 2008


Languages: Aren't They All Strange?

Welcome to this, the first edition of Your Guide to Strange Languages. After all, aren’t they all strange?

Today we’ll be answering questions about Hangeul, the native language of Korea, and how it compares to our own. The author has more than two years experience teaching English to Koreans, and has been studying Hangeul for several months. Through his studies, he has achieved several impressive feats, including learning how to spell his name with their alphabet, how to pronounce his name in their dialect, and how to understand his name when said by a Korean person.

Credentials established, let’s start with the questions:

How different is Hangeul from English?

A lot.

Uh, okay. Are you annoyed with me for asking that question?

Just a little. Why don't you try again, and try to be more specific.

Okay, what are some things that English-speakers don't realize before they try to learn a new language?

Before I matriculated, when I was taking Spanish to fulfill certain high school/college credit hours/language requirements, I viewed it as just another subject and spent as much time outside of class studying it as I did with algebra and European history. In high school, that meant almost no time at all. In college, it meant just enough studying to keep my grade high enough that I wouldn't make my parents wonder if my federal student loan was a waste of taxpayer dollars.

The difference is that when I spent a little bit of time with a subject like algebra I knew how to divide with x's and y's. After I devoted a little bit of time to European history I knew how the events of World War I in turn caused World War II. In other words, since I wasn't planning to specialize in those fields, I had learned all that I needed to without too time-consuming an effort.

However, what is the purpose of studying a foreign language except to become fluent in it? To do that requires devotion of at least an hour a day for at least a year on that single subject. Had I known that when I started Spanish I probably would have devoted a lot more time to those three weekly credit hours.

Then again, knowing my mindset at the time, I probably would've decided that those three weekly credit hours could be better spent somewhere else, like in bed.

What are the first obstacles one encounters when you begin applying the language skills you've studied?

The first thing you have to do is learn the words you will use. The next thing you have to do is begin using them. At first, everyone who tries acquiring a new tongue has to translate the message they want to convey one word at a time.

Even after several months of study, it still takes master's thesis-degree of effort to express messages such as: "I … went … camping ... uhm … two weeks … (what was it?) … (oh, right) … ago." One just has to keep practicing until we don't have to think about each part of the sentence in advance.

What has studying Hangeul helped you to understand about Koreans who study English?

Well, some ideas simply aren't expressed using the same words. In English, we "I took some medicine," whereas Koreans "I ate some medicine." I used to think this sounded silly, and I'd say things like, "Really? Did it come with an appetizer and some side dishes?"

Now I understand that if one were to say "I took some medicine" in Hangeul, a similarly sarcastic Asian counterpart of mine might say, "Really? Why'd you take that, and not the subway?"

So, does that make you a more understanding teacher?

It does most of the time. However, it's still pretty hard not to find it amusing when one of them says something, "Yesterday my friend cut her hair and dyed" (and if you don't understand why that's amusing try saying it out loud to someone).

Likewise, I know that Koreans use adjectives differently than us, so their word for "excited" is that same as their word for "exciting." This understanding makes it no less challenging to keep a straight face when a female student says, "The way you teach makes me very easy."

It also fails to help when a male student comes to you and says the exact opposite thing.

Do you think that you're saying equally funny things when you speak Hangeul?

I don't do so as often, because I’m not even good enough to say things like that yet. However, I wish I had the space and the time to make you understand the similarities between certain Korean words; resemblances which make words easy to mix up.

Then, you'd understand why I have, in the past, intended to ask people if they got a cup of coffee, and instead asked, "Did you get a cup of nosebleed?" You might also understand why, when I attempted to tell certain people that my significant other is a nurse, I actually said, "My girlfriend is a library."

So, just take my word for it: it sounds hilarious to them.

How long does it take to become fluent in Hangeul?

I’ll have to get back to you on that. I will say that, according to the US Department of Defense, Hangeul, is in the hardest class of languages for an English speaker to learn, along with Japanese, Chinese and Arabic. It's harder than learning Hebrew, Vietnamese and Russian, and many untold degrees harder than Spanish or French.

In other words, Hangeul will be the topic in Your Guide to Strange Languages for many weeks to come.

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