Sunday, December 07, 2008


Learning Korean: Easier Said...

May 28, 2005
Today I received confirmation from the Seventh-day Adventist Language Institute: Starting Aug. 23, I’m going to Korea for a year! It’ll be my first experience living abroad. I’ve heard that most languages in Asia are extremely difficult to learn, so I don’t expect to become fluent. Even so, today I’ll order some software from Rosetta Stone that’s supposed to be effective in teaching the basics. That way, when I arrive I won’t be completely clueless.

Aug. 17, 2005

It took awhile, but my software program finally arrived, and I got to look at it today. I wanted to learn a bit before I leave next week, and I was hoping the program would teach some basic things like “hello” and “thank you.” Instead, it’s got pictures, pronounces the word or phrase indicated in the picture, and shows what the word looks like in the Korean writing system. Some words like “woman” and “dog” might be useful, but why do I need to know how to say “elephant” or “The boy is on top of the picnic table?”

Furthermore, this program doesn’t teach how to use or even read the alphabet. Apparently, this letter shaped like an “L” actually makes an “N” sound and the backwards “F” sounds like “K.” Otherwise, it’s awfully complicated. I just hope I pick up some of it after I arrive.

Jan. 2, 2006
I’ve been teaching in Suncheon for four months now, and now I know “thank you” “hello” and “middle-aged woman.” But that’s about all I can say, so my New Year’s resolution is to find someone who can give me lessons. I don’t expect to achieve fluency while I’m here, just a little more to help me get by.

Feb. 23, 2006
The student who was giving me lessons during her winter vacation has gone back to her university in Seoul. Before she left, she helped me learn the 19 consonants. Unfortunately, there are also 21 vowels, with at least two of them expressing variations of the “o” sound, two that say “eh” and about a half-dozen that express something beginning with “w.”

At least she taught me how to say important phrases, like “Where’s the restroom?” and “I can’t speak Korean.” No doubt I’ll get practice with those.

Sept. 21, 2006
After I took my two-month break, I’m glad the SDA institute sent me to Chuncheon. The secretary here is a certified Korean teacher. She knows a systematic way of teaching the alphabet and I think I’ve got it down now. Catherine, my new girlfriend says that she can already see a difference in my abilities. I think I’ll stay here awhile longer to see what else I can learn.

Jan. 15, 2007
My New Year’s resolution was to buckle down and study harder, but I teach seven hours a day, and when I’m not teaching or preparing lessons I can hardly stay out of bed. I know the alphabet but I can’t understand anything anybody says. Maybe it’s just not meant to be.

March 3, 2007
The SDA institute has transferred me to the central office in Seoul so I can help with textbook development. It’s two hours away from Catherine, but now my evenings are free and I can study more!

Sept. 2, 2007
I asked Catherine to marry me this past week and she said yes. The wedding will probably be next year about this time, so I have one year to really study the language. Fortunately, the program at Seoul National University takes about one year to complete. I start tomorrow.

I hope this works, because I’ve tried every Easy Korean book in stores, every software program, and every private tutoring option available to me. The only thing I haven’t tried is going to a class, so let’s hope I’m not throwing my money away.

Nov. 8, 2007
I was worried about the final test in Level 1 at SNU, but it was really easy. Some of the other students wondered how I learned so many of the vocabulary words in our textbook, but all I did was take my four-color pen and write them over and over until I knew what they meant and exactly how they were spelled. I still have to learn the different tenses and some more words before I can consistently understand people, but now I feel like I’m progressing! Maybe fluency isn’t out of my reach after all!

Jan. 15, 2008
Today, one of the older women in the textbook office was telling a story to the rest of the office in Korean. Since I didn’t understand her, another of my co-workers, a Korean-American, had to explain it to me in English. The older woman, apparently unaware of the hundreds of dollars worth I’ve spent on classes and textbooks, and the two-three hours I usually spend per day memorizing words and grammar rules, looked at me and said, “You should learn Korean.” People should be careful who they say that to, lest they get attacked with a four-color pen.

May 25, 2008
The good news is that I’ve been hired to work at The Korea Herald, an English-language newspaper that will allow me to return to the career I love. The bad news is that I won’t be able to finish the program at SNU as the hours for its classes don’t work with my new schedule. Maybe I can arrange something after my wedding in August, but for now it’s back to self-study.

Dec. 3, 2008
Tonight one of my wife’s friends gave me a lift from The Herald to Chuncheon, where my wife and I live. His English is even more stunted than my Korean, so I practiced talking to him for about an hour. I’ve been studying on my two-hour train ride home to Chuncheon most nights, but it was still hard to talk to him. I had to turn to my cell phone’s Korean-English dictionary pretty often.

It occurred to me that I need that kind of practice regularly if I’m to attain fluency. But who will practice with me? If I did that with Catherine we’d never be able to talk about anything important. Korean people usually want to practice English when they talk to foreigners. So many people write into The Herald advising foreigners to learn Korean so that they’ll get along better here.

Every time I read that, I want to track those people down and ask them, “Are you willing to practice with us so we can learn?” It’s probably better that I don’t, however; if they say no, I might end up stabbing them with a four-color pen.

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