Sunday, March 08, 2009


"I Like Weather!": The Accidental Wit of the Bilingual Couple

During our honeymoon on the tropical paradise that is Jeju Island in early September, the weather was warm but it seemed a daily rain shower kept it from becoming excessively hot or bright. As we went out on a boat ride together on a breezy, pleasant evening, I thought to offer my assessment of the day’s conditions using my new wife’s native tongue.

“Nalssi-ga johahyo,” I said, choosing to directly translate exactly what I’d say in English: “The weather’s good.” I had even made a point to include the “ga” suffix that used for Korean nouns which end in a vowel; a suffix oft-forgotten by students of the language.

My attempt to show appreciation for my wife’s upbringing was met … with a smirk.

“Really?” she asked. “Do you like weather?”

Too late, I realized that this is what my sentence sounded like without the word “ee” at the beginning, specifying that “this” weather was the type I was so enjoying, and not atmospheric states in general. More than a year after I began studying the language, this was yet another reminder to me that direct translations between languages often don’t result in the desired effect.

There is, after all, no telling how many times I’ve used Korean words to effect and exact representation of what I’d say in my own language, such as “I’d like to be alone” or “I’m hot-blooded” only to have a Korean native say, “That’s sounds weird.”

For my wife, this instance was payback for the two years she’d spent as a perfectly competent English speaker romantically involved with an English perfectionist. Almost since the day we met, my wife and I have been asked, both by her friends and mine, if communication between us ever causes problems.

The short answer is “No”: If she hadn’t been able to communicate the meanings of her words consistently while consistently understanding mine, this relationship never would have gotten off the ground.

The longer answer is “Yes, there are problems, but only of the amusing kind.”

How many times has she said, “I’m going to visit my friend’s couple” to my initial confusion? Then, realizing what she means, I explain to her that, actually, it’s “my friend and her husband” that she’s going to see. It is customary in Korean to identify a man and wife by the person you know, then adding bubu, the word for married couple, after their name.

“Why?” she asks me. “Why not ‘my friend’s couple?’”

Then there are the times in which she’s said something to the effect of: “My friend just had a baby and it makes her very difficult.” As Koreans seem to use the syntactical equivalent to this phrase regularly, I oftentimes just let it go; why bother trying to fight something that engrained?

Every now and then, when I’m feeling the urge to give myself a migraine, I will explain to her that it’s her friend’s situation, and not actually her that is difficult. In response, she asks me:

“Why? Why isn’t she difficult?”

That I can’t answer. I don’t know why our English adjectives insist on range; I don’t know why it can’t be more like Korean, which uses the same adjective to say “It is very interesting” and “I am very interested” and is none-too-bothered by it. I can promise, though, that if I’m ever allowed to invent another language, simpler adjectival agreement is something I’ll definitely look into.

Maybe, while I’m at it, I can calculate how often we, in Western culture, actually say a person’s name when we’re not seeking to correct their behavior. Think about it; how often do you call your best friend or your significant other by his/her name unless you’re mad, disappointed or otherwise perplexed by their actions?

It was something I never thought about until my wife began calling me by my name every time she wanted my attention. The first few times I heard a sudden, stark “Rob!” coming from another room, I was instantly reminded of familial situations in America, in which my name was used to alert me to something erroneous in my conduct.

“Rob,” she would as she was in the living room and I in the kitchen, the site of many an instance in which my family brought a misdeed to my attention.

“Huh? What!?” I’d reply, wondering what the problem may be.

“I was going to ask you if you could get a glass of water while you’re there,” she’d say. “Is something wrong?”

“That was what I was about to ask you,” I’d reply.

I would say that she has just as many stories of my misapplied or misunderstood Korean, but I’m actually rather sure she doesn’t. The mistakes I make are not the kind that cause her and other Koreans to laugh; instead, they furrow their brows and say, “What?” For every “I like weather!” there are probably a half-dozen instances of me saying “I need to operate the broom” or “I’m sick so I should go to the talpihos.”

And that’s why my Korean studies continue, and I vow to achieve, at minimum, the kind of fluency that causes funnier mistakes. I owe it to my wife; after two and a half years with me she deserves her turn at being entertained.

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