As a follow-up to my last post, I'd like to talk about my personal experience learning Korean so far and my take on the language. Last post I briefly mentioned that Korean can be seen as harder than it is. I can especially imagine this being the case among long-term foreigners who have been here long enough to have Korean-speaking family (even children!). It is also the case among many Koreans. While most would agree that foreigners should try to learn Korean, few seem to believe that foreigners can. Speaking Korean as a non-Korean is seen as this Sisyphean task, which must be undertaken, but can never be accomplished, unless you are a member of Non-Summit:
"Korean culture, through the eyes of a foreigner." It's a delightful comedy/variety show set around a board-room table, where non-Korean men inexplicably speak in Korean. I don't especially like Non-Summit, but if I were a Korean man, I would resent this show's extremely high popularity among Korean women. Sort of like a goofy "Foreigner Eye for the Korean Guy," where your average Korean (and person) is a ways less telegenic, clever, and wealthy than the cast.
On Non-Summit, Koreans are first amazed by the fact that foreigners are speaking Korean. Most amazing is that a few, including the Turk and the American, practically speak without an accent. Considering the shock with which some Koreans, especially those less accustomed to foreigners, regard any sort of foreign normalcy here (tolerance of spicy foods, toddler-level chopstick abilities, etc.), this isn't too surprising. But let's be clear: there is nothing so damn special about Korean culture, or any culture, that it can't be learned. Being Korean is not a prerequisite to learning Korean. Being Korean is a prerequisite to being Korean.
Korean is especially easy to jump into. You, random foreigner, what sort of writing system do you think of when you think of Korean?
No, no. That's Chinese! Chinese is a beautiful, terrifying, utterly senseless logosyllabic system with no 'alphabet.' This is Korean:
Bear in mind, there aren't even this many adorable letters in Korean: some of these are just compound letters. The Korean alphabet is extremely simple, easy to learn, and cute. It is (almost) perfectly phonetic, unlike English. Korean was spread by King Sejong the Great, who is also apocryphally credited with its invention. Completed in the mid-1400s, 한글 (Hangul) relplaced Hanja, a semi-Koreanized beautiful, terrifying, utterly senseless logosyllabic Chinese system. Hanja was only learned by the rich, so aside from being a much friendlier language, Hangul was a much more inclusive language. It also synthesized predominately Korean sounds in a beautiful, interlocking alphabet, which was an improvement on Hanja, which often crudely shoehorned Korean words and sounds into another culture's writing system. Each 'block' (e.g. 한) represents a single syllable ('han'). I strongly expect that this system of 'shaped' writing makes reading/writing much easier for people with learning disabilities, like dyslexia. It's also really fun to write. Even the vowels and consonants are designed to represent the shape one's mouth makes when it is spoken. Overall, Hangul's pretty great, and easy.
Additionally, Korean doesn't employ a tonal system of speaking. Mandarin's writing system and tonality are the most-mentioned difficulties to learning that language. Comparatively, Korean must be a cinch. And I'm sure, comparatively, that may be true.
I've been studying quite hard for the past few months. I've memorized a lot of words and can write most really basic sentences. However, my conversational level in Korean is quite terrible. That's partially because I'm usually better at thinking on paper rather than out loud. It's mostly because I'm very embarrassed to experiment with the language, even among friends. Remember, its too easy to just speak English here, especially when you're in the habit of it.
This was my experience while learning Spanish. I could read and write well years before I could say fairly basic things with confidence. I'll try to be a bit more bold this go-around, though.
Speaking of Spanish, I'd like to close with a few things I've noticed while learning this third language. The first is obvious: it is much, much more difficult. I hadn't realized how easy Spanish is until I really started learning Korean. Korean sentence structure is extremely different, and the manner in which most usual things are said is extremely different. With Spanish, put adjectives after nouns, string together some cognates, be OK at conjugation, and you can call it a day. Whenever I read or think in Spanish now, it very seriously looks/sounds like a Bizarro version of English, because everything is so similar by comparison.
I can give examples in some other post but, suffice it to say, with Korean I've only just realized how little effort I put into Spanish. At the same time, I've realized how much I managed to learn in practically 8 years of passive education. I haven't lost too much of my Spanish and, more often than not, a deeply ingrained Spanish word or phrase will shove out a new Korean one I'm trying to learn. I've started reading a Spanish novel from college again, and it just feels much easier. I can't say exactly why, but while I'm hardly more comfortable speaking Korean than I was two months ago, studying it has done wonders for my confidence as a Spanish speaker.
Part of this may be realizing that I have a pretty fair, lightly accented way of speaking Spanish. I may be prouder of this now that I'm realizing that I speak Korean very very badly right now. When I was finished with my minor, I had the slightest of technical problems with pronunciation. Even after high school, I wasn't speaking Spanish at Hank Schrader level, with mad-elongated gringo vowels grinding through every word. I had a fair ear for Spanish, and while I can hear and speak individual words in Korean fine, too, stringing Korean sounds into coherent sentences is still pretty difficult. So I'll have to see if that's one thing that improves, or not, as I continue my immersion here.
For this post, I'll talk about something that's been a major focus of my time here: learning Korean. Its easy to regard this sort of project as either much easier or much more difficult than it really is.
Starting with the former misconception, I want to say off the bat that many people's ideas of learning a foreign language through immersion are extraordinarily, unbelievably, shockingly wrong. At some point, I also absorbed these notions.
I pictured a traveler, childlike and blossoming, open to receive limitless aural stimuli. As they walk between a foreign markets' tightly-packed stalls, bantering and bartering with energetic locals, they see the foreign language in the faces of wrinkled old women, they smell the language on intermingling wafts of leather, exotic spices, and shit. When they sleep, they dream in their adopted language, by virtue of simply living where it is predominately spoken.
You remember the close to the 2008 Season of 30 Rock, where Kenneth has landed a page gig at the Beijing Summer Olympics, and immediately becomes Chinese-fluent and embroiled in a web of international romance, espionage and intrigue? No? Neither does Youtube. Hm. Remember the market scene in Indiana Jones? Um...what about Lego Indiana Jones?
Before going to Romania, I decided I'd try to learn a bit of Romanian. By almost any measure it's sort of a pointless language to learn, but I figured I'd get a kick out of pretending to my I didn't speak any for a couple days, and then all of a sudden surprising my friends by speaking it.
My friend Brian did me a huge favor by going to the library, checking out the Pimsleur Romanian I series, ripping it, and then sending me the MP3s. After finishing the first lesson, I was struck by just how much I enjoyed doing it. I've used Pimsleur tapes to learn Chinese, Japanese, and French (which I never finished and consequently don't remember), but it had been six years since I'd started one.
The returns on learning the first bit of a language are huge. While I don't have nearly enough vocabulary to have an actual conversation in Romanian, doing one half-hour tape every day for a month left me with enough to be able to ask directions, order things at a restaurant, exchange pleasantries with strangers, and buy things. I think I successfully made a joke in Romanian, too.
So after all that, I decided that I'm just going to learn every language. Pimsleur has a list of over fifty that they support. I'm going to start with the ones I'm most interested in that have ninety tapes instead of the thirty that they had for Romanian. I did the full ninety in Japanese, and it got me to the point that I could have actual, if a bit kludgy, conversations.