After months of putting it off, my company finally offered the free Korean lessons I’m contractually promised to receive. At first I got excited, full of the hope that awkward exchanges in stores and restaurants would become a thing of the past. Then I had my first couple of lessons and began looking at my textbooks. Now I’m not so confident.
Korean is a particularly difficult language for someone who only speaks English, especially learning vocabulary. Certain consonant-vowel combinations pop up frequently enough — or they just all start to sound alike to my untrained ears — that within minutes of “learning” a new word or words, I begin mangling them up, combining the wrong syllables.
The other thing I find difficult is listening to people speak. Korean is spoken very quickly, to the point where words don’t sound quite like their phonetic representation says they should. I’ve been told by my friend Shoko, who’s pretty good at picking up Korean, that I should pronounce consonants very softly except where indicated, so maybe I’ll start hearing things better once I start saying them better.
The weirdest thing about the language, though, is the social hierarchy embedded within its rules. I’ve heard it said that a language is a point of view — after all, you can’t think very far beyond what you can express. The Korean language preserves old-fashioned social roles through honorifics and specific words for use by specific people. For example, an older brother and a younger brother are addressed differently; if you are a girl, you have a whole other set of words for addressing certain family members; and of course, older people automatically receive honorifics of respect and subservience.
Then again, there are some pleasant surprises, too. After talking to my local barista, I learned that the Korean language has a joke title roughly translating to “That Guy”: Jaeng-i. When added to a verb, it becomes a sort of friendly observation of a person’s behavior. For example, while nobody in America wants to be called “tattle-tale,” go-ja jil jaeng-i (“The Guy Who Tells”) is not exactly a complaint but rather a recognition of what that person does.
These social cues seem strange to me as an English speaker, especially the male-/female-only words. But what about honorifics for elders? Outside of the hospitality industry, do we even use “sir” and “madam” anymore? I notice them used by rural youth in southern states to address their elders, but it always sounds alien and backward to my ears, even after 15 years living in North Carolina. They certainly doesn’t appear in mainstream culture, like TV and movies, except maybe as points of emphasis.
Maybe I’m overlooking something. I pretty much only speak middle-class white English. What social cues do we have in everyday English that I’m not thinking of?