Learning Korean

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?

-Daniel Daugherty



Filed under Culture

4 responses to “Learning Korean

  1. How did I not know you had a blog. Rockin! Yeah I’ve found learning Korean to be the hardest thing I’ve tried yet. But, it’s like a roller coaster ride. Up’s downs, fun, scary, etc.

    Keep up the work though.

    …..that or at least learn all the cuss words.

    • Daniel Daugherty

      Yeah I guess I need to have a slightly more relaxed attitude about learning it. After all, I’m in no rush and there’s nobody giving me exams and GPAs and all that crap.

      On the other hand, I was confronted with the number system today. My only question is: “Why would any group of people suffer with such a convoluted system of counting???”

      • Jan

        If the Korean system of counting is like the Japanese, there must be at least a dozen different ways to count to ten, depending on whether you are counting books, people, cats, etc., as well as other differentiations that I never really understood. Very confusing!! Good luck!

        • Daniel Daugherty

          Yeah it’s strange, though maybe not as strange as the Japanese system.

          Koreans have their native Korean system — which has almost no pattern in the naming of numbers — and also the borrowed Chinese system, which is incredibly easy to learn. Each system is reserved for different categories of objects (books, bottles, floors of a building, etc.) with no easy way of knowing which is which. Fortunately for me, because it’s the most common use of numbers in my daily life, money is counted using the Chinese system. My teacher also told me (before I stopped showing up for classes) that younger people will sometimes use Chinese numbers where Korean numbers would normally be called for — for example, ordering beers.

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