With all the interesting news coming out of North and South Korea – and that region as a whole lately – I’ve had Asia on the brain for a while now. I’ve never been there, but all this attention on the Far East has me looking into taking a trip there, and everything I’m learning and seeing leads me to believe it would be a very nice place to visit.
I decided to learn a little Korean as well, so I looked on Audible (a service that I absolutely love by the way) and I saw that they had some Korean language lesson books. There were hardly any reviews or other information on any of those audiobooks, so I picked one – more or less at random – that was called “Innovative Language Series – Korean.”
I began listening to the audiobook and it was just what you might think. It has two hosts – one male and one female (who sound like they’re in their early 20s) – and each lesson starts with a little conversation in which people are speaking Korean. Then, after you hear that conversation, the hosts break it down line by line and translate it.
So, the first lesson, for instance, is just two people who run into each other on the street. You can hear the cars in the background and then this …
First Guy: An-yong has-ey-o.
Second Guy: An-yong has-ey-o. Nahn-nah-soh-pahn-ghap-sum-nee-dah.
You know: “Hello,” and, “Hello, nice to meet you.”
Anyway, it was what you might expect for a while but every now and then the lessons seemed a little strange or off in some way. For instance, after they taught you how to say the time from 1 o’clock to midnight, the male host says: “Well, now that you know about clock time, we should teach you about ‘Korean time.’” And they go into this thing about how “Korean time” means you have to add 15 minutes to the real time because Koreans are never on time. As a people, they said, they just aren’t punctual and if a Korean ever says he or she is going to meet you at 12:30, you should assume that means 12:45.
I tilted my head a little when I heard that. I kept thinking: Can you say that? I don’t think you can say that. If I’d written that in a column, I would instantly hear from every Korean person east of the Mississippi and probably from some west of it as well.
There were other things too, like at times it seemed clearly that the male host was making the female uncomfortable by hitting on her during the lessons.
Anyway, a lot of things seemed peculiar but I didn’t think much about it, and then we got to a new lesson. This is how it starts …
Male host: “In this lesson, you’re going to be talking about your experiences – how to tell someone that you’ve done something before, or that you’ve never done something before. And this conversation takes place where?”
Female: On the bus.
Male: And who’s this conversation between?
Female: A woman on the bus and the man who’s being accused of touching her.
So I tilted my head again and I was like, What? Huh? What kind of language learning book is this? Now, at this point, I wasn’t even sure I’d heard it right, but I kept listening. They played a scene on a bus that was all in Korean, which I couldn’t make heads or tails of, since it was in Korean. But I could tell from the sound of the conversation and the bus sounds in the background that it was some sort of trauma on a bus.
And then they offered it again with the English translation of each line. Here it is …
[Sound effects of a busy bus]
Woman: Ahhh! Don’t touch me!
Man: I didn’t!
Another man on the bus (angry): Hey, are you a pervert!?
Alleged Molester: No, I’m not. I never touched her!
Woman: That’s not true – this man touched my leg!
Man: I’ve never done that!
Woman: You’re lying! You took this bus yesterday too, right? I’ve seen you before!
Man: No, I didn’t. I’ve never taken this bus. Today is my first time.
Woman: Let’s talk at the police station.
Man: The police station? Why – I’ve never touched you.
[General commotion on the bus]
Then the two hosts came back on and the male host spoke first.
Male host: “Now, what’s the first word we’re going to take a look at?”
Female: Man-jiji – to touch.
Male: Next we have …
Woman: Se-ong-chu-haeng beom – pervert, molester.
So, I’m listening to this and I’m like, what? Why are they teaching me this? What exactly do they think I’m going to be doing in Korea anyway? Why are they teaching me to say, “I am not a pervert” and “I did not molest her?”
Hopefully, I will not need either of those phrases on my visit. Whatever happened to learning phrases like, “Can you please direct me to the subway station?” or, “What exchange rate can I get on my travelers checks?”
I’m almost scared to continue with the audiobook. I assume they’ll teach me the Korean for, “Officer, I can assure you I had no knowledge that hooker’s body was in the trunk or my rental car.”
Or maybe it will be, “Can you direct me to a laundromat that will remove blood stains but yet not report anything to the authorities,” or “Can I pay my bail with American currency?”
Korean is hard enough as it is when you don’t have your mind being drawn away by all these crazy other considerations. To give you an idea of the complexity, there are formality levels – so what you say depends on whether you are talking to someone who is older or younger than you. Also, they have two sets of numbers: one for math, counting and hours of the day, and another entirely different set of numbers for money, phone numbers and measurements. Also, even when you say “goodbye,” it’s different depending on whether you are the one leaving or staying. Why everybody can’t just use the same goodbye I don’t know.
Also, in that language the word order is different. Most of the important stuff – like negative qualifiers – are the last things in the sentence. Basically, you have to wait to the end of the sentence to know what the heck is going on.
Like a boyfriend might say to his girlfriend, “I love you and want to spend the rest of my life with you not.”
Do you see the inherent pitfalls with that?
Every month the Rhino Times holds an excellent party – uh, I mean, professional networking event – called “Schmoozefest” at different places around town. Two regulars are Jeremiah and his lovely better-half Saffron, who speaks several languages including Cantonese and had to learn English when she was young. She started talking about how hard English was to learn because it’s a crazy language. Her point was that English might seem sensible to a native speaking it, but to someone from another country trying to learn English, it doesn’t make any sense at all.
Rhino Times Editor John Hammer told me the other day that he once met a man who learned to speak English from books entirely, so he had no idea what the language actually sounded like, and, so, when he went to America and started speaking it, he just pronounced words the way they looked from the spelling. Like, he would pronounce the word “know” as “ka-now.” Because that’s how it looked like it would sound. That’s a pretty good illustration of what those from other countries are up against when it comes to learning our language.
My personal favorite word is “colonel,” which is pronounced absolutely nothing like it looks. I remember when I was in my third grade class at General Greene Elementary and this word came up and the teacher, Miss Summers, was teaching it to us.
I saw the spelling of that word and heard the pronunciation and I looked at the teacher in disbelief and I was like, “What?? You’ve got to be kidding me. Are the inmates running the asylum? So, basically, in other words, everything you’ve taught us up to this point is a lie?”
No wonder people find English so hard. The more I understand about English – looking at it from the outside in – the more I forgive foreign countries for throwing the towel in and putting up a sign like this actual one …
WE SPIK INGLISH
Anyway, that’s it for this week, so …
That’s “goodbye” in Korean in case you didn’t know. It’s the goodbye when I’m the one leaving.
But maybe in this situation – the end of the column – it should be …
I’m not sure if it’s me that’s leaving or it’s you. To me, it feels like I’m the one leaving, but to you it might feel the other way around. Like I said, it is all very, very confusing.