A series of brief encounters from the first half of the semester. This month’s mishmash of topics includes SpongeBob Squarepants, life as a foreigner, loneliness, North Korea, and Jell-O.
Remember when I wrote that I was feeling so much better about my Korean? Yeeeeah, maybe not so much!
After school today, Host Mom and I went to Homeplus to do some grocery shopping. Host Mom put kimbap in our shopping cart to have for dinner so we wouldn’t have to cook, but she wanted something else to go with it. After we paid for the groceries, we started walking toward the exit when Host Mom asked, “Ka-pu-shi mokollaeyo?”
Would you like to eat…Ka-pu-shi?
Linguistically, I’ve changed from a college graduate to a toddler.
A few months ago, I was writing my senior thesis, working on the campus magazine, and signing the final paperwork to accept my Fulbright grant. But when I moved here in July, I was lucky if I could communicate basic needs like wanting food or going to the bathroom. And if someone looked at me and started speaking Korean, I was (and still am) petrified.
I swear! I want to say every time I look helplessly for my online dictionary or glance at the nearest bilingual person in the room. I’m a reasonably intelligent human being!
It’s humbling and frustrating to be a beginner again. I’m used to being a fast learner and understanding new information quickly. But learning a language isn’t like that. Sure, I understand the grammatical rules. For some reason, that’s easy for me. I can write basic Korean sentences without a problem. But listening and understanding? Forming the sentences myself? It’s a herculean task.
As difficult as it is when you and another person are speaking to each other in two different languages, it’s much more difficult when you are speaking the same language but cannot understand each other due to pronunciation and regional accents. While I run into the former problem in my everyday struggles with speaking Korean, the latter problem is most common when I am helping my students with their English writing.
Today my students were writing a few sentences about their future plans. As I was walking around the classroom to help them, one of the girls called me over.
“Spelling…’liber’?” she asked.
“Liber?” I repeated, glancing at her paper for a clue as to what she meant. “What is ‘liber’?”
Ye Bin and I climbed into the taxi parked outside of Homeplus, our arms laden with groceries and shampoo. Ye Bin said our address to the driver, who did a double take when he glanced at the two of us in the back seat.
“Gimhae Jeil?” the taxi driver asked, glancing at me. He said something in Korean to Ye Bin, who laughed and shook her head.
“Aniyo,” said Ye Bin. She answered something else in Korean. The only two words I picked out were yeodongsaeng (“younger sister”) and daehakkyo (“university”).
“Did he ask if we went to Gimhae Jeil High School?” I asked Ye Bin as the driver pulled away from the curb.
“Yes – he remember you!”
Before I left for Korea, I posted an article I had previously written about English as a global language. Even though I’m only a few weeks into Fulbright, I am starting to realize for the first time just how much of an impact English has around the world–in positive and negative ways.
Korea is the first country I have visited that has a non-Roman alphabet (Hangul). Though I can recognize the letters and syllables in Hangul, this is my first experience (that I can remember, at least) of being nearly illiterate. While this is disconcerting at times, it is even more disconcerting to see how much I am able to understand–because even in a small rural town, so many words are also in English.
So maaaaaybe “advanced beginner” is a little ambitious for me!
The little Korean I knew promptly disappeared as soon as 선생님 (“seonsaengnim” or “teacher”) began speaking. I have not heard much spoken Korean, so I spent most of the class trying to follow along and hoping that I was not the only one who was lost. It’s tricky to listen to the teacher, take notes, and look at the textbook at the same time when missing a word or two means the difference between understanding and confusion.