I’m in Thailand now, with my face freshly burnt red and with my mind both relaxed and agitated just the right amount for catching up on my multiple drafts from Korea. Let’s see what comes out of it. This post will be the updated and seriously revised version of a thing I almost published two weeks ago. But what does it matter, here it goes.
Roughly n weeks ago I wrote the following paragraph for the “Teachers as Students” issue of iTDi Blog:
“On October 1st I’ll arrive in South Korea and will be staying there for over a month. In view of that, I thought it respectful, good manners, and actually practically useful to study Korean. I don’t set objectives for myself higher than merely being able to read hangul, the Korean script. Ideally, I’d also learn to say a few touristy basics, realizing all the time that saying something in a foreign language is just part of a communication situation, and not even half of it.” (all 15 paragraphs I wrote can be found here).
So that was a scene set. It’s been 2 weeks I’m in South Korea (UPD: I’ve left Korea now). One of the most amazing and useful (for me) features of blogging, or writing of any form, for that matter, is that it allows you to read into your own mind of weeks ago. Moreover, it prompts asking yourself questions, such as:
– Can you read hangul?
– Was/ is it useful?
– Have you learnt a few touristy basics? How many is “a few”? What are they?
– Do your few touristy basics help you in your touristy communicative situations?
These are the questions you can ask me. In this post I want to speculate about my hangul’s worth, describe my encounters with the language, and in general share my thoughts about the languages that surround(ed) me in Korea..
My prep for visiting Korea did include attempts to learn the script, and I can say that I diligently and enthusiastically managed about 2 weeks of self-study using apps and videos (which have been very helpful and I still aim to continue watching the lessons, mostly for the nerdy fun of it). As a result, I am not frightened of the look of most street signs. I am, though, feeling quite insecure when I see this:
I consider myself very lucky to have rarely needed to face this on my own. When on my own, though, I resorted to choose places with pictures and/or English menus.
What’s wrong with this one if you claim to be able to read the script? – I ask myself. Here’s when I’ll get to write about skills and competences and the mess they make.
So yes, with the exception of uncomfortable vowel combinations, 4-letter blocks (닭), numerous (luckily not endless) pronunciation rules when sounds of separate letters blend together to make something totally different from what I’m seeing – with the exception of those, I can read hangul, the Korean script. In practice, that means I can try to give the sticks and circles a sound equivalent. If that word happens to be of an English origin, I’ve nailed it. I can figure out that 커피 is “keopi” (coffee) and 오렌지 is “oraenji” (orange). At this point I start feeling masterful and very linguistically talented. In this fashion, I can read = pronounce metro stations, names of attractions, separate words on product labels, anything Korean which makes it no more than a line of lexical items at a time. How useful that is without knowing what the words actually mean, I have little clue. In that menu above, once I regain confidence after first-minute shock of looking at the paper, I might recognize rice rolls, ramen and soup, because I know those words. Otherwise I’m lost and being able to pronounce the stuff doesn’t guarantee ordering the stuff I’ll feel like eating.
Bottomline on reading: it feels very nice to be able to associate symbols with sounds. Reading practice itself is hard when we’re talking beyond word/ collocation level.
I was not at all surprised to find that the skill I’m so fervently preaching to be particularly effective in learning a language (as it’s proven to be that to me in my own experiences) is actually worth all the fuss in Korean, too. If I don’t write it, or type it, odds are high I’ll forget it the next minute. So that’s what I’ve been doing:
For a little while I also played with writing hashtags for my Instagram pics in hangul. That’s one of those little, seemingly unimportant and unimpressive things that, in my opinion, assist quite a bit in getting your confidence when dealing with a foreign language. Tiny steps made up of no more than words, repetition, playful use and no rules – it works for me.
Bottomline on writing: it is key for me, be it English, Japanese, Korean or other. I suppose there must be scientific evidence (and published papers) that language produced by/ registered with the help of fingertips has better retention. The little data I have speaks in the favour of this statement.
As it happens, I can only say (1) what I’ve previously written down; (2) what I’ve written down and read to myself and aloud several times; (3) what I’ve written down, read aloud and practised saying to myself. The saying-it-to-myself part is as necessary to me as it’d look ridiculous: I must feel at ease with myself pronouncing the foreign sounds, hearing myself uttering them, first shyly and quitely, then possibly louder. In the end, I might finally feel brave enough to try sound the “goodbye” out at an appropriate moment. I’ve noticed, though, as there’s hardly ever any reaction following my “goodbye”(since I’m saying it when going or almost gone), I’m not motivated to keep saying it. I suppose if I were to stay in Korea for a while longer, I’d have braced myself for learning more meaningful vocabulary and actual expressions I could use in a variety of situations. Otherwise, it’s just words alone, and even then I’m not sure how well I’m managing. Last week at a bus station in Gangneung I tried to ask for tea at a cafe. I thought the Korean for tea is “cha”, which it is. I tried both “cha” and “tea” and gesticulation. The lady’s face was blank on all occasions and I felt quite dumb for a second there.
Bottomline on speaking: it’s thrilling to find yourself able to express yourself, however limited the way is, in a foreign language. It’s painful, too. I believe I’m very forceful as a teacher.
Well, this paragraph will be really short. It’s just terrible.
It’s just terrible. It’s impossible for me to break down the Korean I hear into any intelligible parts, something I would be able to write down. As soon as I arrived, I had this idea in mind to ask every person I talk to to teach me a word/ phrase in Korean that’d be interesting, useful for me. Not even once could I catch what they were saying from merely listening to these good people! Not even when I asked them to repeat, not when I stared into their mouths trying to grasp the sounds from the movements of their lips and identify the corresponding letters to spell the things out. In the end, it was always the same – I asked the person to type it for me in my phone notes (which you can see above).
Bottomline on listening: it is a sad realization that my ear is so unresponsive to the language I hear around me for whole 30 days. It made me think about the ways I teach listening and also promise to myself to do more (and regular!) listening for my Japanese.
These are my thoughts on my *progress in* Korean this past month. I’m going to be back to Seoul for a week soon, but frankly speaking I don’t expect myself to learn much more in that time. Besides, I really miss studying and focusing on Japanese, which I’ve neglected for 2 months. I enjoyed tackling Korean as I love the look of it and I still believe my decision was right, however little the progress. I had fun and I’m happy to officially announce my viewpoint that learning languages is exciting, and could be an especially great experience if in your learning you open up to people speaking the language in question.
As usual, I’ve got some random notes to share at the end of my post plus a little treat at the very bottom.
1) During my visit to one of Seoul palaces, the following conversation happened:
(silence, hiding behind the statue of a dragon)
– Here Korean king (pointing to the palace).
– Oh! Korean king lived here?! (smiling and overly enthusiastic about the fact shared)
My conversation partner hiding behind the statue of a dragon, then staring at me and taking the time to formulate his 3-word *almost* sentence, was a five/six-year-old boy. I found this interaction beyond cute, and especially so when I tried to imagine a Russian kid of the same age approach a foreigner with a travel guide type comment in English. I just don’t see it happen.
2) Nobody I asked to teach me some Korean found it an easy task. Nobody ever taught me how to say YES or NO.))) I would still like to know how to say “I like it”.
3) ㅋㅋㅋ (“k k k”) standing for “hahaha” is fantastic and weird. From the little Korean laughter I heard here and there, their real laughing is pretty normal.
***** The Treat *****
Thanks for reading my post. Now I invite you to lean back in whatever furniture item it is you’re sitting on and enjoy the hilarious linguistic landscapes of Korea. I’d heard of them before I came to Seoul but I could hardly have imagined the immensity of the scale. They’re one of a kind, if you ask me. I don’t offer any analysis (though I’m very much interested in that and I have formed some opinion on that) or ideas how to use that in class. You can check the links shared at the very very bottom of this post to learn more about linguistic landscapes, which seem to have grown to be a thing in online ELT world. Otherwise, just enjoy the hilarity.
(there’s some school bag..)
I hope that was somewhat enjoyable. You can read more about linguistic landscapes here, here, here, and also here. You can rummage twitter for #LinguisticLandscapes. You can join this Facebook group. You can look around and see how the linguistic landscape in your country
cannot compare compares to the one in Korea. Russian certainly does not!
Thank you for reading.