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.
After a full night of much-needed sleep, we started Day 2 with the infamous language placement test. Professors from Korea University’s summer language program greeted us in the English Center (known among students as the “Fish Bowl”) and administered the test, which contained a written exam and an oral interview. The prompt for the exam was to write a self-introduction in Korean. More than half of the ETAs, who did not know any Korean, wrote their names at the top of the test and handed in a blank page, at which point they were allowed to leave without taking the oral portion of the test.
I knew a few phrases and sentences from the last few weeks, so I wrote “Hello! I am Janine” in Korean and stood on the line to hand in my test, expecting to be excused. When one of the instructors saw that I had written something, he whisked me away for an oral interview. Wait, what?!
Take thirty seconds and write down as many languages as you can. Ready? Go!
You probably wrote down English (and any other primary languages you speak) first. After that, you most likely listed the foreign languages you studied in high school or college. Then you might have moved to other popular world languages: Mandarin, Russian, Spanish. But did you list Icelandic? Welsh? Haitian Creole?
According to the Linguistic Society of America, studies estimate that there are as many as six or seven thousand distinct languages spoken across the world. Exact numbers vary due to the difficulty of distinguishing languages from dialects and the challenges of learning about languages from remote regions—still, the number is immense! But as economic, political, and cultural borders begin to disappear, so do the languages that have held together different nations, peoples, and social identities. In an interdependent world, we must balance our need for cross-cultural communication with the need to maintain respect for regional languages, especially those that are in danger of extinction.
“So, what are your plans after graduation?”
My uncle looked at me over the Thanksgiving table as he began carving the turkey. I cringed as he asked the one question every college senior dreads. While several of my friends knew exactly what they would be doing after May 15, I was still unsure. I knew only two things. The first was that I applied for a Fulbright ETA.
The second was that I hadn’t told my parents yet.