I started learning Korean last month.
Being the cheap sort of person I am, I looked around at all the options and said something along the lines of “Flamin’ heck, I can’t afford that!”
Fortunately for me, I stumbled upon a website that was offering Korean lessons for free. More, they were good lessons, starting with building blocks of grammar and sensible advice. Lessons taught in a way that made a lot of sense to me. Printable PDFs and workbooks to go along with ’em.
Because I had the whole month off, it was easy to slip into a good study regime of a couple hours per day. Between writing out flash cards, making copious notes, and watching a truly massive amount of Korean T.V., I began to get a reasonable grasp on the basics of Korean.
The only thing that was lacking, as far as I was concerned, was the opportunity of conversing aloud in Korean. Now, there are a lot of Korean itinerants and permanent citizens around where I live, but I couldn’t see myself walking up to any of them and saying: “안녕하세요! 너는 한국어를 말해요?” (Also, I’m not entirely sure I’ve got that right, so I wouldn’t say it anyway.)
It seemed important to begin speaking aloud (and giving someone who actually knows what the words should sound like the chance to laugh at my bad pronunciation) but no one was offering classroom or even personal lessons.
And then, through a serendipitous set of circumstances, it became possible for me to join classroom setting Korean lessons.
I hadn’t really told many people that I was studying, but I was unexpectedly visiting a friend I don’t often get to see, and mentioned it to her (along with some reccs for my favourite KDramas, of course). The next day, she sent me a text.
I read it and thought “Oh yeah, when I’ve studied enough, I’ll be confident to go to this and practise speaking aloud. I wonder when it starts?” Checked the date. Their first lesson was that night. Ah. But I was working that night and also desperately nervous.
Despite my desperate nervousness, it was a good opportunity, a free course, and it meant that if I could learn well enough, I’d be able to use my lessons in a ministry setting–aka, effectively using this for God.
So I plucked up my courage and asked my boss if I could have the afternoon off if I could get someone to take my shift. He, lovely boy that he is, said yes: which would have been well and good, if only someone would take it. Which they wouldn’t. So off I went to work, very despondent at missing my first Korean lesson–only to be called to the service desk an hour into my shift. The 2IC (another lovely boy) had seen my fervent–aka whingey–plea on the work group chat, and had arranged for someone to finish my shift so that I could get off in time to make it to the first lesson.
And just like that, I was off to my first classroom Korean lesson (during which I was too nervous and off-balance and mumbly to actually do much talking, but that’s a problem for another day…)
Here’s the thing.
I’ve been learning Korean for about a month and a half now. Want to know what I’ve learned in that time?
1. English is mad and bad and dangerous to know. Seriously, English is one crazy, mixed up, impossible language. Anyone learning English from another language is a flamin’ genius. I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated how clever you have to be to go from another language to English, where the rules are always changing, there are always exceptions to those rules, and even the speakers thereof have frequent arguments about who is right or wrong when it comes to the application of those rules. In my time studying Korean, I have gained a huge respect for those whose second language is English, no matter how broken.
2. Learning to speak another language is an insanely humbling thing to do. I don’t know if it’s everyone, or if it’s particularly writers, who have such a grasp on words as a way of life, or just particularly me, having prided myself for so many years upon my vocabulary, but having to leave all that behind and start new is very hard. Instead of having the world at the tip of your tongue, instead of being sure of your expertise in that one thing, you’re flailing wildly for the smallest scrap of understanding and comprehension. More, you know that to others, you will appear exactly as you’ve often thought of newcomers to the English language: foreign, hard to understand, and slightly embarrassing to be around. People will talk to you like you’re a baby, and you will feel like a kid playing dress-up in clothes that aren’t yours and really don’t fit very well. You’ll feel like a fraud. And if you’re anything like me, you will find it painfully hard to open your mouth and force yourself to speak in a language that you feel you’re a pretender to. It’s another thing that has given me a huge respect for people who learn English as a second language. They must have felt like that all along, and I never knew.
3. Korean grammar cheats, too. Seriously, I love this language. From what I’ve read, the Hangul form of Korean was formed when one of their leaders decided that they should have their own written system distinct from Japanese/Chinese/etc. and made it up. Just, yanno, made it up.
They formed rules about how the syllables should work, too (aka, each syllable is always formed in the consonant/vowel, consonant/vowel/consonant, or consonant/vowel/consonant/consonant format). The first letter of a syllable is always a consonant. Except, yanno, when one of those pesky words doesn’t actually start with a consonant. So then you have to work out a ‘null’ symbol so that the rules can stay true. And I won’t even go into the complicated usage of particles, because I’m already going overboard with the length of this post. Suffice it to say that Hangul is the kind of written language I probably would have come up with, quirky fixes and all.
4. The versatility of the English language. I didn’t really realise it until I began learning Korean, but the English language is so versatile. You can form sentences in so many different ways, with the words in so many different places, and still get your meaning across in the way you want to get it across. It could be because I’m still such a beginner in Korean, but so far I’ve found it incredibly restrictive: there seems to be only one way of saying things, and one way of writing them. That isn’t a problem, per se: just as when I learned about structure in poetry (thanks, Harriet!), the prohibitive structure of it doesn’t mean beauty is impossible. It simply means working within the rules to make the beauty, and that, ultimately, is a test of how good a writer you are.
5. Oh yeah, and I also learned stuff like Korean sentence structure, Korean grammar, random useful words and particles, and various rules that make Korean work. I’ve gained enough comprehension to be able to understand about 30 percent of a KDrama with the subbies off, and can speak and write in simple–very simple–sentences. I also know how to say “Wanna die”, “What the heck”, and “Awesome”, along with other slightly slangy things.
6. The insanely long words. Dudes. Korean words can be so long! This is frustrating for me because I’m still sounding things out while running my finger along the bottom of the word like a little kid. I get to the end of the word at last, and I’ve forgotten how the whole thing fits together.
All in all, just as with my writing, there are moments when I have the depressed feeling that I’ll never be able to do it, and that I’ll have to give up in ignominy. Fortunately, those moments are balanced out by the flying feeling that I get every so often when I learn some new bit that connects several other bits together and makes a wonderful big whole of comprehension in my mind. Those are the moments I love, because I know that, just like my dream of being an author, it’s a dream that is achievable for me.