For everyone learning a new language, there is a constant desire to be just more fluent than you currently are. There’s always a verb you’re searching for, a new syntax you wish you could deploy, some fanciful flourish of phrase that would convey your meaning just so, and it’s always just beyond your grasp. More frustratingly for me, though, is how much my skills have begun to tilt to one side. Many areas of my Korean skill are haunted houses full of lingering desires and forgotten words, while others are vibrant and lively. For the people who encounter me with the former, I appear to be a stuttering boob; but for those who see the latter, I’m practically capable of modern poetry.
When I arrived fresh off the plane in Korea, Korean language was nothing but cipher. Exotic, bewildering cipher. A massive conspiratorial gumbo language spoken by millions, I assumed, while colluding with one another. Koreans had secrets, and I was not in on them. They spoke in whispered hushes with knowing glances, because I, the lumbering whitey, knew not a word of Korean. What were they hiding? Were they discussing the true origins of kimchi? What they really thought about the North? Exactly when and how Super Junior and Big Bang would be mobilized to North America to begin Korean plans for world domination? I wanted nothing more than to understand what was being said around me.
A co-teacher once compared teaching English to a class that contained any fluent speakers to being naked in front of a crowd. I understand, certainly: speaking to a group when someone in the audience has more experience or natural ability can be embarrassing, as you know every flaw that you express, the stuff that is thankfully usually never noticed, gets picked up and scrutinized.
All the same, I’m so thankful these little embarrassment-makers exist. Sometimes, they can hop over the tricky language barrier far more nimbly than either my co-teacher or myself, both people understandably losing some nuance with a later-learned second language.
In grade four, we taught a lesson on “Don’t ______” imperatives. We set the kids a brainstormin’, trying to come up with various rules for a theoretical English class. To allow them to freely come up with ideas, Korean talking was a-okay, and my co-teacher and I (though mostly her) would translate it into English.
One child suggested something in Korean which the other kids agreed with, and my co-teacher turned towards me and squinted. “Don’t… be big?” I was confused. Was this kid saying students weren’t allowed to be fat? Or tall? Famous? “Don’t… make yourself big?” Like, when bears are attacking? I thought the opposite was true.
In the back, one of my fluent students, YS, flew into heights of apoplexy. Constrained by my fastidious adherence to the rules, he did not want to call out, and thus was flapping his hand vigorously and shaking as though there was a bathroom emergency. He wanted nothing more than to settle this, and knew that he was the only boy for the job. Noticing him finally, I called on him, and he breathed with enormous relief, “He means ‘Don’t brag.’” Suddenly, all made sense.
(Later in same class: during writing, the same student wrote the following, “Don’t kick somebody’s butt.”)
In another class, my students suggested, “Don’t… 똥침!” (a common and horrific Korean prank where one shoves one’s extended forefingers into another’s prone butthole through their pants). The students asked me for a translation, but the literal version, “Poop needle” sounds too bizarre, and I really didn’t want my kids using it as a verb. One student, who I later discovered lived in Boston for two years, had his own offering: “Don’t butt killing.” This is good advice for us all.
Not a lot of people learn Korean. It’s a niche language, and really the only reasons one would even attempt it is because you plan on working in Korea (and if you’re doing that as an English teacher, it is almost laughably unnecessary), or because you want to dig deeper into K-dramas. When someone tries to learn the language, many Koreans get pretty excited: that you care enough, that you’re making an effort, that they might be able to one day not have to speak fucking English to you anymore. The problem, of course, is that as a learner, you quickly come across stumbling blocks, across language which you simply don’t know, and suddenly you have a bright, encouraging Korean sputtering away at you in their confusing devil’s tongue and oh god oh god why did I try speaking this in the first placecanigonow.
During the hunt for adequate Halloween costuming, we stopped for dinner in Dong Incheon, a small area near the port and China Town. We sat down and I managed to order, completely in Korean, though we refused the offer for makgeolli, which the proprietress did not take kindly. We tore through the samgyeopsal (fried pork belly), prepared on the tin-foil shellacked centre grill, and desired more food. I managed to ask another table what was the delicious thing they were enjoying, attempted to order it, understood that the other table had had the last of it, and then ordered something else. Upon her questioning, I managed to communicate, in Korean, that two of us were from Canada, one from the U.S. When we eventually came to pay the bill, I understood the number she told me fluently and quickly. It was thus that I took an unnatural degree of chagrin when she asked, “Money changee? You need changee Canada dollar for won?” The woman assumed we were tourists! Such an affront. I bristled with pompousness and declared us to be English teachers before, I imagine, leaving in an aloof huff. Then I began to wonder: do the Korean language skills of your average tourist surpass my own? Like many times when my ego gets ruffled, I soon deflated sheepishly.