So you, to make it like this is a second person rather than a first-person narrative it clearly is, decide to move to Korea. You learn a little bit of the culture, you eat some kimchi, you watch a few BoA and 2NE1 Youtube videos. You are quite clearly prepared for the move to this Asian country, so what else could you need to do? Oh, yes, there’s that thing where they speak a different language completely and utterly unrelated to your own, with its own phonemes, grammar, and writing system. Good luck!
Over the summer before leaving for Korea, I spent time deep in study. By “study,” I mean I found a tourist book with the Hangul alphabet in it and began trying to memorize the sounds, and then wrote out English words with its constituent parts so I could practice and see if I was right. I learned the few basic phrases that all good waygookin learn (hello, goodbye, sorry, thank you, and 주세요, essentially a polite Korean way of saying give me). As I passed through BC, I tried to read what was scrawled on the Korean restaurants and, on one occasion, the message posted outside of a Korean Presbyterian church. With every successful syllable spoken, every halting Asiatic phoneme slurred from my lips, I felt accomplishment. I felt unrelentingly clever. I bloated with my self-pride.
At the time, the books I picked up did not even mention dipthongs and compound Korean vowels, so I didn’t really know they existed until I put some actual legwork into my learning. I occupied myself once more, desperately trying to figure out the differences between things like 외 and 웨, or 위 and 의 (as of yet, I still can’t really hear the difference between the first two). I began to learn the rules of constructing syllables, and why certain things could not fit together. I looked at my Hangul practice from the previous month and put it away, as it was largely nonsensical, and more a process of learning speech sounds than any meaningful communication.
The reality of the situation, that I would be living and working in a country with another language, did not really hit me until I left orientation. Before this, I was aware of it academically: Korean was the party trick, the side project, a hobby I was picking up in my spare time, rather than an actual language to pursue and really give due consideration. Moving here, and walking around on my own, it became a reality.
Not that it would be too difficult to live in Korea without knowing Korean. The big stuff in life, I’d need a Korean friend or coworker to accompany me, but for daily life, I could skate by. It is amazing what can be achieved with Konglish pidgin and a bit of mime thrown in for good measure: in a regular week my friends and I manage restaurants, grocery stores, public transit, simple bank transactions, taxis, bars, classes and occasionally basic conversations, often with people who speak little or no English. I’ve met numerous other foreigners who have survived here for a year or longer with no korean beyond annyeong haseyo.
But I’ve developed a creeping inferiority complex. I’ve grown a nascent sense that I am a weight being carried by the Koreans in my life who are too kind to refuse my requests or who owe me favours anyway. I try to make additional Korean friends so the burden can be shared amongst more of them. Sitting in a bank next to a co-teacher, having them prattle on, occasionally prodding me to produce my passport or bank card, I feel like a child. When I’m out with Korean friends and I constantly need their supervision and guidance on what on earth I’m eating, I feel like a dope. The lure and illusion of independence sort of disintegrates once you get here and realize that you would probably either die or get deported without a few Koreans on your side.
Solution: learn some damn Korean.
The process, I guess, began in earnest once I started at my school. There are times, especially when disciplining students, that a smattering of Korean will get your point across far more than hundreds of English words the students don’t know. I learned phrases telling kids to come to the front, the word to tell them to sit down, and the words to tell them to be quiet. I could tell them to repeat after me, or to look at something, or to look away. The ultimate, of course, is 하지마 (hajima), essentially: “Don’t do it.” Most of these phrases I learned rote, not words but entire blocks of meaning spat out quickly and without finesse. They got the job done.
In the street and around my neighbourhood, I tried to pick up more: I read every sign, despite not understanding what any of it meant. I excused myself formally when I bumped into someone on the street, or when I needed to get someone’s attention. I greeted people whenever I could, just so I could get used to the actual act of using Korean in a practical way, to acclimate to the idea of it as a language I could actually use in the world.
I learned all the different ways you can deploy 괜찮 아요 (kwaen-chan ah-yo, take off the yo to be less formal), which means, essentially, “It’s okay.” If you say it with a rising inflection, it’s a question. It is hard to express how undyingly useful this phrase is. I say it if someone looks upset or hurt. I ask it if I want to take a picture of someone. I drop it when I want to say no problem, or when I leave a cabbie a tip. I say it at least five times a day. It is mysteriously dexterous phrase.
Other times, I pick up language from context: a waiter asks us if we want something, and when he eventually discovers us to be ignorant waygooks, he points to whatever the hell he was talking about. Bam, I have a new noun. My students learn about the English names for the planets, and they memorize it alongside the Korean: bam, planet names. I eat lunch at school, and if something seems particularly curious, I ask what I’m about to eat. If it’s delicious, I can write it down and order it; if it is offensively terrible (it is often one of the two extremes), I know not to order it. When my Korean friends speak to someone else in Korean, if it seems important, I harangue them to give me the key words.
The latest, and most serious, step, is my Korean class. It is mixed in ability: the first class, there were 20 students, ranging from those who had not yet mastered the Hangul alphabet to some dude who’s been in Korea for over a year and is ostentatiously capable at Korean. We were told before that the class would start at pre-beginner and build based on how well the class could move. Our teacher abandoned this.
Much like our Korean teacher at orientation, our current teacher talked about Hangul for maybe 10 minutes, believed this knowledge to thus be completely consolidated and thus ready to use. Much of the current teacher’s style flows in that way: mention new words and grammar once, and assume we know it and are capable of using it. Thus we are moving at a blistering pace, and after four classes I can painstakingly construct a sentence to tell someone that “I ate dinner 7 p.m.” or “She loves kimchi.”
There are times when the learning is remarkably, frustratingly difficult. I forgot how hard language learning is since: my first language is well instilled, and I gave up on French when I was a teenager. Really putting the work into Korean makes me shed the naïve illusion that it’s a fun trick to show off. At the same time, every sentence I make, every noun I can produce, every surprised “Ohhhh! 한국말?” (You speak Korean?), I give myself a little, internal, high five. This can be done. People have learned languages before, right?