Me and the Octopus, or, Honky Talks Korean


I assume he's threatening my life, right?

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.

Talking to a Korean person in Korean can go a number of different ways, all of them eventually making a wrong turn at Albuquerque and heading south. I usually start off the conversation with a primer, remarking, “Korean is difficult.” I nod worrisomely, as though the very nature of the language causes my head to become heavy, my very soul to ache and yearn for solace, for sanctuary. I ask the other party to speak slowly, to repeat often, and I demonstrate in my own speech ludicrously long pauses and overzealous enunciation. I speak in the way I want them to speak Korean to me, which is to say like a particularly inarticulate Kindergartener that eats paste and likes giraffes. My vocabulary is decent but my grammar slow-moving, as I must painstakingly construct sentences in my brain. If pushed to talk extemporaneously, my speech becomes a flurry of nouns and unconjugated verbs, each with rising inflection and obvious growing anxiety. There is probably flop-sweat. 

Positive exchanges always go the same. The other party understands my difficulties, and adjusts in the way that I do with English. I relax internally, happy that they’re willing to condescend to my pitiful language level. They talk about an easy subject, one that I know enough words to discuss (there is not a lot of variety here. I can talk about food, things I like, how my vacation is, and activities that I do every day in the morning. I can also be asked about the time). They limit grammar, and enunciate carefully, and toss in Konglish. When we say our goodbyes, they are smiling, wowed that I was actually able to hold down a “conversation” with them. I walk away with a mental erection, so deep is my self-satisfaction that I talked in Korean. Well done, Michael! I think. Why don’t you write a blog post about how great you are?

That is when things go well.

Things do not always go well. Very, very frequently the conversation becomes too fast, too deep, and too bewildering. Nervous smiling takes over my half of the interaction. I tremble visibly. I stutter and clutch my head, as though to massage the syllables from my brain.

Here are several routes that often occur from gentle, pleasant 안녕! to horrible screaming mess of a shitshow:

1)     Korean Person believes I am fluent. They’ve never seen a foreigner (or, particularly, whitey) speak Korean before, so they assume if you bothered to learn, you can probably already speak the whole language. They’ve met Korean language learners before, certainly, but these people are often in Kindergarten and like crayons. The Korean Person is excited, and begins chattering a mile a minute, despite the growing and obvious terror in my face. Do they not recognize fear? Is it a culture-specific expression, and they take horror to be joyousness at budding friendship? Shit.

2)     Korean Person talks outside my wheelhouse. The Korean Person is happy to talk with me, and things go swimmingly, but then they talk about something I don’t know. The weather, or politics, or any number above 20. I rack my brain. Have I learned any relevant vocabulary? Can I somehow move the discussion to show off my ability to count objects and use the proper unit to describe them? Why, I see four roses (장미 네송이) just over there! Did you want to talk about what primary colour they are? No? Shit.

3)     Korean Person talks to me in English. Whether because they approached me to practice English in the first place, or because they assume I won’t understand their responses, the Korean replies to me in English. Sometimes actual English, sometimes actual nonsense. Honour and pride forces me to go on speaking Korean, and the same forces them to speak further English. At a certain point, both parties forget what the other was saying, and we continue on both in languages we’re not entirely good at. Shit.

4)     Korean person believes I am speaking a really weird English. Whatever I am saying, it is not Korean. And the other party doesn’t understand English anyway, so I’m speaking some sort of gibberish, and it must be just more damned English. Occurs often with taxi-drivers, but many of those guys are just jerks who have no interest in listening to you whatever language you’re speaking. Despite repeated efforts, interactions quickly fail. Shit.

Some of these are understandable. Koreans expect you’ve already done the work and are fluent, and speak to you accordingly. If they think you don’t know any Korean, they respond in English, which they believe is what you wanted anyway. And the last one… I have probably the weirdest accented Korean a Korean person has ever heard. Even foreign-born Koreans will not have an accent anything like an adult, first-language-English learner of Korean will talk. Koreans are not good with accents in the first place, and speaking with one they have literally never even conceived of before makes them think you’re just speaking an even crazier and more terrifying kind of English than they’re used to being assaulted with.

And yet, I pompously begin a Korean interaction. I set the primers down, and let them know what they’re getting in terms of verbal hoops I can feasibly jump through. And then things go sour. What then?

I have provided a flow chart to elucidate my strategies for dealing with the situation.

Save your eyeballs, click to enlarge.


15 thoughts on “Me and the Octopus, or, Honky Talks Korean

  1. Great analysis of this phenomenon. In my Korean misadventures I often find myself pondering paradoxes such as, what is the point of learning know how to ask open-ended questions such as “뭐예요?”/”What’s this?” when any answer I could possibly receive will be something I don’t understand.

    • Oh, no kidding. I’ve stopped asking that question except for food, the one area where my Korean has some degree of robustness and the answers, at least, typically verge on one or two words. In my Korean class, we recently learned the word for “meaning,” my teacher believing we could thus employ it to decipher words we didn’t comprehend in others’ speech or writing. This, of course, neglected that any synonyms or definitions would be similarly incomprehensible.

  2. Oh man, this is spot on and I’m only learning incidental Korean. (Laziness/nearest Korean class is an hour and a half by bus) I’ve been here 6 months and I’ve mastered counting, asking how much things are, directing a cab to my house/school and saying ‘delicious!’

    I still have the holy-crap-they-think-I-understand moments, made worse by the fact that I nod along with the conversation. I’m a hypocrite, because it drives me insane when my kids do the same thing to me. Google translate and the dictionary on my phone have saved my ass numerous times.

    • I’m lucky, in that there’s an unforgiving task-master teacher only about 45 minutes away. There are only 3 of us left in a class that originally started with 22. I think my Korean language skills are basically forged in the fires of Mount Doom.

      My problem is that I have very specific vocabulary. I can talk about food MUCH more than most other subjects. Thankfully, many Koreans talk about food all the time, but because I can keep up there, it gives the impression I can keep up elsewhere.

      • Haha! Talking about food certainly comes in handy though, every time I say ‘mashisayo!’ my coteacher & principal look delighted. My Koreans ‘skillz’ are honed by necessity and repetition. If I hear my kids say something frequently enough I get it translated.

        • Yeah, I still get the whole “delight” whenever I drop a few bon Korean mots on them.

          For most of the teachers, anyway, they’re still constantly surprised I can do anything in Korean. (Several of them seem more surprised I can read and write it than the fact that I can speak some.) The problem is that for the Koreans that know me a little better, the bar is rising: they know what I can do, and they will not be impressed unless I continue with greater and greater linguistic peaks.

          • Inspired in part by your blog I’ve agreed to study Korean some more with my coteacher (in exchange for English lessons from me) this semester. I’m looking forward to more surprise. I had the whole faculty enamoured with me at a school dinner for saying ‘nice to meet you’ in Korean, I can only imagine what it will be like when I can say ‘Have a nice day!’

  3. Michael, once again your dissertation on speaking a foreign language has hit a note from my past and though I will likely never have the pleasure of speaking Korean (unless you become fluent and never use Englsh again) I had some similar challenges with German and French – acutally more with the French as my German was passible (then). The one story from 1970 crossing from Germany to France I will save for a later date but in 1976 I was in Paris with a buddy Dave who let me do all the talking in French as he had no confidence with his own ability. I had forgotten the word for ice (which I now know is glace or petite glacon depending where you are in the franophone world) but I told Dave in what I might call Frenglish that the word was “cube d’ice” (said with a French accent; well doesn’t he finally get brave enough to ask for ice with a new found confidence. I don’t think he ever spoke French again.
    Thanks again for the ongoing reminder of my own travels.

    • You may one day if you come and visit!

      If not, we’ll go to a Korean restaurant, and I’ll tell them to only speak to you in Korean. The pressure drops a little when you know you can just walk out the restaurant and be back to English, but still!

  4. Having recently learned how to pretend to say ‘Thank You’ in Korean to the proprietors of a local restaurant, I can feel your pain Mike. They reply with what I can only assume is a pleasant “You’re Welcome!”, but it never quite sounds the same twice. They could be telling me I’m a white devil, but my Korean just isn’t quite there yet.

    Annnnyways, this was a very funny read. You have a wonderful way with mixing self-satisfaction and self-deprecation in your writing. You’re gonna go far cuz, believe it.

    • I don’t know if Korean was a word for white devil… I assume they must, but I only know the word for “foreigner,” because I hear it every day.

      (Sidebar: for thanks, you can say to them “gamsa hamnida!” or, if you want to sound really chummy and in the know, “go-ma-woh.” Also say “jal moh-go-soh-yo,” or, “I ate well” and they should be duly impressed.)

      My brain is a see of self-satisfaction and deprecation, so it mostly just pours out through the fingers now. How much farther can I go? Do you imply I will soon venture to Russia?

  5. This is so true! I haven’t tried learning Korean but this definitely applies to French, too — it reminds me of encounters in Montreal trying to order food:

    “Bonjour! Une poutine s’il vous plait!”
    fast jabber in French, looks like they’re asking a question…
    Just keep saying oui until they stop talking!

    It didn’t land me in trouble but I can imagine the repercussions of constantly saying “yes” to things you can’t understand… 🙂

    • No kidding. Especially since a common question Koreans usually ask upon first meeting a foreigner is, “Do you speak Korean?” It is almost then always followed with the most rapid stream of gargling language I have ever heard.

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