What Kind of a Relationship Do I Have with the Korean Language?

I never thought I would learn to speak Korean.  In fact, I didn’t even plan on speaking Korean. I never even thought I would come to Korea.  There were Korean girls who stayed at my house while they were university students in America, and I had Korean students in my classes, but I don’t just go out of my way to go overseas. It just kind of happens to me.  The Korean girls who stayed at my house wanted me to learn to speak Korean. They pulled me aside and began trying to explain Hangul (the Korean alphabet) to me. I didn’t have time to learn then. I had too much on my plate to begin studying a random language.  The girls had seen me speaking Japanese, Spanish, and Romanian, and they wished I could speak Korean too, but I just couldn’t right then.  When I came to Korea, I hadn’t planned on coming, but I was recruited by the Korean government to come to Korea to teach, and I came.

My mother knew that I was a language person, and she thought I should learn to speak Korean too, so she searched through book shops in America and found me a book to study Korean and a Korean dictionary.  When I came. my boss discouraged me from studying Korean. They didn’t want me to learn to speak Korean because they wanted me speaking only English to my students. They thought it was good for the students to struggle to learn to understand.  However, I was convinced that it was polite if I was going to live in Korea to at least study Korean, so I studied the book my mother gave me. I wasn’t anywhere near a language school and didn’t have time for it anyway because I was working full time, so I looked for a teacher. People didn’t mind helping me a time or two but no one wanted to teach me week after week and let me pay them.  They just wanted to speak English. I finally found a lady who would tutor my kids in Korean.  She saw what I was doing and volunteered to give me free Korean lessons because she liked the progress I had made in Korean alone. She was what the Koreans call Gyopo, a Korean American.  She was very disillusioned with Korea. She had come to teach English and felt she wasn’t being treated right, and didn’t stay in Korea, so didn’t have a chance to teach me much. On top of that, someone stole the book I was using to study Korean.

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The Americans I met really discouraged me. None of them had learned to speak Korean, and they had given up. They said Korean was just too hard.  I learned that Korean is considered the second hardest language in the world for English speakers to try to speak by the American government. Amazingly, I heard Russian is considered the hardest, but I know nothing about Russian to actually compare.  They were right, though, about the Korean language as being hard. It is the hardest of all the languages I have studied except it isn’t hard to learn to read the alphabet.  I learned to read the alphabet in one day.  Koreans have stopped using the Chinese characters unlike Japan who still uses them, and it really helps foreigners trying to learn to speak Korean.

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Almost every Korean you meet wants to speak English, but most can’t. However, there are those around who can, and they all verge on the foreigners and use their English. In some ways, they handicap the foreigners in learning to speak Korean because the foreigners lean on them rather than learn Korean. Many churches have English worship services which is nice, but it doesn’t force foreigners to use their Korean.  However, it does help them worship God, and it is great for the Korean’s English.  If you go to a restaurant like McDonald’s, the Koreans who work there have been given a script to memorize in English in case a foreigner tries to order their food. If you try to speak to them in Korean, they try to speak back in English, but it may be the only English they know.

However, I didn’t give up. I knew whatever Korean I could speak, it was good for me, and if I could understand the Korean grammar, I may understand the mistakes my students made in English better and know how to teach them better.  I began by teaching general English classes at the university. The classes were divided up into levels according to the student’s abilities.  I got the lowest level English books and decided I needed to learn what was in those English language books in Korean. I found Korean grammar books at the book stores, and I learned the vocabulary and grammar in the lowest English books in Korean.  I began to speak on a low level.  I remembered my reading books I had used in Romanian that taught the most used words first, and I learned those words in Korean.  I sorted through a lot of Korean grammar problems.  I created games for the students to learn English that also taught me Korean. My daughter began attending a language school to learn Korean, but I didn’t have time. I was busy teaching my English classes at the university while she was going to class to learn to speak Korean.

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I had to attend Korean chapel.  I could worship at church in English, but the chapel at my university was all in Korean.  I wanted to know what was going on in chapel. I began trying to study Korean religious words. I got myself a Korean/English Bible.  My daughter who was in language school was teaching me some of the things she was learning. I was able to begin helping the English students who couldn’t speak English more. I explained English grammar at the board in Korean rather than English as they had be doing when I first came.  The students did much better. I used every opportunity I could to learn Korean. I watched TV in Korean to try to improve my listening abilities. I thought perhaps I could watch English shows on TV with Korean subtitles to learn Korean because I had done that in Romania, and it worked well, but it wouldn’t work in Korean.  The word order was too different. The concept of a sentence was too different. The translators at times made up the story as they went along rather than actually translating.  Perhaps it was too hard for them too.  On top of all that, I couldn’t read quickly in Korean. I could only get about half of what was written on the bottom read before it was gone.  However, I didn’t give up.  I continued to try, and slowly, my Korean improved.

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It took a long time.  My daughter did great at the language school, but I didn’t have the chance she had. She graduated after reaching level 6, the highest a foreigner can get in Korean.  I took a Korean government test to see what my level was in Korean.  To enter the university where I was teaching as a foreigner, you had to be level 3 in Korean, but at some of the lowest level universities in Korea, you could get in with level 2, and I had reached level 2. It wasn’t good, but I had accomplished something even if I hadn’t had much of a chance.

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I am attending a Korean church now and worshiping in Korean. I understand most of what is going on.  If I don’t understand, my daughter sits next to me, and she understands everything, and I ask her to define words that are bothering me.  I don’t have a good dictionary to look up Korean words.  I only have an English/Korean dictionary. I feel like all the Korean/English things are made for the Koreans to learn English, but not necessarily to help the English speakers to learn Korean even though you can buy books to study Korean from, and I have many on my shelves I have studied. I follow what the preacher is saying, but it wears me out because it is hard, and I might end up going to sleep half way through because it is such a hard mental exercise. If I work hard and think deep, I can read the Bible in Korean, but it takes a lot of deep thinking.  I also teach a Bible class in Korean, but it is hard.  If I am speaking and realizing I am having trouble making people understand, my daughter or my Korean son in law will take over and help me and explain to them what I am trying to tell them.   I was very complimented when they asked me to teach a Korean Bible class because they don’t let foreigners teach them in Korean. They insist that the foreigners speak English, even ones who they know can speak Korean who are few and far between, but they want me to speak Korean now.  If I knew where those Korean girls were who wanted me to learn Korean when I said “no,” I would love to let them know what I can do because they finally got what they wanted.



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