Thursday, October 8, 2009

Language Studies

Korean is a tough language. It is ranked by the US Department of Defense as the hardest language in the world for a native English speaker to learn as an adult. Before moving here, Sara and I got a tutor in Portland, who taught us some of the basics, like the alphabet and some useful set phrases.

Unlike the rest of the language, the Korean alphabet is perhaps the easiest alphabet to learn in the world. In the 15th century, a King named Sejong, tired of writing with Chinese characters, got a bunch of linguists to design a writing system. What they came up with is now known as Hangul, and it is a very straight-forward phonetic alphabet that is organized into syllabic blocks. All the shapes of Hangul represent how to make the sound of the letter with your mouth and tongue - although this isn't always obvious.

For a few months, we had a teacher here in Seoul, but when she quit her job, we never looked for anyone else. This is partly to do with the Korean educational paradigm, that memorization is the same as learning. More to the point is that Korean uses many borrowed words, and that once you are comfortable reading Hangul and understand the way words are transliterated, things get a lot easier. This is not to say that I can communicate well, but I do feel comfortable meeting most of my needs in restaurants, when shopping and in taxis. For all the time and money that Koreans spend on learning English, you won't actually encounter many people willing to speak it, due to their fears of making a mistake.

To give you an idea of the transliteration scheme, here are a few examples. Included is how they sound when sounded out, separated by syllable. Sometimes there are helpful spaces put between words, sometimes there are not.
  • I saw this on a poster. 드러잉: 쇼    Deu-rah-ing: syo. Drawing: Show
  • A tasty meal. 치개산드이츠  Chi-ken-san-deu-i-cheu. Chicken Sandwich
  • The name of a book (and movie). 더리더  Dah-ri-dah. The Reader
  • Another movie. 굿모닝 프레지던트  Goot-mo-ning Peu-reh-ji-dan-teu. Good Morning President
 As you can see, things can be a little confusing, like using the same syllable block in "The Reader" to convey "the" and "der". It is something I've found myself getting better at over time and I'm amazed at the sheer quantity of words used every day that are transliterated from the English. I'll never be able to have a decent conversation with someone in Korean, but that is OK. For now, I'm back to my 아이스 아매리카노 (a-i-seu a-mae-ri-ka-no).

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