Sunday, July 30, 2006

한국어 어렵다

Foreigners who live in Korea like to talk about how difficult the Korean language supposedly is. They cite the completely unfamilliar vocabulary, the difficult sound system that foreigners have trouble getting their tongues around, and the complex grammar which is so very different from English.

I think they're barking up the wrong tree. The only languages I've seriously studied before have been Spanish and German, but still, from a purely linguistic standpoint, I don't see how Korean is the hardest thing ever. Sure, acquiring a good vocabulary in Korean is a lot tougher than doing the same in French or Italian, but that's because of the massive Latin influence on English that won't help you a bit when learning Korean. I think Korean vocabulary's not that much harder than most other non-European languages. I think Korean phonetics is harder for English speakers than, say, Spanish, but it's probably not much more difficult than French. (Although French people are probably more used to hearing foreigners butchering their language than Koreans, which means the learner of Korean has to put in more effort to be understood.) And grammar? It's certainly different from English, but I once heard a language buff say that if Korean grammar ever seems difficult, you should try learning about Navajo grammar. Then Korean will seem so easy you can learn it by smacking a grammar book against your forehead.

So is Korean easier than people say? Well, don't fool yourself by thinking in purely linguistic terms. I recently read Michael Agar's wonderful Language Shock: Understanding The Culture Of Conversation in which he argues that people tend to overvalue the importance of the nuts and bolts of learning a language - correct grammar, vocabulary, and the like. And people ignore cultural differences in conversation and thinking.

I certainly hope that I am learning about Korean interpersonal relationships. Take the idea of nunchi. Nunchi is, basically, the ability to sense another person's intents by way of facial expression, eyes - and shared cultural expectations. Every culture in the world probably has some version of nunchi - but Koreans have an explicit word for it and they highly value it. I plan to be as adept at it as a native Korean approximately... never. I probably will not live in this country long enough.

And yet people who say "Korean is hard" still get caught up on things like grammar and phonetics...

Friday, July 28, 2006


I want to take a serious Korean class. Right now I am leaning towards the big YBM academy in Jongno - possibly starting in September.

Sogang University's Korean program attracted me for a while. At 3 hours a day, 5 days a week, plus homework, it likely would have reduced my weekday existence to school and work - but is that such a bad thing? I think I have a general mental trend towards laziness and sometimes it feels like the less free time I have, the more I accomplish. And Sogang has a generally good reputation among foreigners here.

But I've been unable to get a guarantee from the head teacher that I'll continue to be free between 10am and 1pm in future months. So it looks like, if Sogang is in my future at all, it will have to wait. (Yonsei and Ewha universities have comparable programs for foreigners, but the timing of the class appear to be just as inconvenient for me.)

YBM offers a less intensive experience than Sogang - 2 hours a day, 5 days a week. And the 3pm-5pm timeslot is perfect - my head teacher confirms that I won't have a class scheduled then anytime soon. There's also the matter of cost - a 3 month course at Sogang would have cost nearly 3/4 of one month's salary, though it could be argued that that would give me an incentive to study hard and make the most of it. YBM is not particularly cheap, but it's less of a financial hit than Sogang. Also, YBM is about a 5 minute walk from where I work, while Sogang U. is a bus ride away.

But how would the classes compare? The impression I'm getting is that YBM classes are focused on learning grammar and vocab, at the expense of actually SPEAKING. I can study grammar and vocab all by myself sitting in Starbucks. But do I have the mental discipline to actually do it? I think paying the money and taking a class is probably the best idea for me.

Anyway, I'm going to look into taking a YBM class, to begin in September. I'm almost certainly going to have to get a student visa - the red tape involved in obtaining a visa when I already have an E-2 work visa is something I will have learn about.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006


They just opened up a new Starbucks near where I work. I was really taken aback to walk by it last night and see it nearly open for business (today's opening day), because I'd walked past that same spot a dozen times this past week and I hadn't noticed it. Maybe they put the big green logo up just yesterday, and until then the identity of the new store was A Big Secret.

Jongno 2-ga must be about the most Starbucks-dense places I have ever been. A few weeks ago I was astonished to see a Starbucks close up shop here. I'd never seen that happen before. Barely a week passed before a business moving in down the street put up the big green Starbucks logo.

An inventory of Jongno 2-ga Starbucks:

- The Starbucks that faces Cheonggyecheon

- The Starbucks that is on a side street between Jongno and Cheonggyecheon

- The newly opened Starbucks on Jongno

- The Starbucks across from Jongno Tower

- The Starbucks on the southern end of Insadong

- The Starbucks in Youngpoong Bookstore

That last Starbucks is not visible from the street, which raises the possibility that there might be other Starbucks I don't know about. All these Starbucks are within a very small geographical area, and I'm not counting the area south of Cheonggyecheon (which has several Starbucks) or north of Insadong (likewise).

Jongno has officially surpassed Dupont Circle in Washington, DC on my count of Starbucks density.

Monday, July 17, 2006

바람난 한국어

A week ago I picked up 바람난 한국어 by 곽상흔 (Gwak Sang-heun) at the "Korean language for foreigners" section at Kyobo bookstore. Ms. Gwak's apparently an experienced teacher of the Korean language to f0reigners, and in this book she's assembled her favorite tidbits from her classes, along with her commentary on Korean culture.

To be honest I'm not sure if this book was written more for foreigners or native Korean speakers. Still, right now it's my main object of study - it's written all in Korean, but not Korean that's so difficult I need to use a dictionary more than 3-4 times per page, on average. (It's way easier than Yonsei University's level 5 Korean reader.) So by rereading it a few times I feel I can retain vocabulary. And Gwak ties everything to her own observations of Korean culture.

In just the first half of the book, Gwak:

- properly explains 근사하다, an excellent example of a word that Koreans do not use the way dictionaries say they should.

- clarifies differences, like between 미련이 있다 (be emotionally attached to) and 미련하다 (be stupid), so that the reader remembers that they look/sound similar but mean different things.

- ties vocabulary to culture, like when she deals with 어리광 부리다, 애교 부리다 and 교태 부리다, all 3 of which have something to do with a woman acting cute or deliberately immature to appeal to men.

- talks about social problems, like when a student complains that a doctor was rude to her. Gwak admits that a lot of Korean doctors are lacking when it comes to relating to patients, and just to remind them of their duty she prints a Korean translation of the Hippocratic Oath (though I had to refer to my dictionary ten times to get through it!)

Saturday, July 15, 2006


A while ago I began drinking a little bottle of red ginseng extract every day, inspired in part by Simon Winchester's book on Korea where he claimed the stuff genuinely did good.

My report on the effects of Red Ginseng extract on me:

A bottle of Red Ginseng extract makes me feel as though I got a full night's sleep the previous night. It doesn't make me feel caffeinated, but I do feel less fatigued and sleepy-stupid.

For a while I felt that I feel most intelligent on Sunday, which is also the only day of the week I can sleep in to my heart's content. When I take ginseng, I feel like every day is Sunday.

Disclaimer: Yes, I know that "correlation does not equal causation", and there might be placebo effects at work. Who knows?

When Worlds Collide

Video: Shinhwa in North Korea

The South Korean group Shinhwa performs at some kind of benefit in Pyeongyang. What I find most fascinating about this video is the reactions on the faces of the North Koreans watching - something between polite plastered-on smiles, complete disdain, and the reaction of an anthropologist studying another culture's rituals.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

괭이부리말 아이들

I've finished the novel my Korean tutor gave me, 괭이부리말 아이들 (Gwaengiburimal Children). Gwaengiburimal - I'm not sure if it's fictional or not - is a poor, dirty, industrial neighborhood in or near Incheon. The book is about kids dealing with parental abandonment, drunkeness, and drug abuse, and some adults who try to help them.

I got the feeling it's not world-class fiction - one character's death was very obviously telegraphed to the point I was thinking, "well, I hope he at least dies quick" - but it was excellent reading experience for me, I thought.

Some thoughts about the Korean language that I had. In the book, Sook-ja and Sook-hee are twin girls. Sook-ja was born first. For this reason, the girls' parents are known as "Sook-ja's mother" and "Sook-ja's father". As far as I can figure, they have no other names in the book. This wasn't a new phenomenon to me - I used to know a Mr. Park, and his wife, who was always "Mr. Park's wife" and I never knew her family name. But it's interesting that Sook-ja won out over Sook-hee to be the person whose name her parents were known by, just because she was a few minutes older.

Another linguistic bit - Koreans sometimes use the word for "rice" to mean "food" in a generic way. Kind of like how "bread" is sometimes generic "food" in Western culture - think of "daily bread", "bread and circuses", and so on. So if a hungry kid is described as eating "two bowls of rice", is he really just downing two ordinary bowls of white rice and calling it a meal? Or is he eating something more interesting? Most of the characters in this book are pretty poor, so maybe he really is just eating two bowls of rice.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Korean reading

I just finished Simon Winchester's Korea: A Walk through the Land of Miracles. I read Winchester's The Professor and the Madman a while ago, but I wasn't sure what to expect from his take on Korea.

It turns out that back in the 1980s (during the bad old days of Chun Doo-hwan's military dictatorship, which Winchester alludes to several times in his book) WInchester got the idea to walk from the southern coast of Jeju-do up Korea's west coast, ultimately stopping at the DMZ. The reason, was to follow the path taken by the survivors of a Dutch shipwreck who had gotten stuck in Jeju-do in the 1650s and were forcibly brought to Seoul - this was back in the days of the Hermit Kingdom, and the Korean government decided if they let the foreigners go it could ultimately involve Korea in all sorts of nasty entanglements, like the one with Japan in the 1590s that resulted in practically the whole country being burned down to the ground.

So Winchester walked across Jeju-do, then took a ferry to the mainland and walked from Mokpo to Seoul, stopping along the way at Buddhist temples, small inns, and American military bases. The picture he paints is of a heavily militarized country (one I never got to experience - a lot has changed since the 1980s) with a love-hate relationship with the American military presence. He also has a very active libido - you can't deny he has a thing for Korean women, including Korean prostitutes.

At one point Winchester visited a ginseng plant, and after half-skeptically relating many Korean claims about ginseng being a miracle root, he admits that in his experience it really does seem to work - it gives him more energy, makes him more alert, and seems to have no negative side effects. I bought a 12-pack of ginseng extract at E-mart this week. I'll see if it helps me.