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...

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