Studying Korean: The Surprising Joy-Ride of a New Language

by Tom Thompson

What foreign language we decide to study is often not a purposeful choice. I had never thought of studying Korean. But last November my job took me to Inchon, Seoul, and Busan. So impressed with Korea, I became a dedicated student of Korean, along with its people, culture, and history. In all of my many foreign travels, I've not met a group of people more patient, and even generous of spirit, than Koreans. The least I could do during my trip was to reciprocate with at least an energetic, if comically imperfect, effort at communication in their language.

What's been even more surprising is that back at home in Washington, D.C. I've collected not just the beginnings of another language but also an improbable social network of ad hoc tutors, and now friends. So, at my grocery store, the dry cleaners, a print shop, a flower shop, and even a favorite restaurant close to my office, a literal army of Korean-speaking supporters are pushing and pulling me along the path of eventual language competence. Fortunately, they have all assured me in one way or another that linguistic historian Geoffrey Sampson was right in saying that Korean is “one of the great intellectual achievements of humankind.”

The constant exposure to and use of the language has been a key to rapid progress. It's counterintuitive, but listening to Korean without any English has helped attune my ears to the language, especially the characteristic rhythm of Korean, and it has made understanding specific words easier along the way.

What I've learned most basically about sentence construction, for example, word order (S-O-V), honorifics, verbs, postpositions, and other linguistic features, has all been reinforced by the burning day-to-day desire to communicate quickly, and eventually, to get it right. There's no scarcity of free material on the web, or inexpensive books at local language stores. But those materials have to be used. And, as any language learner knows, that can be slow going. Thus the additional joy to my day-to-day life, a series of humor- filled rest stops with one of my tutors making the notion of a “pattern response drill” a truly dynamic experience, and certainly more interesting than in the classroom. In this process, I've come to believe on my own that Geoffrey Sampson was right.

Non-western languages are always certain to be a challenge. But it's in this sense that the Korean language itself lends to some enthusiasm for the beginning student. I remember before leaving for my trip that I read somewhere that Korean writing, Hangul (한글), is an alphabetic syllabary with a symbol, or Jamo ( 자모 ), for each sound, and the symbols combined in a group to make up the intended syllable. Thus, this system would require that my name be written with syllables, simply 톰 , for “Tom.” That's easy enough. But what I'm patiently working on is memorizing in Korean King Sejong's overly optimistic 14th Century pronouncement about Hangul's syllabary: “A wise man can acquaint himself with them before the morning is over. A stupid man can learn them in the space of a few days.”

Tom Thompson writes frequently on language-related topics.

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