My bachelor’s degree is in English, and I was surprised as anyone to find that one of my favorite courses was Linguistics. Learning about different language structures and underlying similarities in all languages is absolutely fascinating to me. Though I’ve never been very mathematically minded, I loved decoding foreign languages to discover the rules and logic to an entirely different form of communication.
I love words. I could go on and on about how my heart flutters for puns and how I love to read Chaucer aloud because Middle English sounds like a lullaby; however, my point is that this infatuation with words led to my decision to learn the Korean language, Hangul. I could very easily live in Korea without learning the language, and many people do. Most signs are written in both Hangul and English, many Koreans know some basic English, and the technology available now makes it easily to translate when in a pinch. Knowing how to say a few basic words and phrases is all that most foreigners need to live in Korea.
However, I wanted more. I was curious to learn a language that does not use a Latin script. I wanted to be able to communicate more than just “hello (안영하세요),” and “thank you (감사합니다).” I wanted to be able to read menus and signs, and to immerse myself more into this culture that is now part of my everyday life. Luckily, just a few short weeks after I arrived in Korea, a small class was started at our tiny Army post. Even better, it is free! My teacher (선상님), formerly taught Korean in schools, and is one of the kindest, most patient teachers I have ever had. I don’t know how many times she has patiently reexplained concepts to me when I repeat the same mistake or asked the same question over and over.
Our class meets twice a week, two hours per session. We use a workbook that is designed for foreign university students. Our class is small, only two to six people at a time, and our teacher has been very gracious about keeping the schedule flexible to accommodate everyone’s lives. I cannot think of a better educational experience!
I was completely overwhelmed during my first class. I had just started learning the alphabet a few hours prior, and I was still trying to remember what symbols represent which sounds. Hangul is a very scientific language; it was carefully created in 1443 by King Sejong the Great. The King and a group of linguists studied many languages in the process of creating Hangul; their goal was to create a language that the common people could read and write, as Chinese was too difficult. (Bringing literacy to the masses- I love it!) They created an alphabet of 24 consonants and vowels; the consonants are shaped to represent the position of mouth or tongue during pronunciation. The shape of the letter changes slightly to represent if the sound is more aspirated. For example, “B” (ㅂ) and “P” (ㅍ) sounds are made using the same mouth shape; “P” just uses more force to pronounce.
I really thought it would be harder to learn the alphabet. It looked so intimidating! I was pleasantly surprised when I picked it up more quickly than I had anticipated. (Although sometimes ㄱ & ㄴ still trip me up.) When we first arrived here, I loved taking pictures of all the signs written in “Korean.” However, once I started learning the alphabet, I realized that some of the signs weren’t in Hangul at all! To me all the Asian languages looked the same; it was only after I started learning that alphabet that I was able to determine if the language was Hangul or not. (I still can’t tell Chinese and Japanese apart. I usually assume that the more complicated it looks, the more likely it is to be Chinese.) I was excited that I was able to read Hangul so quickly. I am still slow sometimes, but it comes more naturally the more I practice. Now, I can read and sound out any Hangul; however, I don’t usually have the vocabulary to know what I am reading!
There are some tricky parts to the language that leave me frustrated. There are two number systems: 1 (“hana”), 2 (“dul”), 3 (“set”) and 1 (“il”), 2 (“ie”), 3 (“sam”). One is used for counting quantity (There are three shirts) and the other is used for … not quantity, like stating your phone number. I still get confused on which numbers to use in different situations. I generally use my fingers as backup for making sure I am communicating that correct number. I was also dumbfounded to learn that you use different nouns when counting certain objects. So, if I point to a book, I call it 잭 (“check”), but if I am counting how many books I have, then I use 권 (“kwon”) to refer to the books. Not cool.
I was quite happy when I learned my first sentence. I could proudly state “책생 아라에 우산이 있어요.” Or, “the umbrella is under the table.” As it turns out, this had very little application to my daily life, despite the fact that I would stage umbrellas under tables just so I could say my sentence. I have been trying to expand my vocabulary so that I am not restricted to talking about the current location of my umbrella.
There have been several times when I have gotten frustrated with a new rule I learn, or have not felt any desire to study or do my homework. However, I am trying to keep going with this endeavor because I truly love it when I am able to decipher something new or communicate with a stranger. I have been able to start several conversations with Koreans based on what I have learned. Although, when I answer one question correctly they tend to assume that I know the entire language and know how to speak it quickly. I generally cannot keep up with the conversation after the first few basic sentences. Though I never expect to be completely fluent, my goal is to continue to learn the language while I am here; I’m pretty sure there are plenty of opportunities to practice!
Are you interested in Hangul? I found that this YouTube series was most helpful in learning the alphabet. Enjoy!