My Days of Korean Learning

Korean never sounds strange to me. Bewitched by K-pop songs, Korean dramas, and variety shows, many of my friends start learning Hangul, in hope that one day she could meet her Oppa, or at least get an autograph from him.

I was still an illiterate in Korean, even though this Korean boom had silently spread its tentacles to people around me. Lowly motivated, I switched to another channel whenever singers, entirely unfamiliar, were chanting some enigmatic spells.

The first time I aspired to learn it as my fourth Asian language was when I heard few years ago somebody’s presentation in an English course about a Korean novel called The Dwarf, where the life of the dwarf was an implication of a more serious social and economic problems brought by Korean modernization in the wake of Second World War. Already an aficionado of Japanese/Chinese arts and culture, I suddenly got some very strong temptation to know the historically complicated, yet inextricable link among these three Asian nations.

And then Chance finally comes in. I was more than happy to know that my university offers one free language course. It was a cold February day in London, and I remembered how the Korean lecturer was braving the freezing cold to trudge towards the windows and to shut them all down, before giving us the handouts.

An ethnic Chinese as I am could be flabbergasted by the apparent homogeneous strokes and circles of the characters, while reading the Korean vowel and consonant tables for the first time. But just as you won’t know English if you don’t memorize how the alphabets are written and read, I had to quickly pick up these foreign alphabets too.

I disremember how I could recognize them all within a couple of hours, though. The only thing I can recall is that I associated one of the Korean consonants “ㅈ”(j) with a Japanese katagana “ス”(su), so that its pronunciation could linger in my mind much longer.

If language learning could be likened to playing computer game, I felt like I hadn’t even started it by simply recognizing the alphabets. I was always in a labyrinth whenever I came across words which encompass vowels like “ㅓ” (eo)and “ㅗ” (o), since the two sound somehow similar.

Vocabularies always invite headache. Fortunately (or unfortunately), the course does not demand us to dictate any words or phrases. I thus did not spend any time remembering any of those. By the end of the course, I became a literate in alphabets, and an illiterate in Korean.

How time flies! I graduated at London and moved to Tokyo for further study. In the meantime I audited in Korean courses, determined to be proficient in the language in the future. Unlike teaching in London, the teacher did not teach me the language in English, but in Japanese. It was predictable, but I still felt strange at first.

Perhaps because of the high compatibility between Japanese and Korean, or perhaps because of the more efforts I have spent over the past few months, I feel I began to recognize more words and sentence structures. Now to me, Korean resembles a distant relative of Mandarin, Cantonese and Japanese, and I was surprised when “안경” (an gyeong, meaning glasses) and “眼鏡” (ngaan5 geng3) sound so similar; I generalized a rule myself as to how to distinguish a word with batchim “ㄴ”(n) from the other with “ㅇ” (ng) whenever I think of the pinyin in Mandarin. Examples include “은행”(eun heng, meaning bank) and “銀行”(yin2 hang2); “병원”(byeong ueon, meaning hospital) and “病院” (bing4 yuan3).

Syntactically speaking, the word order of Korean and that of Japanese are almost equivalent with one another too. Anyway, it is better for me to master it, before I grow too old to learn further.

[Photo taken by James on 11th January, 2017]

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