For a unit on language acquisition this past week, I asked my students to share their English language learning journeys. Because the class was for our near-fluent students, there was a greater variety of answers in comparison to answers given in our lower level classes. One of them was born in the States and moved back when he was three. Another spent a year in England and another year at an international program in Germany. Another went to a foreign language high school. The weakest spent years studying for proficiency tests.
During my smoke break at the halfway point in class, I thought about my own journey with the Korean language. There are most probably people who question my lack of Korean language ability prior to the Army experience due to my lack of an English name. Since I was young, people have always assumed I was an exchange student who couldn’t speak English based on my name. When I moved to Seattle, I was placed in remedial English classes in part because of that preconception, even though a cursory examination of my academic record would have shown that I’ve always done well in English classes.
My upbringing was unlike many of my 2nd generation Korean American peers in that my parents never spoke Korean to me when I was young, as I’ve mentioned in the book. My parents are not native English speakers, but they are practically fluent. By the time I was born, my parents had been working and studying in the States for over five years. Back then, there was the belief that children exposed to multiple languages would face problems in terms of language development. My parents wanted me to achieve the American Dream, and they wanted no obstacles in my path to doing so.
However, there is a slight possibility that I was able to speak Korean as a toddler, before I started to develop memories, thanks to my paternal grandmother. One of my earliest memories that may hint at this was that I had to attend speech classes in the first grade along with kids with lisps. Regardless, by the time I entered kindergarten, I couldn’t speak a lick of Korean aside from a few basic food words.
In the fourth grade, my family moved to Korea because of my father’s job. However, I attended an international school for foreign citizens, Seoul Foreign School, and spoke in English almost exclusively throughout those two years. My classes were in English, my friends spoke English, my friends’ parents spoke English, and my parents handled any and all interactions with non-English speaking people. On the rare occasion when a relative or stranger approached me and spoke in Korean, my go-to expression was Mollayo—“I don’t know.” There is a story in the footnotes that explains how the time in Korea actually caused me to develop an aversion to Korean and also to speaking on the telephone.
After my parents’ separation, the family sans my father moved to Seattle. For a short while in middle school, my mother took my younger brother and me to Korean classes at the local Korean church on Friday nights after she got off work. She would often forget in her tiredness, and we would purposely not remind her. When she did remember, she had to bribe us with McDonald’s to get us to go, and even then, we would skip class and play basketball in the church gym. The only expression I remember from one of the classes I actually attended is “Thank you for…” (“~hae jusheoseo gamsahabnida”). It was a very rudimentary expression I rarely used. There’s no need to explain why you’re thankful when a simple thanks will suffice.
In college, I took around two years of Korean classes. My sole purpose was to get easy As. I slacked off freshman year and ended up with a shitty GPA, and Korean classes were notoriously easy. I also took other language classes, and in comparison, Korean classes were a cake walk. Needless to say, I learned very little. By the time I left for Korea, I was still unable to say anything in Korean in a social setting. I tried once and failed miserably.
My first year in Korea, prior to the Army, was also very unproductive in terms of language learning. My plan was to return to the States in a year so I didn’t really try to learn Korean. I never took advantage of Korea’s glorious delivery culture because I would have to speak on the phone in Korean and always picked up my pizza in person.
The best illustration of just how bad my Korean was is something that happened to me during this period. While I was working at the hakwon, someone recommended that I try gamjatang. There was a cheap Korean restaurant between my home and the hakwon that I frequented, and luckily gamjatang was on the menu. I went in and ordered it (“Gamjatang juseyo”), wondering what the big deal was.
When it came out, I looked at the bowl of soup in front of me. There were no potatoes (gamja). I was confused. I thought that perhaps the worker misheard my order. I didn’t have the language ability to ask about it so I ate what was given me, paid, and left.
The next week, I returned to try again. Again I ordered gamjatang, and again I was given the same bowl of soup. Unable to explain that I thought they had made a mistake, I tried to reason to myself that maybe the potatoes were ground up, which was why the soup was so grainy.
It wasn’t until three years later, after the Army, that I found out that gamja actually referred to the cut of pork in the soup.
Of course, the Army was a trying time for me in many ways, one of which was because of language. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a social situation where you’ve been surrounded by speakers of another language, but it’s extremely frustrating and stressful. You have no idea what’s going on and you put up with what you can, but you just want to leave as soon as possible. That’s the problem with the Army, I couldn’t leave. A true sink-or-swim situation.
I’ve heard too often that I was lucky to get such an intensive language learning environment. The thing is, the Army is one of the worst places to learn Korean. The language they use is strange, overly formal, and everything you need to say can be summed up in a few expressions. All of the Korean I learned during those two years was learned on my own. I filled notebooks with vocabulary words I looked up in my pocket dictionary. I bought a Korean grammar book during one of my leaves and filled another notebook with grammar points. I read books in Korean, and at the beginning, a single paragraph would take me an hour.
Even with all of that effort, for some reason, things didn’t really fall into place until I was discharged. I was yelled at because of my inability up until I was a sergeant. I can’t remember having a single decent conversation in Korean during my whole time in the Army.
Over ten years later, my Korean is far from perfect. I stutter and trail off at the end of sentences, hoping that the listener will fill in the rest of the sentence. When people hear that I’ve been here for over 14 years, many rudely comment that I need to study Korean more. My Korean is actually much worse than the year after my discharge because I don’t have many opportunities to use it despite living in Korea. I’m a hermit English teacher who spends all of his free time in a coffee shop trying to write.
Coincidentally, I’m taking the TOPIK (Test of Proficiency in Korea) tomorrow. I don’t really know why I’m taking it. I should have taken it a long time ago. It’s one of those things that’s on my list of things to do that I have never crossed off the list. I’ve heard it’s fairly easy so I’ve done zero studying for it and will probably go out drinking tonight and end up taking the test hung over.
If only learning Korean had been as easy as this.