I once got onto the subject of ‘ability’ with my advanced English class. Now, when I say ‘advanced’ I use the term loosely but they did speak more English than I speak Korean so I’ll give them that. So we’re discussing ability and this exchange takes place:
Me: ‘Can you speak French?’ (- a question that came up in the book)
Kid: ‘Yes, I can say watch out for the hedgehog in French.’
This got me thinking about the languages I learned when I was younger and my ability to regurgitate them now. I mean sure I took those few weeks of French, that year of Italian, those six years of German and of course, there’s the 12 years of Irish I had to live through but how much of it do I know now? Even as I write this, I’m sitting in a coffee shop in a non-English speaking country and if a gun was pointed at my head and my life depended on what I said next in the land’s native language, I could probably just ask my killer ‘Where is E-Mart?’, ‘Where do you come from?’ and then recite random nouns like ‘lion’, ‘pencil’, ‘snowman’ or ‘eraser’, followed up with a count from 1 to 6, at a push 7. A step up on my French though, in which I can just say ‘I love you’ and ‘where is the exit?’. If I were held at gunpoint in France, my killer would be forever haunted by my last words.
Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I never had any desire to learn Korean. In my first year here, I did make a vague effort to learn some Korean, bought a book and a pretty new pencil and for a brief period I did attend some classes. However, as the year went on, and as I was only here for that ONE year, I felt during my last three months, ‘really, what’s the point, I’m about to leave soon anyway’. Then, of course, like everyone here that stays for ‘just one year’, I came back. Figuring I was back for ‘just one year’ and ‘this was my last year’, I’d concentrate on other things besides learning Korean. Unfortunately, my ‘last’ year is just the same as everyone else’s ‘last’ year here, non-existent. Fast forward three and a half years and that unfortunate mentality is still with me.
Today, despite the small amount of Korean language classes I’ve taken, the years I’ve lived here and the Korean cocktail menu in the bar I’ve studied intently, I still read words like I’m one of my Kindergarten students learning the word ‘cat’.
‘Ccccccc-Aaaaaaaa-Tuhhhhhh? Ca-a-tuh? What’s a caaa-aaaaa-tuh? Oh, a CAT, you say….of course.’
They say it’s easier to learn a language the younger you are as our brains are like little sponges, which is probably why in Korea a lot of kids start English school at 3-4 years old. It’s a funny thing teaching that age-group. They very quickly work out not only do they not understand YOU, you also don’t understand THEM. In the first month, you pick up phrases such as ‘Don’t touch me’, ‘That’s annoying’ and ‘Come here please’. Also, the ever important ‘Hurry’, as on field trips half the class would dawdle behind staring aimlessly at a ladybug on the ground while the rest cower in fear, hysterically crying nearby evidently waiting for the black and red creature to exact its violent revenge on the human race.
Even knowing how to say the most frequently asked phrase ‘Where are you from?’ hasn’t helped much either as people can say ‘Where do you come from?’, ‘Where do you live?’, ‘What country do you originate?’, ‘From whence did you come?’ (probably not that last one…and perhaps not the one before it either). Luckily, it’s usually followed by, ‘American?’ and then I know the stock answer to give:
‘Ireland….No…No….Ireland……Ok, yes fine, England. Yes, I’m from England.’
Now, I’m not claiming I’d like to be THIS GUY. I mean, come on, I watch that and think, you’re 20 years old! At 20, despite having graduated university already, I could barely speak English due to my discovery of a horrible liquid called tequila and England’s legal drinking age being 18. Although, it would be nice to know more Korean, be a bit more fluent in the language spoken around me, be able to get my order correct in restaurants, at the same time there’s something nice and tranquil about not having to understand conversations overheard on the bus/train/subway and being able to happily ignore the pointless advertisements that litter the streets and hallways of our world. It makes them easier to drown out and remain oblivious to. Visiting home, with the sudden ability to understand everything, I found this an unnecessary distraction in my daily life.
And besides, this is my last year anyway, so really, what’s the point?!
For more posts, check out:
- ‘Dear Students…’ – March 29th 2012
- ‘But then how do you pay your strippers?!’ – Conversations with TCO Part 1 – March 21st 2012
- ‘Number 16 never fails to make me laugh…’ – Analogies – March 19th 2012
- ‘Oh, you’re Irish! Me too.’ – March 17th 2012
- ‘How do you feel about Pi?’ – March 11th 2012
- ‘I did NOT break the coffee machine!’ – March 10th 2012
- ‘I’ve taken up origami…’ – March 7th 2012
- ‘Wait, what’s a one-eyed Jack?!’ – March 5th 2012
- ‘You know, girls can ask guys to marry them on February 29th.’ – February 29th 2012
- ‘But I don’t like God!’ – February 18th 2012
- And, of course, in the Index.