Your Language is Very Hard to Speak. Therefore, It Would Be Better For Both Of Us If You Spoke Mine.

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The Vice Principal at my former school was an older man, in his fifties, with grey hair and glasses, a pleasant smile and a good parking space.  I hope that when I get to be an old man, I can develop a sweet old guy smile that tells people I’m nice and not watching teen porn in my basement. More importantly, I hope to have a decent parking spot wherever I work. It would be miserable having to drag my elderly bones all the way across the Walmart parking lot, through the snow and the rain. I’d probably have a heart attack eventually. With that in mind, when I’m 70 and applying for the Door Greeter job at Walmart, to ensure my safety I’ll have to pay the cart boy to take CPR training.

It could be part of the job requirements: bringing carts in, helping customers, occasionally performing chest compressions on the Door Greeter.

Anyways, Vice Principal (people in Korea often refer to each other by job title and rarely by name), had a daughter who was overseas studying English in the USA.

“That’s cool,” I said. “Whereabouts in the US is she?”

He shook his head. “I don’t know.”

“Oh…like, I mean, which state is she in?”

He shrugged. He knew she was in the US, and that was good enough. Further information wasn’t necessary – it’s not like it’s a big country or anything. Vice Principal barely spoke English and, maybe because teaching me his native tongue was going to be the only way we’d ever have a conversation, decided that he was going to be my Korean professor. Every day he’d call me to his desk and, for about an hour, we would go over Korean. He’d give me homework and bought me a CD to practice with. Not before long, though, things started getting out of hand.

“Today, numbers,” he said. We went over the numbers 1-10 in both Korean counting systems (sort of like cardinal and ordinal). I lumbered through it, needing hints several times. Vice Principal thought it best to go further. He moved on into the teens.

“It is very easy,” he said.

Trying to say the teen words, I was very conscious that I could barely remember 1-10. Still, I tried. Vice Principal was apparently satisfied, because he kept going on, further. 20, 30, 40, 50. 100. 150. 1,000. By the time he was attempting to teach me 1,000,000, smoke was coming out of my ears.

“Dude, I’m lost,” I said. “Can we concentrate on the 1-10?”

He looked angry. “This is very easy! Practice. Say 167,392 in Korean.”

It was useless. Our Korean lessons fell apart soon after. I stopped doing my homework and Vice Principal would stand by my desk and shake his head, muttering, “Bad student” like an angry parent. I was ashamed, and would’ve accepted it had he disciplined me in normal parental fashion by not letting me watch TV or paddling me with a hairbrush.

Learning a second language is hard. That’s obvious. It’s even harder when you’re in your mid-30s and have no background in whatever language you’re trying to pick up. People seem shocked every time I reveal that I’ve been in Korea for over two years and still speak a very minimal amount of Hangul-mal. The lack of language expertise has been more apparent this second year. My first year, I was kind of stuck in the expat bubble, speaking and spending time with other foreigners and not particularly concerned about anything. Now, things are different. I’ve drifted from the expat community, see only Koreans daily, and have a Korean girlfriend who has Korean parents I will one day have to meet. And talk to.

I feel they would not be impressed if I can’t, I don’t know, count past six.

There have been moments of effort, I guess. I signed up for language exchange. But then my partner quit before we met. Then I tried to sign up for lessons at a real University. They responded to one email and lost interest in me after that. It was failure, abject failure. I tried to have my girlfriend and my students teach me sentences. My girlfriend taught me to say “I like puppies,” and my students taught me to say “I am a rabbit.” So at least I have the vital survival phrases down.

I envy my students. Learning English at such a young age, they are allowed to butcher it, to take forever, to be confused, to say whacky things. In fact, I prefer that. I’m not in teaching for the money; I’m in it for the comedy. Like the one time we were doing the ‘My Family’ unit, and students were supposed to say sentences in this style: She is my mother’s mother; she is my grandmother. I called on one goofy kid, and he confidently blurted out, “He is my mother’s father; he is my girlfriend.”

I loved it. Another time, in the high school, there was a kid who didn’t speak any English at all. They had to talk about their hobbies, and the students were giggling. The boys around this particular student had ‘taught’ him what to say.

“What is your hobby?” I asked, speaking slowly.

“Masturbation,” he said.

“Great,” I said, being encouraging. “Let’s not say that, though. What do you do when you’re not masturbating?”

“Umm…play computer games.”

“Hmm,” I said. “I know many, many people just like you.”

Moments like that are fun and make the classroom better. This past week, I was playing Scrabble with a kid. He had his letters turned so I couldn’t see them. He looked at the board and nodded, knowing what word to make. He placed the letters down.

J

I

Z

“Oh no,” I thought. “Is he going to spell ‘jizz?’ How does he even know that?”

He completed his word with U-S. A big smile crossed his face. “Jesus!” he proclaimed.

Jesus. Jizus. Close enough. It was funny. That’s the benefit to learning a second language young, I think. Fucking up is cute and humorous. At my age, it isn’t. At lunch with my current boss (who speaks minimal English) and a bi-lingual teacher, I was asked to say something in Korean.

“Kangagee choa hey-o,” I stated, resorting to my standard line of ‘I like puppies.’

She looked confused. “Is ‘Kangagee’ you girlfriend?” she asked. My pronunciation was bad and she didn’t understand. The bilingual teacher had to explain that I was trying to say that I like puppies. It was sad and awkward and my face got red like the Koreans when they drink too much. My boss eventually got it and just sort of nodded and said, “Oh, okay.” I felt like a mentally challenged boy.

Living in another country, language acquisition is sort of like being potty trained. Peeing in the diaper is okay for awhile, but I’ve lived in Korea for two years and it’s time I learned to use the toilet. I remember when Vice Principal was giving me lessons and teaching me to read Korean letters. He spelled out something and watched me, impatiently as he usually was, as I took a long time to sound it out. I finally read it and he got excited.

“Cool,” I said. “What does it mean?”

“It is my name,” he said, the pleasant smile on his face. “You can call me that.”

*

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18 thoughts on “Your Language is Very Hard to Speak. Therefore, It Would Be Better For Both Of Us If You Spoke Mine.

  1. Junbi

    Ah, who cares if you mess up. All you can do is practise! Are you going to continue trying to learn, even a bit? If so, good luck!!

  2. This is why I should probably never leave the country. I learned at an early age that, even then, I was not so good with foreign languages, let alone trying to learn them as an adult. lol I wish you the best of luck! :)

    • No, lady! Leave the country anyways. It’s fine! Most of Asia has actually turned out to be very English-language friendly. Korea is one of the worst, I think, when it comes to being able to communicate, and I tend to think that largely comes from their lack of a tourist industry. Other places I’ve been (Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines), the language barrier is hardly a barrier at all.

      So, I guess if you were thinking of moving to Thailand, I’m saying that I believe it would be a good decision. If you were thinking of that…which I’m sure you weren’t…

  3. Ah Korean is tough, isn’t it? They have a formal vs informal form of language that I could never really catch on. And I was about to ask you for help on this :) Guess this is why I can’t get out of an English-speaking country. My learning of the Russian language is beyond pathetic (seems to have been forever and I still can’t seem to get it right) and I vaguely remember the time I could speak Japanese / German… Good luck in picking up Korean! It’ll be cool!

    • Hey Rustic – You’re right on point. All the different layers of formality absolutely make it hard and confusing. Also, that’s interesting that you’re trying to learn Russian. I came extremely close to moving to Moscow last year, and I’m sure that if I did, my stabs at Russian would be just as pathetic. I’ve heard it’s a tad on the difficult side.

      Thanks for the best wishes! Peace!

  4. When I was in Singapore, I asked a colleague to teach me how to count in Chinese. Then, I didn’t realize that she thought me to count in Mandarin. But then, there are different dialects in Chinese which are spoken by the elderly where I used to work. And so I tried to learn counting in Teochew, Hokkien and Cantonese, too. And then, there is also Malay and Tamil for the Malays and Indian elderly who live there. And I was like, “I never thought counting would be difficult.” It was easier to learn a few Malay words because some words from dialects here in the Philippines, “Kapampangan” and “Ilocano” which I speak fluently, resembles some of the words in Malay. Then one time, I was trying to say “water” to drink in Chinese for a certain old lady, but I ended up saying “pee.” All the words in my brain were like all jumbled and there came a time that I don’t know what language I was speaking in already.

    Geez…I didn’t know the word “jizz” until now that I read it here in your post. There are always new things that I encounter here. :)

    • Bahaha – I love that you asked for pee to drink! I hope that mistake was caught before it was too late.

      Dang that’s a lot of languages you just mentioned. It’s like a language extravaganza. I really envy that you can speak them at least in part. Try to learn to say ‘jizz’ in all of them. Jk jk jk – please don’t. That’s disgusting! Why am I so gross? I apologize!

      Take care, Jeps!

  5. So, what if your career choice is questionable? Like thief, or gangster? What do your friends call you then? Maybe your friends would only be other thieves or gangsters, and you would call each other by specialty. Like, “Car thief went to pick up dinner with Corner Store robber.” Or maybe it just puts more pressure on people to pick a respectable line of work.

    Yeah, after 2 years, you’d better learn some more useful survival phrases than the ones you currently have in your repertoire.

  6. haha! I kinda get what you are saying. I recently took to learning french, and it’s been an embarrassing as well as hilarious experience. The best part is when after a chunk of lessons you start to think you’ve mastered the language, only to come crashing down after not being able to translate a single sentence!

    • Yeah, I know exactly what you mean! Sometimes I’ll dive back into my Korean book and “learn” a bunch of stuff, and then I’ll proudly say something, expecting a round of applause or something, and then nobody understands what the heck I just said. That’s one of the toughest things here: I’ve learned that only Koreans who talk to a lot of foreigners can understand me when I “speak” Korean. Otherwise, my pronunciation is so different, I might as well be speakin’ English. Or French.

      Keep practicing, Aparna! Au revoir, les enfant!

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