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December 2012

실레합니다: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Korean

(실레합니다: Excuse me. Literally: "I'm committing rudeness and discourtesy!)

If you had asked me four months ago if I could learn Korean, the answer would have been a resounding 아니요 (NO!) Although I speak Spanish fluently and a tidbit of French, non-Romance languages might as well be Klingon. Korean -- along with Arabic, Chinese and Japanese -- are considered the most difficult languages for native English speakers to learn.  In Bahrain, I studied Arabic for a few months but quickly gave it up due to my lack of progress. You can't teach an old dog new tricks. Or so I thought. 

On the day after Labor Day, we reported to FSI, my new home for nine months. On the very first day of class, our teachers showed us Psy's "Gangnam Style" video. Within 10 days, I learned 한글 - Hangul, the Korean alphabet. Within a few weeks we were reading simple paragraphs. After 3.5 months, I can now deliver a 10-minute speech in Korean -- albeit v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y and sprinkled with grammatical mistakes. 

Of course, it helps that learning Korean is my full-time job. I'm in a small group classroom for 5-6 hours a day including some 1-on-1 lessons, followed by 2-4 hours of homework per night. We have monthly immersion outings that put our skills to the test. All the teachers at FSI are native speakers. 

Despite the full immersion, for the first 2 or 3 months, I was pretty frustrated at my learning pace. I was spending all my free time studying just to keep up with everyone. Suddenly in the past 2 or 3 weeks, I've managed to climb over the wall of frustration. Things are coming together. Now, learning Korean is actually fun (most of the time!).  I still have bad days where I somehow forgot everything I learned the past 3 months, but the bad days are becoming less frequent. I've even had a few DREAMS in Korean, and Mrs. Crab says that on at least one occasion I was speaking outloud in Korean in my sleep. I hope that's a good sign!

20120927_kfashionista_psy_gangnamstyle4Pros & Cons 

Compared to other difficult languages, Korean has several advantages over some other super hard languages: a simple alphabet, most of the sounds are the same as in English, no real glottal hacking-type sounds as in Arabic or German, and no gender. And unlike many Asian languages, Korean is not tonal. 

But Korean has one major issue that makes it extremely difficult: honorifics. The ending of every vowel changes depending on the relationship/age/work/social status between the persons involved in a conversation. Another major downer are particles. Every noun takes on a specific particle ending (suffix) depending on whether the word is a subject, noun, location, action location, countable/type of item, and even how that noun is used by the speaker!  

For example: in English you would say "I ride my bicycle every day to school" but in Korean you would say something like "Every day(+eh) I(+ga) school(+eh) my bicycle(+rul) ride(+ro) go(ending)", with a specific verb ending cluster that depends on the status of the person being spoken to!  I've found that thinking of Korean grammar as a mathematical equation makes it easier to learn the structure. 

My biggest problem with learning any language is learning vocabulary. I have a horrible short-term memory. I've never been any good at learning names & faces, let alone foreign language vocabulary. The only thing that works for me is continual repetition, hand-writing words multiple times, making and practicing flash cards, and using analogies (sometimes naughty ones) to make a word memorable. Eventually, a handful of words stick manage to stick in my overloaded memory bank. 

Anyway, I'm feeling pretty confident today as a Korean language learner, hence why I finally felt good enough to blog about my experience. It helps that all things Korean are cool right now!  And getting paid to learn a foreign language is pretty fracking awesome! 


Holy toledo batman, I can actually read this!




Have bike will travel

One of the joys of living in Washington is biking to work. DC is a very bike-friendly city, with lots of off-road bike trails, on-street marked bike lanes, bike racks and company programs that encourage employees to commute by bike. If you don't have your own wheels, the Capital Bikeshare program is a wonderfully popular option. 

Since returning to DC, I've been commuting 4 miles each way from our house to the Foreign Service Institute (FSI).  Some of my colleagues commute 10 miles or more each way. FSI has a nice little gym with showers and plenty of bike racks.  There's even a DOS bicycle benefit program that pays you a small reward ($20 per month) if you forego any subsidized parking passes or Metro benefits. 

Not only is biking an environmentally-friendly way to get to work, but the health benefits are awesome. It's a free workout to and from work. Mr. Crab has lost 7 pounds since he began commuting by bike.

Unfortunately with morning temperatures in the low 30s, it's now getting too cold to bike. Some of my hard-core colleagues are still riding, but Mr. Crab is not a fan of extreme temperatures. That said, as long as you "kit up" properly, you're ok. You don't need to spend to much money to keep warm. Instead of the $200+ biking pants and $300 bike jackets, I spent about $50 for the REI jogging pants and another $70 on-sale for a Pearl Izumi windbreaker. Underneath, just wear layers of whatever you have around the house. I usually wore my old ski base layer (thermal underwear). 

The only annoying part of commuting by bikes are the rude A-hole drivers AND bicyclists.  Too many drivers who think they own the road; I've been cut off several times and nearly got "doored" one afternoon. One woman in a minivan in particular has turned in front of me on two separate occasions; next time I'm taking a photo of her car & license plate and posting it here.  And then there are the idiot cyclists who think they are above the law, failing to stop at lights or passing without giving an audible warning. Still, we're looking forward to spring time to start biking again. 

If you're just starting out, some good biking resources in DC include the Washington Area Bike Association and Bike Washington. And local REI branches offer all sorts of courses such as bike maintenance.  Don't miss the Mount Vernon Trail, which runs along the Potomac River from Teddy Roosevelt Island to Mount Vernon Estate. 

A few photos from my daily commute:


Enough is enough

Over the past few years, I often receive questions from FSO candidates. I usually take the time to respond to questions as soon as I can, often in much detail that takes me quite a while to compose. As of today, I'm no longer responding to private e-mailed questions unless it's a question that I can answer quickly.

Why? Lack of free time is part of the reason.  But in recent months, quite a number of recipients have not bothered to respond with so much as a "thanks." I bring this up because when you get to A-100, you'll be drilled with lectures about "corridor reputation." And nobody wants to work with ungrateful people.

There, I said it.