나는 한국어를 말할 수 있어요! ... (sort of)


Well, it's official: I can speak Korean! (sort of). On Friday, I passed my final language exam!  So according to the Foreign Service Institute, I can now speak Korean well enough to do my job in Seoul.  And to think, nine months ago, the only Korean words I knew were "Bulgogi" and "Gangnam Style"*. 

Although I speak Spanish fluently, I've never considered myself a good language learner. I know colleagues who can speak 7, 8 even 10 languages fluently, with every little effort. Meanwhile, my language learning experiences have been less than successful: My one college semester of Russian ended with the only 'D' grade I ever got in my life. And although I studied French for 3 years in high school, today I can barely put together two sentences in le français.   

Of course, FSI language training is a lot different than your average high school or college foreign language class, where students might get 4 hours of classroom time a week.  At FSI, I was in class 5-6 hours per DAY, often involving 1-on-1 instruction, followed by 2-4 hours of homework and study time every night. Every day. For nine months!   

Studying ANY foreign language is difficult. But Korean isn't just any foreign language. FSI classifies Korean -- along with Chinese, Japanese and Arabic -- as "super-hard languages". That is, they are the most difficult languages in the world for a native-English speaker to learn. And among those super-hard languages, some linguists (arguably) consider Korean to be the hardest!

So there you have it: proof that you CAN teach an old dog new tricks!  

I'm now enrolled in Basic Consular Course (a.k.a. ConGen).  Because my brain is a sieve, I'm also taking Korean refresher courses to ensure I don't forget my hard-earned language training.  I can now hold a basic conversation in Korean and even discuss some complex issues.  Not bad considering that it's been about 18 years since I was in a classroom.  And "Trilingual" sounds pretty cool!  I'm addicted to language learning now, and hope we have the opportunity to return to FSI to learn another new language!


* Bulgogi: Korean-style BBQ

* Gangnam Style: An infectious song by Korean pop star Psy. "Gang-Nam" --  literally meaning "South of the Han River" -- is the name of a wealth neighborhood in Seoul.

Star Wars in 10 minutes ... in Korean

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Once a month in my Korean class, all students are required to deliver a 10-minute speech on whatever topic they wish. Here's my speech from last week -- a summary of "Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope"...in hangul (Korean alphabet)! Enjoy. May the force be with you...always. 

스타워스: Episode  에피소드 IV

안녕하십니까? 오늘 저는 스타워스 영화를 이야기 하겠습니다.

‘레이아 공주가’ Alderaan행성까지 영사 우주선으로 갔어요.

나쁜 사람 ‘다스 베이더가’ 영사 우주선을 공격했어요.

‘다스 베이더가’ “대사님이 어디에 계세?”  라고 말했어요

하지만, 레이아 공주가 외교관이 아니에요.

‘레이아’ 하고 친구가 반군 스파이였어요. 

‘다스 베이더’가 레이아를 잡았어요.

R2-D2 하고 C-3PO가 좋은 로봇인데, 영사 우주선에서 Tatooine까지­­­­ 탈출했어요. 

‘루크 스카이워커가’ Tatooine에서 살았어요.

‘루크 스카이워커가’ 농부인데, 농부일을 싫어했어요.

‘루크 스카이워커가’ 반군 조종사가 되고 싶어해요.

‘루크의’ 삼촌 하고 숙모가 살해되었어요. 

그래서, ‘루크 스카이 워커’, ‘한 솔로’, ‘츄바카’, ‘오비-완 케노비’, R2-D2 하고 C-3P0가 Millennium Falcon이라는 우주선으로 Alderaan에 갔어요.  하지만, Alderaan이 없었어요.

크고, 나쁜 우주선 ‘Death Star’가 Alderaan를 파괴했어요.

Death Star가 Millennium Falcon를 잡았어요.

Death Star에서, ‘루크’ 하고 ‘한’이  ‘레이아 공주를’ 발견했어요. 

‘오비-완 케노비’ 하고 ‘다스 베이더’가 싸웠어요.

‘오비-완 케노비’가 살해되었어요.

루크, 레이아, 한, 츄바카, R2-D2 하고 C-3P0가 Yavin이라는 달로 탈출했어요.

R2-D2는 Death Star의 약점에 대한 비밀이 있었어요.

그래서, 그 비밀로  반군이 Death Star를 공격했어요.

‘루크 스카이워커가’ Death Star를 파괴했어요.

하지만, 불행히도 다스 베이더가 그 거기에서 탈출했어요.


여기까지 입니다. (That’s it for today.)


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!