I Can’t Parse Korean

can't korean

I didn’t pat myself on the back for being able to introduce myself to my classmates in Korean or tell my host mother that I like Korean food (read: I can handle my spice) because I know this is essentially the limit of my Korean. Things I learned in a classroom setting are useful in theory, but my survival Korean is lacking. The first night I had to look up “I’m thirsty” and “I’m full.” The very next day, I was scrambling for the words for “transfer,” “last bus/train.” Since learning how to talk about transportation in Korean, I feel decently comfortable telling my host sister where I’m going through text message. Ordering at restaurants or cafes is a completely different matter. There are times when the set phrases you’ve learned such as “(menu item) 주세요” (Please give me…) won’t cut it. You walk into a place you’ve never been before. You think you’re safe because you can read the menu. You’ve done your 저기요 (if it’s that kind of place). But then this happens:

Weak, weary and terrified foreigner: (menu item) 주세요

Waitress/waiter: 네.

*pause*

Waitress/waiter: kfdjgbvsdfhrbcoedjxd 드릴까요?

Weak, weary and terrified foreigner: ……

And then what do you do? Say yes? Ah, but then you find out it wasn’t a yes or no question. At this point, the waitress flails to try to help you understand, making gestures at the menu you don’t fully understand anyway. You just agree to whatever she pointed at first.

Sometimes this is a vocabulary problem: if you don’t know the word for “bone” for instance, ordering fried chicken might become somewhat of an awkward encounter. I thought it’d be just a (menu item) 주세요 type of situation, but then he answered with the dreaded “kfdjgbvsdfhrbcoedjxd 드릴까요?” It only took half a second for him to understand that I didn’t get what he said. He shifted his weight, looked away to remember any English word in his vocabulary he could use to help me understand. Eventually he said, “Bone? No bone?” and all was good. I felt quite sorry for him, though. Especially because the next group that walked in spoke absolutely no Korean, and insisted on repeating their order to him in progressively slower Chinese. At that time I wanted to learn how to navigate that kind of situation in Korean so I don’t make the waiter do the “Lord help me” face. I looked up the phrase for “to remove bones” and stored it in my phone.

But guess what? It happened again. And again. I wondered, “Did I look up the wrong term? How do I not get this?” It’s not that I didn’t know, but the phrase was being said too quickly for me to catch it. Additionally, the way I (as the language learner) would read the written phrase is different from the native pronunciation (thanks consonant assimilation). These things in conjunction with each other make anything a native speaker says sound like complete gibberish to me, even if it’s something simple like, “뭐 타고 왔어?”

I had an inkling that listening comprehension would be something to prioritize if my Korean was going to improve, so I was adamant about attending Sogang University language program during my time here. It has the reputation of being the best program for improving conversational Korean (even students at other Korean language programs think so). The first hour of class is technically a writing class, but we always discuss our responses with our classmates before writing them down. The next two hours of class are dedicated completely to speaking and conversation: practicing the conversations in the textbook, role playing, using real life (kind of) situations. The last hour is a listening/reading class where we listen to the CD and/or read some text and answer some questions about what the material. In my opinion, the real listening comprehension exercise comes from trying to understand whatever the teacher says. My teacher talks at lightning speed (which is most likely slightly slower that natural speed) without checking to make sure we all understood. There’s always one or two people in class who can speak Korean way better than everyone else, so this creates a situation in which the teacher doesn’t have to slow down because someone gets it. It’s just my luck the golden ones don’t speak the same native language as I do. I just play follow the leader.

After a week and a half, I’ve started to catch on to what the teachers are saying because they essentially say the same thing from day to day, unless they decide to tell a story (in which case, I simply laugh in the appropriate places). Being constantly bombarded with Korean and hearing the textbook conversations come to life is starting to help a little. If I can get the gist of it the first time, the second time around, I can listen more carefully for the vocabulary I’m unfamiliar with. Right now this progress is limited to the very stable classroom environment, where the Korean is almost predictable. I still can’t quite parse what my host parents say, but I’m starting to get the gist of what they mean using context and body language. Until I get better at parsing Korean, this is the method I’ll have to use.

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