So Long, Sogang

It’s difficult to believe that my 10 weeks at Sogang have come to an end when I feel like I just arrived in Korea yesterday. Final exams and interviews were held this past Monday and Tuesday and by Wednesday the culmination of all our (hard?) work was handed to us on a single sheet of paper. My test and interview scores were high enough to land me in Level 3 if I were to continue studying at Sogang, which I severely regret not doing. Each Korean program approved by Light Fellowship has its pros and cons: After seeing Ewha’s campus, and hearing about their classes’ cultural excursions, I regretting not going there; after envying the improved vocabularies of friends who had studied at Seoul National, I wish I’d chosen the university closer the the glitz and glamor of Gangnam. Sogang has its weak points, but I see why it would be perfect for those having finished L1 and L2 Korean at Yale.

The focus on listening comprehension and speaking quickly produced results outside of the classroom. As time went on, my ear steadily began to untangle the gibberish of my host family, Koreans on the bus, waiters and waitresses into long strings of distinct words, many of which I did not know the definition of, but I could parse sentences and identify grammar structures to look up on my own later. The grammar you learn in Level 2 at Sogang is very common “building-block” grammar, so whatever I learned in class naturally made its way into conversations at home as well. There’s a noticeable difference in the way I communicate with my family now. Actively listening, asking small clarifying questions about the meanings of words and of course inserting remarks like, “oh, that must’ve been tough” or “you must be relieved.” I certainly feel friendlier and more equipped to talk to native Koreans.

My conversation skills better have improved, considering 2 of the 4 class hours are dedicated to speaking. In this class we read and reread and reread the book dialogues before practicing them with our tablemates, classmates, and the teacher. We spent the other hour making our own sentences using the featured grammar points, usually aloud with a partner or as a class. Writing the sentences on paper was something we could do on our own time, but it wasn’t required. This class was more or less predictable and the example conversations very staged. I wish there had been more variety in the activities we did, like board games or other methods (besides repeating the dialogue) to help the vocabulary and grammar stick.

The other two classes were also repetitive, but the writing class more so than reading/listening. The entire writing class was basically spent using featured grammar to make longer descriptive sentences. We pretended to be journalists and wrote articles, we crafted stories and wrote about many unfortunate circumstances and memories, both real and imagined. Everyday it was the same pattern: practice sentences in class and brainstorm ideas for a specific topic, and then write on that topic for homework. Lather, rinse, repeat. The reading/listening class was slightly less repetitive only because it alternated between listening exercises and reading comprehension. This was also the class which introduced us to facets of Korean culture from superstitions, fairy-tales and traditional culture, to manners, food and the processions of Korean weddings and other major holidays. Occasionally aided by a powerpoint and other posters and pictures, the teacher of this class was the most lively and the hardest to understand because she didn’t dumb things down as much as the other two. It is a listening class, after all.

I would also say it’s true that Sogang’s program is less intensive than the others on Light’s list. Classes aren’t difficult. If you pay attention, you’ll be fine. There wasn’t much homework other than daily writing and completing the workbook, but again, this wasn’t absolutely required (aka: a very, very, very small percentage of your grade) However, doing the work certainly helped me feel better prepared for the exam (especially the writing one). I would also say the pace of the class is medium-slow. We spent way too much time practicing a fixed conversation with our partners instead of learning new things. But this is strictly my opinion; others in my class felt differently. Some thought we didn’t spend enough time on the grammar or that it wasn’t explained well. There was a lot of irritation and rants about potholes in the program that I had to grin and bear. I feel like a jerk for saying that it was actually a pretty smooth ride. I’d already learned a decent portion of the grammar from Yale’s Korean teachers, who threw in extra grammar just to keep things interesting. It was easier for me to remember the Sino-Korean words because of my background in Japanese; in fact I think we could’ve learned more vocabulary. By the end of the summer I felt my ability to use grammar had improved, but I didn’t have the words to put into the grammar structures.

Light Fellowship already knows this and had set up an individual class for over-ambitious students like me, who wouldn’t know how to shut up and take a gut class if lives were threatened. I met two hours a week with a Sogang instructor from Level 4 who tailored the individual class towards what I wanted to do. But she did it her way. I told her about wanting to learn more vocabulary, so she brought packets of vocabulary words from Level 3, explained them to me in Korean, made me memorize them and then tested me on them within the same hour. And then again the next time we met. It was a lot to do that I didn’t want to do. I could sit down and memorize vocabulary words myself, and it kind of bugged me to have to learn these words on her time and then watch her suck her teeth if I missed one on a quiz. I don’t mean to vilify her. She was actually a lovely and very funny woman who laughed with her whole body. Slap the table kind of laughter. She had to take off her comically-large glasses and wipe off her eyes kind of laughter. But I didn’t like being force-fed vocabulary when I’ve already spent all day repeating after teachers and reading from lists. The last thing I wanted was another hour of that with all the attention solely on me. I had to understand her Korean because I had to answer her because I was the only one there. On the plus side, I got one on one preparation for both my midterm and final interviews and if I had a clarifying question about something in class, I knew who I could go to. At our last class together, she patted me on the shoulder and gave me a cookie, so there’s that. It was nice to have a teacher who seemed personally invested in my improvement. Not saying my regular teachers weren’t, but students were kept at a very polite distance. Hell, even students kept other students at a polite (almost cold) arm’s length.

My restlessness towards the end of the Sogang program had nothing to do with the monotony of the classes, but everything to do with my classmates as they tried to cram three months of companionship into our final few hours at the graduation ceremony: selfies, videos, shoulder-patting, arm clinging, half-lies like ‘I’ll miss you’ and ‘Let’s keep in touch.’ Even our teacher, who had been plainly that– not a friend, confidant, or did anything more than strictly was necessary–smiled tightly throughout the whole affair. Maybe I’m just projecting my own feelings, but it looked like she wanted to end the madness and go home. Can’t blame her. The atmosphere of my particular class was a bit competitive and divided. Japanese students stick with Japanese students and somehow manage to make everyone else feel like a foreigner when technically they’re also foreigners. We’re a class of foreigners who should’ve bonded over our love for Korea, but instead it became more and more apparent that people in our class were looking for our differences rather than our similarities. Not all nine people in my class were like this, of course. Some formed loose, convenient bonds over K-pop and girl-talk and went out to lunch and Starbucks together. But to put it in a nutshell, we were a class of co-existing cliques.

Not to be deterred by silly things like classmate bonding (pfft, who needs that?) I still say my time at Sogang was overwhelmingly positive and productive. With my new ability to parse Korean, I could stand to study Korean for a little bit on my own. Watching Korean dramas and TV shows would actually serve as good listening practice and a source for useful new vocabulary. Since soil of my mind has been well-primed, I feel like I could soak up a whole book of Korean grammar right now. I still have a long way to go, but I’m excited about continuing my study of Korean. Unfortunately, since I have Japanese placement tests at Nanzan in about two weeks, I have to put Korean down and pick up Japanese once again. Oh how it has suffered! Korean words come to my mind faster now! How traitorous I am, how low!

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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.