Monday, 21 December 2009

This is prolly my awesomes shirt

An entry on Korean is well overdue. Last Saturday the weekly class at the YMCA finished, and while I'm far from being able to hold even basic conversations, I have picked up enough to understand why my students struggle so much with basic grammar, spelling and pronunciation: Korean is a wee bit different from English. Obviously I'm a big geek, with a big love for phonology, but I will try to keep this light and non-techincal. Well, I'll settle for 'decipherable'.

Let's start with the pronunciation. Of course this is my favourite thing. In brief, syllables can have at most consonant-vowel-consonant. The final consonant can only be l, m, n, ng, p, t or k. To put this in perspective, English allows up to three consonant sounds at the beginning AND end of a syllable (e.g. 'strengths'). Also, they don't have any fricatives (long consonants) except s – so that's no z, f, v, or th sounds – or diphthongs.

In case you're thinking this means Korean is easy to pronounce, you are very wrong. They have a 'j' sound that is not voiced (making it sound more like a 'ch' to us), plus a geminate (double) 'j/ch' sound AND an aspirated 'ch' sound. The same pattern exists for the 'b/p' sound. I could happily study the differences between these sounds, but I find it extremely hard to hear, or produce, correctly. Many of the vowels are also nightmarishly similar to each other for English speakers.

Hopefully you can now see a little why when they write 'Matrix' in Korean, it comes out as 'Ma-tuh-rik-suh'. The 's' sound is also sort of between the English 's' and 'sh' sounds, so sometimes things sound a little lispy to an English ear. All of this leads to the peak of accidentally offensive Konglish: the 'shitty joo' instead of 'city zoo'. It also explains why I experience ridiculous levels of mishearing on a daily basis – snake vs. snack being a common, and often amusing, example. Getting the kids to say 'watched' (instead of 'watch-i-duh') is one of my favourite activities: my little ones are even starting to get it.

The grammar is also very very different, though my understanding of it is much more basic. I know that the verb comes last, even though I always forget that when I try to speak. And I know that most adjectives are actually verbs, in terms of grammar. So their word for 'tall' is actually a verb meaning 'is tall'. Realising this was so helpful for understanding my students' writing. Beyond that, I don't know much at all, but I'm sure the fundamental differences only get bigger with more study, given the sentences produced by even advanced-level English learners.

After trying to get my head round this stuff enough to actually make a few Korean sentences, and understand people, I have concluded that language is all about lines. In my head, Language looks like a colourful, messy blob, consisting of the full spectrum of what is possible. Each language carves up this space into meaningful units; and learning a new language means redrawing those lines.* When you learn another European language, the lines match up relatively often – with Korean it sometimes feels like they never do. You have to approach every new piece of information with as blank a slate as you can, and try to remember that the shape of your own language is far from the only way. I know this idea isn't ground-breaking, but even Arabic wasn't as challenging to my poor mono-lingual brain as Korean, and I feel like I am just now gaining a full appreciation for what my professors were on about when they talked about defining the boundaries of 'possible Language'.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, the title is prolly the awesomes slogan I've seen on a t-shirt. More on Konglish another time.

* Vowels are probably the most concrete example: you can produce an infinite range of vowels phonetically, but to make any of them meaningful in speech, you have to define the boundaries that separate one vowel from another. Word meaning is also pretty easy to understand in this way if you imagine 'meaning' as space that is divided by words. Sentence meaning and syntax always hurt my head with their messiness, which makes both seem extra blobby in a vague and ill-defined sort of way.

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