Learning Korean was never going to be easy. I realized I divide languages into two degrees of foreign:
French, Italian, Spanish – anything using the roman alphabet – not so foreign.
Every other language – extremely foreign.
Since Korean fell into the ‘extremely foreign’ category, I expected to struggle. My intended approach was to memorize phrases and maybe, eventually, learn to read. It came as such a nice surprise when I learned how to read basic hangul (the Korean alphabet) in a matter of days. The rest of it has not been so simple.
Just as in the roman alphabet, certain sounds are attributed to certain symbols. What I did not prepare for was a whole catalog of entirely new sounds. It is logical, but my Korean-addled little mind still did not prepare for it.
For example, one of the Korean characters is a cross between the ‘k’ and ‘g’ sounds. This explains why my province is sometimes referred to as ‘Kangwon’ and other times as ‘Gangwon.’ There is no ‘v’ or ‘f’ sound in Korean. The sounds we think of as ‘L’ or ‘R’ are rolled together into one, making it understandable as to why many Asians have a tough time pronouncing ‘R’ in English words.
I noticed that my co-teacher was consistently using the same word in several of our classes. To me, it sounded clearly like ‘Man-ay.” At first, I thought it was this kid’s name, because he was always acting up and she was always saying it with an angry voice. Then I noticed that she was saying it in more than one class, to a whole host of naughty children.
“Hang on,” I thought. “Not all of these kids can be named Man-ay. That’s just too much of a coincidence. It must mean something else.”
So I approached her after class.
“What does it mean when you say “Man-ay?” I asked. “I hear it a lot.”
She stared blankly at me. “What word?”
“Man-ay,” I repeated. It sounded exactly the way it did when she said it. To me.
“No,” she said slowly, shaking her head. “That is not a word.”
“Man-ay?” I said again, more loudly. “Or ban-ay, maybe?”
“No. These words have no meaning.”
“Oh.” I hung my head in shame and tried to change the subject.
I had once again fallen victim to the Bad Foreign Accent. This happens whenever I think I am parroting a word, but in fact I am botching it so badly that it becomes unrecognizable to the native speakers.
She has since continued to use the mysterious word, which I figure either means “Listen,” or “Be quiet.” I suppose I’ll never know for sure.
* * * * *
The other possible outcome of Bad Foreign Accent is a language lesson that is trapped in a continual loop.
I thought I was being clever when I used one of my new words in a first grade class.
“Sseo, juseyo,” I said, thinking I was asking them to please write something down.
They ignored me, as usual, probably thinking I was still speaking English. But their teacher noticed I was making an attempt at Korean.
She cocked her head to the side and raised her eyebrows.
“Sseo?” I repeated, very quietly.
“Sseo?” she said, still not understanding.
“Sseo? Write it down?”
“Yes,” I said, making frantic writing motions in the air.
“Oh!” she said. “Sseoh!”
“Yes!” I cried. “Sseo!”
“No,” she said. “Sseoh.”
That’s what I said, I thought.
“Sseo,” I said out loud.
She frowned. We were getting nowhere.
“Susseyo,” she said, trying a different approach. “Is better. Susseyo.”
That is how I learned that it’s not important how I pronounce ‘sseo,’ because I was using it in the wrong context, anyway. Apparently I was basically ordering the kids to “Write!” when I could have been asking them to “Please write it down.”
My Bad Foreign Accent keeps on coming out, and I cling to the feeble hope that it will one day morph into a Good Foreign Accent, or, even better, No Accent At All.
Until then, I will likely continue to use imaginary Korean words and issue unnecessary commands, all spoken with an unintelligible accent. If I’m lucky, the language will eventually plant itself in my brain, osmosis-style.