Speaking the wrong word Very Clearly …

probably won’t help me. In my defence, I did get 4/5ths of it right.

I have a recurring problem with ear wax, hadn’t had my ears cleaned since I came here in August, and had noticed a heavy feeling in my ears. At the back of my mind was the word 귀미 (gwi-mi), which I seemed to remember an ear doctor telling me in 2008 or 2009.

First, finding an ear doctor in the local area. Goss among the foreign teachers at the university was that there was an ear, nose and throat doctor in the commercial centre near the subway station. Fine, as long as there’s a sign in English. If not, then I don’t know know the Korean word for ‘ear, nose and throat doctor’. My mobile phone app translated ‘ear nose throat doctor’ literally as ‘귀코목의사’ (gwi ko mok eui-sa).

I went to a pharmacy near the subway station and attempted to say ‘이근처에 귀의사 있어요?’ (here-near ear doctor is?). He said ‘네?’ (huh?), so I mimed ‘cleaning ears’. He said ‘Oh, 귀’, pronouncing it more-or-less as I had just done. He led me to the window and pointed to the fourth floor of the building opposite, above the bank I sometimes go to, to a 이비인후과.

I crossed the road and saw, outside the bank building, a banner saying ‘[name] ENT’, that is, ‘ear, nose and throat’, used as an abbreviation in Korean as well in English. I went up in the lift, went into the clinic and said to the receptionist ‘귀미 만히 있어요’ (I have a lot of [the word I thought was ‘ear wax’]). She stared at me blankly then said something apparently like ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. Just wait a minute and talk to the doctor.’

While I was waiting, I checked the translation app, which translated 이비인후과 as ‘otorhinolaryngology’. But ‘이’ is not the free-standing word for ‘ear’, ‘비’, ‘nose’ and ‘인’  ‘throat’ any more than ‘oto’, ‘rhino’ and ‘laryng’ are free-standing words in English. Those morphemes combine in official terminology, but not in everyday usage. (Actually, a rhino could be the etymologically-related African animal.)

A few minutes later the doctor called me in and I tried one last time, with equal (no) result, then mimed. He checked my ears, then cleaned out the wax using a slim suction nozzle with no great problem. I had to get to the bottom of this. Did I have the wrong word, or was I pronouncing it so badly that no-one could understand me? I quickly checked the app, and it said ‘귀 왁스, 귀지’ (gwi wak-seu, gwi-ji). I had been saying ‘gwi-mi’ instead of ‘gwi-ji’. How wrong is too wrong? Some phonemes are more similar; others are less similar. If I had said ‘gwi-chi’, they might just have understood me. ‘gwi-mi’ is just different enough. Would an Australian doctor understand a Korean patient talking about ‘ear max’?

So three people had completely misunderstood my attempts to speak Korean. In between, I went to the bank to get some money, but my first two attempts (using the English prompts) failed. I asked the security guard for help in mostly Korean, one English word (I don’t know the Korean word for ‘machine’) and some sound effects (ditto for ‘beep’). He said (in Korean) ‘You speak Korean very well’ and I said ‘I’m not very good’. He then went through the procedure using the Korean prompts. There is one extra button to press than on the machines at Another Bank’s branch which is closer but which I have to pay a small fee for using.


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