Last thoughts about South Korea

Last Sunday, I attended church in Korea for the last time. At the end of the service, the congregational leader announced that I was leaving, and the priest invited me to speak. I noticed that a Korean woman who’d lived in England for some time, and spoke English well, had also come to the front and was standing next to me holding a microphone, obviously to translate for me. But I surprised everyone, including her, by speaking in Korean, about 30 seconds of thank you and goodbye which I’d been composing in my head the day before and during the service. At the end, I turned to her and said ‘Please translate that’. She was so flustered that she gave a brief summary in English!

I remember reading (years ago, before I got seriously interested in language(s) and language learning) a quotation to the effect of ‘People learn languages for two reasons – either they want to, or they have to’. (The same might be said about learning anything, really.) The writer went on to say that ‘wanting to’ was a better  motivational factor than ‘having to’. I suspect s/he was thinking about learning a language as a compulsory school subject, which is generally not conducive to good language learning, for many reasons. But there’s another kind of ‘have to’.

On Friday night, my last night in Korea, I stayed with my wife’s brother and sister-in-law. Her brother speaks enough English for us to get by, but he was at work for most of the time I was there, and her sister-in-law speaks only isolated words of English at best (generally those which are used in Korean anyway). If we were going to communicate at all, it was going to have to be in Korean. My Korean, as limited it is, is better than her English. I can form complete sentences (evidenced by the story in the first paragraph), some of which are actually grammatical.

During my year in Korea, I spent time with all of my wife’s siblings and their spouses, sometimes when my wife was visiting, but usually by myself. (A colleague who is also married to a Korean woman was astonished that I would (want to) socialise with my wife’s family without her.) That brother is only one of them who can speak English to that level. But they did their schooling before learning English became what has been referred to as ‘a national obsession’ in Korea. I also spent time with most of her nieces and nephews (aged approx 30 to 11) and all of her great-nieces and nephews (aged approx 8 to 1). None of them (all of them bright, active young people) spoke to me in English,  even the ones who are currently studying English at school. (The toddlers obviously didn’t speak to me in English; they didn’t even speak to me in Korean!)

My prepared speaking and prepared writing are the (relatively) better parts of my Korean. My listening is very poor and my unprepared speaking is poor. Study CDs use voice actors or otherwise experienced speakers, and are professionally recorded. Resources online vary, but I use some of the better ones. The sentences (in print and on the sound files) for each chapter of the textbook use that vocabulary and that grammar. Koreans in real life don’t. There are many more words and many more grammar points than I know, or am ever likely to.

The day before I vacated my apartment, a friend of my wife, and her husband, came to take away any of the stuff I’d accumulated in the year I was there, including a study desk, small bookshelf and microwave. I couldn’t understand her, and we communicated mainly in sign language with a few words in English or Korean. At one point she returned to their car, and he attempted to speak to me, and I had no idea what he was saying – I could not pick out any words, or any of the grammatical morphemes. In the end I just had to shrug and look apologetic.

On Saturday, two friends of my wife picked me up from her brother and sister-in-law’s house, drove me to the airport and waited with me until I went into security. After three days of final packing, cleaning, two sets of people coming to take stuff away, inspection by the university housing officer, travelling to Seoul, communicating with my sister-in-law, and dinner and lunch with two  different groups of people, my capacity for speaking Korean had just about disappeared, and we were reduced to single words in English and Korean. (Indeed, my capacity for almost anything had just about disappeared!)

Not language related: I was sitting in the left-hand window seat (to the east, flying south). On Saturday night we took off after dark, and flew over the brightly lit southern suburbs of Seoul (I recognised the Lotte World Tower in Jamsil), along the peninsula and over Busan, which I recognised. On Sunday morning, over northern NSW, I opened the window shade slightly and saw a spectacular line of colour along the horizon. (Maybe the coast was visible as well, maybe we were too far inland.) Several minutes later the sun rose. Other people were taking photos, but I’d switched my phone off – in full mode, not flight mode. I don’t know what happens when someone switches on a phone in full mode, and was very wary of doing so. As it happened, the phone wouldn’t switch on at all. (At the airport, I found that I just hadn’t pressed the button hard enough.) Later, just inland from the Central Coast, I could see fog in the mountain valleys, snaking sinuously between the hills. Later again, as the plane circled around to approach the airport from the south, I could see the cliffs of the Royal National Park in the early morning sun. If I had taken photos, I might have been disappointed, because the glass on the windows is very thick and the outside is dirty, and there were various reflections from inside. The photos might have been adequate, but they certainly wouldn’t have been stunning. (My camera developed a fault about 4 weeks ago, so I was restricted to taking photos on my phone camera, which I don’t like – it just doesn’t feel right, either physically or emotionally, plus the zoom on the phone camera is way less than that on the camera.)

(More than 1,000 words – that’s enough for one post.)

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