Second language using

A few weeks ago my wife and hosted an end-of-year dinner/social time for some Korean couples and their children. At one point I was pouring a drink for one of the men. I said “얼마나?” (eol-ma-na? how much?) and my wife’s friend’s burst out laughing. I finally asked her about this two nights ago and she said “They think your speaking is so cute”. 

I would like to speak Korean better than I do – preferably fluently but enough to actually talk to people would be a good start. But people laughing whenever I say one word, or saying that my speaking is cute, is not going to help me. I’ve asked her to tell them not to do it. Whether she has or hasn’t, they still do.

The next day she and some friends went … I thought to a friend’s house, but in the middle of the evening I got a text message saying “I am Roxy”, which was a bit of a mystery until she added a photo of her with the Sydney Opera House in the background. Oh … “I am in The Rocks” (the historical part of Sydney opposite the opera house and under the Sydney Harbour Bridge). The Rocks might be translated 이/그/저 바위들 but is more often transliterated 더 록스 (deo rok-seu). Roxy, the girl’s name, would usually be transliterated 록시 (for example in Korean Wikipedia’s page for the movie Chicago

Putting aside the different spelling, there are other differences between the English sentences “I am Roxy” and “I am in The Rocks” and the Korean “(나는) 록시 입니다” and “(나는) 더 록스에 있습니다”. English uses the same verb and in before the location (The is part of the name; compare “I am in Sydney”). Korean uses a different verb and 에 after the location. 

Yesterday she spent some time preparing photo montages of her/our year to post on her Korean hiking group’s chat page. Among a lot of Korean were the English words Roxy and Rockdown (viz, Lockdown). 

My wife and I face different challenges learning and using English and Korean respectively, partly because of the differences between the languages, partly because of our language learning styles and partly because of the contexts in which we use it. She makes more mistakes because she uses English more than I use Korean. 


going to work

Australia has done a generally good job of containing the spread of coronavirus. I am lucky enough to have a full-time job I can do at home, so I worked at home from the end of March to the end of September (almost as long as I’d worked in the office before then). Then we started on one day per week in the office, then two (most of us Tuesday and Thursday), with the expectation of three from the beginning of next year. It looks like working at home part of the time is here to stay. 

Last week there was a small (by world standards) outbreak of coronavirus in another part of my city, and on Sunday we got a text message to work from home for the four days before Christmas Day and until further notice (most of us have next week off anyway). On Monday evening, my wife asked me “Are you going to work tomorrow?”. I said “No, umm yes, umm I’m going to work-at-home tomorrow”. 

Go can be a main verb and going to is one way to talk about the future, and work can be a noun or verb. Maybe she’d meant “Are you going (main verb) to (the place where you work (noun)) tomorrow?” (no) or “Are you going to (auxiliary verb) (perform the action of working (verb)) tomorrow?”.

Of all the possibilities, “Are you going to go to work tomorrow?” is possibly the clearest, but most people find going to go a bit of a mouthful. “Are you going to go the/your office tomorrow?” has the same problem, so “Are you going to the/your office tomorrow is probably the best choice all round.

For once, the problem wasn’t my wife’s second-language English, but something intrinsic to the language. On Wednesday evening, she asked me “Are you working at home tomorrow?”.

Relatedly, I would naturally say work at home, but work from home is more widespread.

Korean names

Today is the birthday of my wife’s youngest niece, which gives me the chance to talk about Korean given names. That niece and her two older sisters share the first syllable of their given name (현, hyeon or hyun). Traditionally, all (or most) Koreans shared the first syllable of their given name with their siblings and male-line cousins. In modern times, this is less systematically followed. Of my wife’s siblings, her two oldest sisters share the same first syllable (보, bo) (but in Korean style, she only ever refers to them as ‘first sister’ and ‘second sister’), but then she and her third (older) sister don’t. (She and the second and third sister share their second syllable, so their names can be summarised as AB, AC, DC and EC.) Then her two younger brothers share the same first syllable (도, do), which is different from any of their sisters’.

The first sister’s two daughters have the first syllable (은, eun – very common in modern-day Korea), which is different than any of their parents, aunts, uncles or cousins. I can’t actually tell them apart. They look different enough but I haven’t spent enough time with them individually, only ever seeing them at Soellal and Chusoek,* when everyone was milling around. Likewise with their husbands. Three of the second sister’s four children (all boys, I think – we had the least to do with them) have the same but different first syllable (which I have recorded in English as sung, which might be 성, seong or 승, seung (the son of one of them definitely has 승)). The third sister’s daughter and son have first syllables different from each other and any of their cousins. But all of those probably get their names from their fathers’ sides of their families. 

Most relevant are the children of my wife’s two brothers, who traditionally would have the same first syllable. But they don’t. The three daughters of the older younger brother have the same first syllable (현, hyeon or hyun), while the daughter and son of the youngest brother have the same but different first syllable (하, ha). In fact, the daughter has a name which is more typically a boy’s name, and the son has a name which is more typically a girl’s name (but not exclusively so in each case). On the last Soellal I was in Korea, I had a Korean tutorial book with many sample sentences which used his name, but the person in the book was a girl. When they were younger, the first and second daughters were very similar, but by the time I went back to Korea they had developed in different ways and I can easily tell them apart now.

On the other hand, two of my sisters have names which are similar but distinct to English speakers, but my wife initially had trouble remembering who was who until she came to Australia and met them. It helps that they live in different states.

* One of my colleagues, also married to a Korean woman, was astounded that I would willingly spend time with my wife’s family in the absence of my wife, but I quite like them, even allowing for the fact that we can barely communicate (or possibly because of it).

the bottom of the harbour

Yesterday I walked around the Circular Quay and Rocks area of Sydney Harbour. A bonus was a full-sized cruise ship at the Overseas Passenger Terminal. A second bonus was that I found (on the terminal’s website) that it was due to depart in 40 minutes, so I positioned myself on the footpath above Circular Quay station (where I’d been several hours before).

One of the reasons Sydney (first the settlement/town then the city/metropolitan area) is where it is, is that there is deep water right up to the shoreline – deep enough for the sailing ships of 1788 and, it turns out, for the cruise ships of the 21st century.

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498th post – Last day as English language teacher

Today is my last day as an English language teacher, after more than eleven and a half years at a language college, provincial government high school and university in South Korea and language colleges in Australia. I am making this move for a wide variety of reasons, related to the ESL sector in general (an Australian student visa requires attendance at classes for 20 hours per week, so most teachers are engaged for 20 hours per week, and there is very little opportunity to advance to a full-time position), the college and colleagues (some classes at some colleges are run as courses – the students start at the same time, do the course, and finish at the same time, but our English classes have been ‘start and finish when you need to’, and I’ve had to share a small office with up to four other people of various degrees of loudness in various languages, as student of various degrees of loudness in various languages come and go), the students (who have different levels of English, life experience and personal and study backgrounds, some of whom attend way less than 20 hours per week, and come and go, use their phone, chat in their own language or sleep when they are there), and myself (basically, dealing with all of the above, and commuting). 

Through English language teaching, I’ve lived in South Korea for two periods totalling three and a half years, met my wife, travelled to Hong Kong and Japan, met all kinds of other people in South Korea and Australia, gained my masters degree (and may yet go on to doctoral study), attempted to learn Korean (하지만 아직 잘 못 해요), developed a serious hobby of photography and started this blog. On the other hand, I’ve had to largely give up my other serious hobby of classical choral singing. (I can and will return to that, but it remains to be seen whether I will ever again perform at my peak.) So now it’s time for a change. From tomorrow …

Trains of thought, revisited

I have previously written (here, scroll down to the last paragraph) about a little mental game which I (and apparently some other people) play with the carriage numbers on Sydney’s trains – the point being to make the four digits of the number total 10 using any standard mathematical process.

A few days ago I travelled in carriage number 6472. I quickly figured out (6 x 4) – (7 x 2) and (6 – 4) x (7 – 2), which seemed neatly and satisfyingly symmetrical. Is there a general pattern here? No and yes. In the second case, 4250, 5361, 6472, 7583 and 8694 all equal 10, but in the first case, 4250 equals 8, 5361 equals 9, 6472 equals 10, 7583 equals 11 and 8694 equals 12 (which is another pattern of its own). So these two equations are equivalent only when the first number is 6. I’m sure there’s a way of proving this mathematically, but my skills are too rusty.

Sydney and Nepean

(long but hopefully interesting) The Nepean and Hawkesbury Rivers circle the Sydney metropolitan area and surrounding countryside to the south-west, west, north-west and north. I live in a suburb on the banks of the Nepean and last weekend went photo-hiking to four lookouts about 20 minutes’ drive south of here, in the small part of the greater Blue Mountains National Park east of the river. An online friend from Canada commented “Your Nepean is a lot more photogenic than ours” – “ours” being a major suburban centre of Ottawa, Ontario.

The former British colonies, big and small, are strewn with names commemorating places and people from Great Britain and Ireland, alongside names from other colonial powers (most notably Spain, France and the Netherlands) and indigenous names. Canada and Australia both have a Sydney and a Nepean. (And a Toronto – Australia’s Toronto has a population of about 5000; Canada’s Toronto … doesn’t.)

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death by overwork (no, not me)

From How your job is killing you by James Adonis in the Sydney Morning Herald (I try to avoid giving free publicity to companies, but I’ve got to credit my sources):

The Japanese have a word, karōshi, to describe people who work themselves to death. … In China the word used is guolaosi. … South Korea, too, has a term for this pervasive condition: gwarosa.

A little bit of linguistic knowledge shows that those are actually the same word, in the pronunciation systems of those three languages. Japanese and Korean have borrowed a large number of words directly from Chinese, and have also created new words themselves from Chinese characters.

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Korean movie – A melody to remember, revisited

Twice last year I saw the Korean movie 오빠 생각 (o-ppa saeng-gak, Thoughts of my older brother or Thinking of my older brother, titled in English A melody to remember) once in a cinema in Korea (without English subtitles) and once on the aeroplane returning to Australia (with English subtitles), and blogged about it here and here.

I occasionally browse through a language bookshop in the Sydney CBD. Some months ago, sometime after I returned to Australia I saw a book called something like Korean Songs and Stories. One of the songs is Thinking of Older Brother, which provides the title, but not the story, of the movie. (The song dates from the Japanese occupation; the movie is set during the Korean war.) The background to the song is:

During the Japanese occupation of Korea (1910-1945), eleven-year-old Choi Sun Ae’s brother went to Seoul to buy shoes and never returned, inspiring her to write these lyrics. The cheerful music – written by Park Tae Jun – may seem like a strange contrast to the sad words, but during the occupation the Japanese prohibited songs that were negative or depressing in nature. Having a relatively “happy” melody was a way of masking mournful sentiments.

I didn’t want to buy the book for one song (though I might have been able to make use of the other ones), so I surreptitiously took a photo of this song. Unfortunately I can’t credit the editor and publisher. I am posting this now, some months after finding that book, because I’ve just been sorting through old photos.


lookout v look out, wildlife v wild life

We drove to a small town in the Blue Mountains famous for its autumn leaves. On the way, I saw a sign which might have said:




which makes sense in the Blue Mountains. The second one definitely said:




Just as we were leaving the small town, I saw a sign saying:


I guess to those living in a quiet mountain town, everything else seems wild.