PROPER reading material

One of my frustrations in learning Korean has been (not) finding real or realistic material which takes me beyond textbooks. So I was excited to find ‘Korean Short Stories for Beginners’, promising ‘PROPER reading material’, ‘interesting reading material’ and ‘easy-to-read, compelling and fun stories’. For beginners.

After ordering and receiving the book and its Intermediate companion, I found that their idea of PROPER reading material for beginners is three pages of text per story, albeit at a readable size and divided into paragraphs. My wife (a native Korean speaker with a qualification in teaching Korean to speakers of other languages) gasped with astonishment when I showed her. A member of my church choir said “There a no pictures!”. My idea of PROPER reading material for beginners is three paragraphs of text per story, with at least one picture.

The book also contains vocabulary lists for each chapter, English translations paragraph-by-paragraph, a one-paragraph summary of each story and a comprehension quiz. But three pages of text! With no pictures! I can understand the occasional sentence in its entirety, and get the gist of about half the sentences. 

I wish I could recommend the books, but I can’t, which is why I haven’t identified the publisher (but search and probably find). Maybe if they marketed the first one as intermediate and the second as upper-intermediate and included pictures, I might.

On Sunday I caught a bus to the city centre and a train home. I took this book to fill in time. Just after I got on the train, two women sat behind me and started talking Korean. I quickly hid the book; I didn’t want them to start speaking to me in Korean.

Most advice for second language learners includes something like “Take every opportunity to practice actually using the language.” But I rarely do, which partly explains why my level remains so low. And I would be terrified if people started speaking to me in Korean.

Some years ago I was reading a Korean textbook on a train when a woman sat next to me speaking Korean on her phone. She finished the call and looked straight at my textbook, so I had to say something. It quickly became apparent that her English was better than my Korean, so we talked in Korean until she got off.

PS A few days later I took and read the intermediate book, and found the language much easier (except the stories are longer and there’s no complete English translation).


Language learning (or not)

Recently I have been pondering the role of opportunity and motivation in learning second languages. I grew up in country towns and small regional cities in Australia. My school years spanned the change in Australia’s official migration policy from assimilation to multiculturalism. There were a small number of students from non-English speaking backgrounds (maybe born overseas, probably children of migrants) at my primary school, maybe as many as a quarter at my first high school and rather less at my second and third high schools. The two biggest groups of countries of origin were The Netherlands/Germany/Poland and Italy/Greece/Malta. Whether by their own choice or by overt or covert pressure from the Aussie children, most of them were determined not to be, or not to be seen as, ‘wogs’. I can’t remember hearing any of them speaking anything other than English, or even saying that they spoke another language at home. (Maybe they did, but didn’t ever say anything about it.) The Dutch/German/Polish children assimilated more and quicker than the Italian/Greek/Maltese. 

My primary school had no classes in any language other than English. The only exposures to other languages I got were in the ABC’s Singing and Listening books (we also had similar songbooks at home) and war comics. My first high school had French classes, but only from second year, and I only went there for one year. (My older sisters did five and four years with very little to show for it.) My second high school had electives (one lesson per week for one semester) in German and a local Indigenous language, but there were always more immediately interesting choices. My third high school had German throughout but the only way I could have done it in my final year was if I’d done it for four years before that, which I obviously hadn’t.

Not surprisingly, with zero opportunity and motivation, my grand total learning of any language other than English during my school years was zero. Perhaps the biggest opportunity outside school came when a young Japanese woman came to live with my great-aunt and -uncle, but they lived in Melbourne, we saw them every few months, and our role was to help her practice English. 

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Slow, repeated listening in Korean

I had been struggling to find slow but mostly real spoken Korean to listen to repeatedly, but in the last few days I’ve found two resources which I will use a lot. 

The first is by Paul Shin, a Korean-American living in Incheon. One of his playlists is Learning Korean while you sleep. I can’t promise the “while you sleep” part, but he presents a large number of reasonably realistic sentences at full sleep, then slowly, then word-by-word, then a literal translation, then a more-or-less idiomatic translation. Some of his videos are only aural and others have the sentence written as well.  

Korean Class 101 is a major site for learning Korean. Their Slow listening for absolute beginners uses a totally different understanding of “absolute beginners” than mine, but they also have videos of repeated slow listening which work in the same way. They don’t have a playlist (at least, that I can find), but here is their main page and here is one slow listening video, from which you can link to others.

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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. 

Consonant clusters

Posting about Sprite recently, specifically mentioning consonant clusters, reminded me that I have not fully explored these in this blog. Some time ago I posted a list of common words with the possible clusters of English, but didn’t analyse the clusters themselves.

All of the two-phoneme initial consonant clusters in English start with /s/ and/or finish with /w/, /l/, /r/ or /j/ (the ‘y’ sound in you, not the ‘j’ sound in jewel). Starting with: 
/sw/ switch, suede
/sl/ sleep, slow

The other ones starting with /s/ are:
/sm/ small, smile
/sn/ snow, snap
/sp/ speak, spend
/st/ state, still
/sk/ school, scale, skin
the rare, Greek /sf/ (sphere, sphinx)
and the very rare, Greek /sθ/ (sthenic (I don’t know what this means, but it appears on lists of consonant clusters)

The ones ending in /w/ are:
/tw/ twenty, twelve
/dw/ dwell, dwarf
/kw/ question, quite
/gw/ guava, Guam
/θw/ thwart

The ones ending in  /l/ are:
/pl/ place, play
/bl/ black, blood
/kl/ close, clear and scientific words starting with chl
/gl/ glass, glance
/fl/ floor, flat

The ones ending in /r/ are:
/pr/ problem, provide
/br/ bring, break/brake
/tr/ try, train
/dr/ draw, drive
/kr/ create, cross and many Christian and scientific words (chrome, chrono-)
/gr/ great, group
/fr/ from, phrase
/θr/ three, through
/ʃr/ shrug, shrink

Finally, the ones ending in /j/ are:
/mj/ music, museum
/nj/ new/knew, nuisance
/pj/ pupil, pure
/bj/ bureau
/tj/ tune, tube
/dj/ during, duty
/kj/ queue/cue, curious
/fj/ future, fuel
/vj/ view
/hj/ huge, humour

In table form:

switch, suede sleep, slow

m small, smile

music, museum
nsnow, snap

new/knew, nuinsance
pspeak, spend
place, playproblem, providepupil, pure

black, bloodbring, break/brakebureau
tstate, stilltwenty, twelve
try, traintune, tube
dwell, dwarf
draw, driveduring, duty
kschool, scale, skinquestion, quiteclose, clearcreate, crossqueue/cue, curious
guava, Guamglass, glancegreat, group
fsphere, sphinx
floor, flatfrom, phrasefuture, fuel

three, through

shrug, shrink

huge, humour

(I tried to make a table unambiguously showing which combinations are possible and which aren’t, but couldn’t make one that is both complete and clear.)

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“Could you tell me why?”

One grammar activity required students to place the given jumbled words into the correct order. One of them involved an indirect question, approximately “Could you tell me where the station is?”. All the students wrote “Could you tell me where is the station?”. This fits the pattern for a direct question (“Where is the station?”) and is perfectly understandable, but no native speaker over the age of three ever uses that structure, or is ever explicitly taught the rule.

It sounds a bit wishy-washy to say “In this kind of sentence we use this order and not that order” without giving some sort of reason, especially when there’s such a strong pull towards that order (viz, the subject-auxiliary inversion of a direct question).

But grammar books and websites don’t give a reason. Even the monumental Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (which I have just bought, so I’m likely to quote more, in order to get my considerable amount of money’s worth, says only:

The main structural difference between subordinate and main clause interrogatives is that subject-auxiliary inversion does not generally apply in the subordinate construction.

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incorrectly interesting

Observation 1: The big parts of language are easy; the small parts are hard.
Observation 2: Mistakes are often more interesting than correct answers.

My students have just finished the textbook and today was a revision day before the test tomorrow. One revision question was something like “My father (watch/watches/watching) television every day”. Several students chose watch. This is, of course, incorrect standard English, but only by a twist of history. There’s no particular reason why third-person singular verb forms have –s/es. There’s no possibility of misunderstanding. Many languages exist quite happily with the equivalent of “My father watch television every day”. Indeed, some non-standard varieties of English exist quite happily with exactly that. Nothing would be lost and quite a bit would be gained by omitting 3sg –s/-es, but standard English includes it, so that’s what I’ve got to teach and that’s what’s my students have to learn. (Several hundred years ago, standard English lost 2sg –est, and no-one missed it.)

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For whom, Who … for?

My wife has said a noticeable number of times:  “What are you looking?”. I think this is interference from Korean, which uses the direct object marker 을/를 instead of a preposition. Maybe I just give a short answer, eg “My glasses”, or say “I am looking for my glasses”, or say “For.  I am looking for my glasses”, depending on how much like an English teacher I feel at the time.

In this morning’s gospel reading, Jesus said to Mary Magdalene “For whom are you looking?”. This is not directly equivalent, because of the switch between what and who/whom. Google Ngrams shows that basically no-one says For what are you looking?

With who/whom, there are four choices: Who are you looking for?, Whom are you looking for?, For whom are you looking? and For who are you looking? Google Ngrams shows usage in that order. Despite the ‘rule’ that we shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition, W/who are you looking for? has always been more common, and must be regarded as normal, standard English. I was surprised to find that Whom are you looking for? is more common than For whom are you looking?. The former sound very awkward to me. If I had to be formal, I would say/write For whom are you looking?

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Who’s eating whose pizza?

Who’s eating whose pizza?
Someone’s eating someone’s pizza. (or her/his/their)
My cousin’s eating my cousin’s pizza. (or her/his)
Alex’s eating Alex’s pizza. (or her/his)
I’m eating my pizza.
You’re eating your pizza.
She’s eating her pizza.
He’s eating his pizza.
It’s eating its pizza.
We’re eating our pizza.
They’re eating their pizza.

Who’s and whose, you’re and your, it’s and its and they’re and their (and there) are some of the most easily confused pairs (and trio) of words in English, and dominate examples and discussions of ‘grammar fail’ on the internet. It is easy, tempting and, for some people, irresistible to say “Gotcha” and cast aspersions on the writer’s intelligence and/or education, but language is never pure and rarely simple, so it is worth taking the time to consider all the issues.

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Coldplay = ice hockey?

One of the most important skills in learning anything, including a second language, is figuring out what’s important to know and what can be safely ignored. Students wanting to know is a good thing; I don’t want to discourage that. Maybe I’m just explaining it badly.

Yesterday’s lesson had a lot about pop music, and the activities and our extra discussions were full of singers and groups and songs and words and music. Today’s lesson included a story in which a young woman and young man met while a particular song was playing – “It’s by Coldplay. It’s called Yellow”. Coldplay and the song then play no further part in the story. They could have met while any other song was playing, or in total silence.

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