Korean adoptee … learns Korean!

I’ve been thinking a lot about my process of learning Korean lately, so in order to stop thinking about that process and get back to actually studying (which is why this blog has been dead basically since I started studying in September), I thought I’d jot some thoughts down.

A lot has been said about how difficult it is for Korean adoptees to learn Korean as compared to other people, such as Korean Americans or even the white partners of Korean adoptees. I think there’s a lot of truth to that, and I have experienced that. However, if you’re a Korean adoptee like myself and you want to take back what is rightfully yours, then you have to find some way to grapple with the emotional issues that come along with learning the language. You  also have to find a way to access the language education, because it’s not like your white mom is going to teach you Korean while she cooks up a hot batch of kimchi chiggae for you. And if you’re an adoptee like myself who was more or less afraid of Korean people until quite  recently, you have to summon up the courage to talk with them.

Q: What do you call someone who speaks three languages?

A: Trilingual

Q: What do you call someone who speaks two languages?

A: Bilingual

Q: What do you call someone who speaks one language?

A: American

A little about my language learning: I did not have ANY exposure to the Korean language at any time growing up. The first time I heard the Korean language was the first time I met Koreans, which was when I was 23 years old.  I did a poor job of learning Spanish in high school and German in college, so I have never been wired to be bilingual. So I started from scratch, like probably a lot of other American adoptees. (I think most younger Europeans at least have studied a second language seriously, so they know better how to go about learning a foreign language systematically.)

I was living paycheck to paycheck in the U.S. while I worked in musical non-profit, so I never had enough money to take a Korean class at the university. So, in 1995, when I fell off the airplane in Korea on an adoption agency Motherland Tour,  all I could say was “Hello” to my mother in the most formal way that I had learned from those Barron’s diplomat tapes. Despite trying to study with tapes and so forth by myself, and traveling numerous times back and forth to Korea to visit my family,  my Korean continued to completely suck until I came back to Korea for an adoptee program at Inje University in 2004.

You seem very nice, and I like you, but I don’t want to talk to you

I think I made a smart move at Inje by hanging out mostly with Korean students. I felt it was my last chance to grab the language, so I didn’t want to waste what I thought was going to be my first and last prolonged time in Korea by speaking English with adoptees all the time. (Little did I know I would still be here six years later!) I made some Korean friends, and they took such good care of me in teaching me the basics. They were so patient. My guy friend ate a lot of ice cream with me while teaching me how to say, “I eat.” “I ate.” “I want to eat.” “I will eat.” My female roommate enforced 10 minutes every day in which I was not allowed to communicate in English.  Then she  actually taped a children’s poster of numbers above my bunkbed so I could practice counting before bed. (I had the bottom bunk). At the time I was 32 years old.

Why dramas are no good

A lot of Korean people try to give helpful advice by saying that you should watch dramas to improve your Korean language. I think that maybe that works if you’re a gyopo and you grew up at least seeing Korean faces and hearing Korean language in your home, even if it was only among adults. If you’re an adoptee, I don’t think that is helpful for you until you’re at least Level 3 or 4, which is I suppose the level that a lot of 1.5 or  2nd generation gyopos would test into without even trying (such as my Korean American husband, who tested into Level 4 at Yonsei without even trying.)  I’m now doing Level 4 at Seoul National University, and I think that dramas are still only helpful to me an extent. I have to watch them on my computer and rewind them and listen again and again and again. If you have to learn textbook Korean like most adoptees do, then anything that is not a perfectly grammatical sentence is hard to understand in the lower levels. That means a lot of language used in dramas, movies, comic books, and songs is hard to understand. Just think about it — even in English, we do not use perfect sentences or pronounce everything the “correct” way. If you have no background in Korean, then anything that deviates from what you learned in the textbook is a big “Huh?” And of course, there is the problem of regional dialects. Imagine if you are learning English and suddenly you are supposed to understand a Texas accent, a British accent, and a Minnesota accent. Forget it! Incomprehensible! Same goes for a lot of Korean gangster movies.

I want schnapps. There are no (is no?) schnapps in Korea.

For every Korean word I learn, I think I lose five in English and some grammar rules fly out of my head. Anyway, I have a lot to say about this, so this little thoughtstream on language learning for adoptees will be continued  …  in the meantime, have the happiest of holidays! What I would give for a hot girlie drink with whipped cream and chocolate sprinkles!! All of you people who live in the land of peppermint and raspberry schnapps, have some boozy hot cocoa for me!

Next up: How I ignored my emotions and oppression long enough to learn some grammar

7 responses to “Korean adoptee … learns Korean!

  1. “So, in 1995, when I fell off the airplane in Korea on an adoption agency Motherland Tour, all I could say was “Hello” to my mother in the most formal way that I had learned from those Barron’s diplomat tapes.”

    This almost makes me feel like I was better in a way – I did a TON of reading before I returned to my birth country – with phrasebooks, electronic translator and dictionary in tow.

    But of course, when I stepped off the plane, it took perhaps 30 seconds after viewing my family in person for the first time to realize how horrible my Mandarin actually was, and that repeating some grammatically correct sentences from a phrasebook wasn’t going to get any real communication across at all.

    I came more prepared – I had a set vocabulary of perhaps 200 words – but managing to string them together and then make that comprehensible through a foreigner’s accent ended up being a whole other challenge, one that hit me smack in the face once I got into my brother’s car with my father & sister.

    “A lot of Korean people try to give helpful advice by saying that you should watch dramas to improve your Korean language.”

    Dramas don’t do jack squat for me. I can’t really catch anything. I can’t even handle children’s shows, like at a kindergarten level, let alone a drama to “learn” Chinese.

    I think you need some sort of proficiency *above* the survival passable level in order to make any sort of progress through watching dramas.

  2. I must say though – I’m surprised you didn’t try to “recite” more from your phrasebooks or whatever when stepping off that plane. Did you really only know how to say “hello” and nothing else?

  3. Last time leaving a comment (I hope?) – sorry for commenting so much all of a sudden!

    “You also have to find a way to access the language education, because it’s not like your white mom is going to teach you Korean while she cooks up a hot batch of kimchi chiggae for you.”

    I laughed. Hard. Out loud.

    “And if you’re an adoptee like myself who was more or less afraid of Korean people until quite recently, you have to summon up the courage to talk with them.”

    Yeah, CBC Lika and I were discussing this through e-mail quite frequently – it’s a horribly self-conscious feeling to stammer through the language that others perceive to be your would-be tongue and then give you the Look Of Pity when you tell them you can’t “really” speak it.

    That’s a huge, huge emotional obstacle. I’m still fighting my way through it; I’m not sure if it’s something you can ever truly “overcome” since in an adoptee’s case, their ethnic appearance will never match their adopted language (ie. English instead of Korean, despite having full Korean background).

  4. I’m still embarrassed to speak Korean to people even here in the states because my Korean is so limited that I know they’ll think of me as not-Korean. I did go to Korea with very limited Korean from my phrase books. While there, I began to pick up a few phrases, but not enough to survive other than get a taxi and order food.

    Merry Christmas to you!

  5. Jane – I have learned so much from your writing (books, blogs…). Thank you. I did just have to say that my 2 kiddos, ages 13 & 11 are learning 한글 from their white 어머니 while she whips up 불고기, 만두 and kimchee bokombop (not cheegae though.. I suck at that). I am learning too, and it is difficult. Thanks to what I have learned from you, I have worked hard to raise my kids differently. We made our second trip to Korea this summer and spent 3 weeks with my son’s younger brother, and a couple of days with his 할머니. We plan to return in December 2011. Thanks, in part, to your writing we made the first trip, now we plan to go back every 12 to 18 months. On dramas… it depends what you want to learn to say…🙂 I learned to yell out “Your majesty!” from Queen Seonduk, and I did pick up “Just a minute” which came in handy with the kids, along with “Hurry up!”, “I’m sorry!”, “Aigoo!!” and a few words I shouldn’t repeat. 🙂 I think the whole sentence structure (verb at the end, order of other words not so vital) and the formal/informal makes in harder to learn from TV. Knowing who Bidam was made me a hit with my son’s younger brother though.

  6. hey Jane,
    Your blog is interesting reading… even from the point of view of a non-adoptee living in Korea. Great to see your insights into the culture.
    If you’re interested in learning some more “colorful” language, check out the book “As much as a Rat’s Tail” – for Korean slang.
    pete

  7. This is already a big leap in your study of Korean. Keep it up and do your best.

Thank you for visiting my blog. I no longer have time to update this blog regularly, but I appreciate your comments, even though I cannot respond to all of them. All comments (except spam) have been allowed to go through unmoderated since June 16, 2014. Any comments you see prior to that date have been read and approved by me. Thanks again, and wishing you peace and blessings.

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