I’d always considered myself a poor language student. At school I learnt French from the age of 8 until 13. I barely got past the stage of being able to order an ice-cream. The languages on offer when I took my GCSEs were French, German and Spanish. I had no natural affinity for any of them. Inexplicably I chose to learn German. I never went to Germany, or had any German friends. It was useless. Since then, aside from picking up key phrases from the lonely planet guides of various Eastern European countries, I hadn’t considered learning a second language.
It’s true that you can get by anywhere speaking English, but I’ve always considered it a weakness that I couldn’t show proficiency in any other language beside my own. Like being able to play a musical instrument, the ability to speak another language (or several) is to my mind one of the things that marks one out as an intelligent human being. There is so much wrong with the education establishment, but the most pernicious and persistent belief that people cling to is the idea that all learning stops immediately once one finishes formal schooling.
When I came to New Malden, officially London’s Korea Town, I was instantly fascinated by Korean culture and the warmth and friendliness of Koreans themselves. It wasn’t long before the idea rooted itself in my mind that learning Korean would be a good idea. There are enough Koreans living here with little or minimal English to make it worthwhile.
I learnt the basics hello, goodbye and thankyou fairly quickly. I’m sure my pronunciation was pretty atrocius at first. An essential part of learning a language is the inability to feel any embarrassment. I had a look online and found hundreds of Korean language videos, some filmed by amateurs, others more professional, all filmed by bi-lingual speakers.
I added some more phrases to my vocabulary. The first six months were slow and somewhat frustrating. The biggest challenge with Korean is getting used to the alphabet. However, once you do this, reading and speaking Korean becomes so much easier.
For the un-initiated, the Korean alphabet is called Hanguel. There are 26 letters, seven of which are vowels. I actually enjoy writing Hanguel and I hope that one day it flows as easy as writing English. To be honest, I have terrible handwriting and I am hoping that by taking time to write Korean characters carefully wiill improve my handwriting generally.
As for the characters, they are easy to write and it recognise. It’s nothing compared to the complications of learning Mandarin or Cantonese.
One more challenge has been getting to grips with the Honorofics of Korean. Depending on who you are speaking to, you use a different verb ending. There is formal, polite and non-formal. For example, you are likely to use formal language when addressing elders or people you meet for the first time. Polite language is for those in a superior position to you and non-polite is what you use when speaking to your friends. If you use non-polite Korean when speaking to elders, they will correct you and remind you as to how you should address them.
Finding a teacher
At first I thought I would be able to get by if I watched videos online and followed the textbook. In fact I didn’t get very far with this method. So recently I went online and found a great Korean teacher. I actually found two teachers, but I think I will eventually decide on one I like and stick with them. It’s a relief not to have to sit in a classroom full of people all making fools of themselves.
Making use of it
Living in a heavily populated Korean area, there are many opportunities to practise the language. I can go to restaurants and cafes and order in Korean. I can watch Korean films and tv dramas too, but at the moment I need the subtitles. One day I may go to live in Seoul. Whatever happens, I know I’ve made a good decision.