Monday, April 18, 2011

Why I Won't Learn Korean

I've met a couple of Koreans who want free English lessons from me.  In both cases they've offered a language exchange:  my English for their Korean.  Sadly for them, their Korean has no value to me because I've decided not to learn the language.  And I don't mean I'm taking a stance of passive disinterest towards Korean, say by not enrolling in classes or not buying a phrasebook; I mean I'm actively not learning Korean.  I'll go out of my way to avoid learning it.  I consider the entrance of a new Korean word into my understanding a loss, not a gain.

I have some great reasons for not learning Korean.

Reason #1:  I don't need to.
I've lived and worked in Korea for 8 months.  Here's an exhaustive list of everything I can say in Korean:
  1. Hello/goodbye.  안녕하세요 (both are the same phrase in Korean)
  2. Hello (on phone).  여보세요
  3. Thank you.  감삼니다
  4. Yes.  네
  5. No.  아니오
  6. Here.  요기 (used to summon waitstaff)
  7. Begin.  시작
  8. Numbers 1-4, 10.  (seriously, I can't count 5-9 or 11+)
  9. Teacher.  선생이 (a whiny girl said it a thousand times during my winter camp)
  10. Station.  역 (for giving directions to taxi drivers)
  11. Song.  노래
  12. Room.  .  Put the two together and you get 노래, a karaoke room.
  13. Fever.  열
  14. Academy.  학원
  15. America/American.  미국/미국인
  16. Republic of Korea.  대한민국
  17. Foreigner.  외국인
  18. Really?  찐자?  (someone told me this one and I learned it because I hear it in my office hundreds of times per day) 
  19. Middle-aged woman.  아줌마
  20. Many food names.
That's it.  A list of everything I can say in Korean, despite being immersed past my eyeballs in Korean every day.  Its paucity proves how little I've needed to get through these 8 months.  People, I can't even count to five.

Reason #2:  It's hard.
I think Chomsky was on to something with universal grammar.  Nonetheless, English and Korean are subjectively very different languages.  If you drop me off in Spain and come back a year later, you'll find me speaking pretty good Spanish.  Reaching the same level with Korean would require several years of serious effort.

Reason #3:  It's a worthless language.
Let's be frank:  learning Korean has no payoff for me.  There are about 78 million Korean speakers in the world and 73 million of them are in Korea.  After I leave this place four months from now I'll only encounter Korean in Korean restaurants, where I already know enough Korean to get things done.  (I'm like in my Korean-speaking element in a restaurant.)

You might say "but you could become an international businessman doing business with Koreans on behalf of an American company!"  To which I would reply "Korean organizations engaged in international business staff their international departments with Koreans who speak fluent English because they realize the global language of science, commerce, politics, etc. is not and never will be Korean."

Or you might say "you could get a job as a CIA intelligence analyst working a Korea desk!"  I would offer you two rejoinders:
  1. North Korean and South Korean have become divergent dialects; study of one is not study of the other.
  2. No matter how hard I work I'll never overcome the advantage held by hundreds of thousands of bilingual second-generation Korean-Americans.
Maybe I could become a Korean history scholar or something.  Asia's the big thing in American history departments right now and there's little English scholarship on Korea.  But although Korea is interesting it's not sufficiently so to push me past no. 2 and I'm probably not going to attempt a PhD in history--Korean or other--anyway.

Reason #4:  I want not to.
My first three reasons encourage a passive resistance to Korean.  The fourth explains why I'm proactively not learning Korean.  It's the most important reason to me and I think probably the most novel to you.

When I imagine leaving Korea and try to predict what I'll miss about it the first (and sometimes only) thing that springs to mind is not understanding the local language.  My ignorance makes me immune to the conversations around me.  It's like a pragmatic superpower.  You can't imagine what it's like until you experience it.  In Seoul I can read philosophy on the subway even if a giggling high-heeled idiot woman sits down right next to me and engages in prolonged high-pitched giggly conversation with her phone.  I can feel my brain trying to follow along but it never gains any purchase on the heap of moist blather issuing forth from the woman's dank gossip-hole because it's just noise like the shrieks and groans of the train. 

I understand Korean in a way no Korean can.  I hear it as sound instead of meaning.  I'm detached from it and can regard it at will and then ignore it when its aesthetics no longer arouse my interest, as if it were a painting hanging on the wall.  I've long wondered what English sounds like and I'll never know.  It's always words to me, never sound.  With Korean it's the other way around--most of the time.  When I hear a word in my pitiful Korean lexicon the unconscious subprocess of my brain trying to decode all the ambient speech dutifully spews it into my consciousness.  This is what it's like:

Korean coworker 1:  안녕하세요.
Korean coworker 2:  안녕하세요.
Korean coworker 3:  안녕하세요.
Korean coworker 4:  안녕하세요.
Korean coworker 1:  gibberish gibberish gibberish gibberish gibberish gibberish gibberish
Korean coworker 3:  찐자?  gibberish gibberish gibberish gibberish
Korean coworker 1:  찐자 gibberish gibberish gibberish gibberish gibberish gibberish
Chortle:  [characteristically throaty laughter] 찐자?  [further throaty laughter]

The issue has become quite apparent to me now that I understand 찐자.  It rises out of the streams of gibberish as something large, distracting and conspicuous, like a moaning navigational buoy or a leaping whale or half a sinking ship.  Every new word I learn is a future invasion of my mental privacy, a future disturbance of my concentration, an unwelcome breach of the fourth wall.  I want Korean to be the aimless song of an Aeolian harp, not a vehicle for quotidian banality.  I already have to hear 안녕하세요 three dozen times a day.  How much more can I bear?

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