Tomorrow, Thursday, is the last day of my two week language training. My last day should be Friday but I decided to play hooky on Friday so I can visit 송광사before I leave for Seoul. I’m experiencing only minimal guilt—my adolescent pleasure in playing hooky prevailed.
Re-learning Korean after 37+ years has been tough and I certainly will not say that I have “re-learned” the language. Daily one-on-one three-hour lessons have been exhausting. It probably would’ve been easier to have one or two others in the room with me to give me a break from time to time—let others make a few mistakes rather than me all of the time! I had hoped that my home-stay, with a family including 3 boys, age 6, 7, and 11, should have given me more opportunity to practice but they were keen to practice English. They speak to me in English and I respond in Korean. Not the best but they’re a nice family so it was a good time.
The highlight of each day has been the afternoon. Lessons end at 1230 and the brother of a Korean friend, on leave from work, was happy to be with me in the afternoon. We did a lot of hiking, visiting temples, and some of the 5.18 sites in Gwangju. We spoke only in Korean—that is, until I fumbled, which was rather often.
When we all learned Korean long ago, the focus was on learning how to speak and understand others. My Gwangju class used a workbook—yep, I felt like a little kid again. While there was some good information in it, it involved a lot of reading. I would read a sentence, stumbling over the words of course, then realize that I recognized the words and meaning—just not in written form. My teacher and I both felt that the workbook was boring so we often jettisoned it, starting a conversation using the particular pattern or words I was re-learning.
In the intervening years, the Korean language has changed. There are many more English words being used; unfortunately they are written in 한굴. More than once I’d stumble through trying to pronounce it to be informed that it was an English word, not a Korean word! Yep, felt pretty stupid. The other change, which I find a bit sad, is that some words that really are part of the culture have been dropped from use: 가개, 목욕당, and 다방(shop, bath house, tea house) are three of many. Years ago, I had to learn words for ulcer, leprosy, eyebrows, and the like. I no longer need these words but they still clutter my brain. I’m trying to replace them with words that have more meaning in my life now: retired, witness (related to 5.18), and memory (or lack thereof!).
My onion-skin page Peace Corps dictionary is still the best thing around and I don’t go anywhere without--now I also have to carry a magnifying glass. While Koreans look up words on their smart phones I’m flipping through my 50 year old dictionary. I also keep a small notebook where I write words, phrases, and patterns to study while riding the subway. Needless to say, I’m the only one whose eyes are not glued to a device. Every evening and morning I sit at a 커피솦(coffee shop), sadly, not a 다방(tea house), with coffee, notebook, dictionary, magnifying glass and, when I can stand it--the workbook.
Learning Korean at 25 was a challenge. Trying to re-learn it at 64 has been rather humbling.