Eric Flynn and I attended the Defense Language Institute at about the same period of time though he was in the Arabic course and I took the Korean course. He's out of the Air Force now and been teaching English in Korea for a few years.
---When you ask someone "What's the best way to learn a foreign language?", usually the answer will be "Live in another country." Well, that's mostly true, but not so much when that country happens to be South Korea. It's still kind of true... but not as much as you'd think.
I've been living in South Korea for almost three years now. Before I came here, I imagined myself in the future, having lived abroad for several years, and returning to impress my friends and family with my mastery of Korean. I learned very quickly that this was not to be. From time to time I recall a scene from a movie called The Thirteenth Warrior in which Antonio Banderas (pronounced Bahndehrrassss, in a breathy tone) plays an Arabic scholar (or something) who finds himself in league with a band of Vikings. For a portion of the movie he finds himself flummoxed with this inability to comprehend their language (which is called "Vikish" for those of you who are not experts in world languages). Finally, in one scene, we see him listening to the conversation of his Scandanavian companions as they talk around a fire and, suddenly, he finds himself able to comprehend their speech simply by listening to it and absorbing it.
Of course, humans do have the capacity to learn language intuitively; that is, simply through "absorbing" it. This ability is present during our formative years and diminishes steadily as we age. Though I've never lived in a country which speaks Spanish, Italian, etc., I'd imagine that it's still possible to absorb language in such a way. Certainly not to the extent that we can absorb our mother tongue (why does that term always make me uncomfortable?) when we're young, but still enough for it to be of some use. A person with a rudimentary education in Spanish, for instance, can go and live in a Spanish-speaking country and gradually become fluent in Spanish. At least, that's what people tell me: people who use Spanish at every available opportunity to prove how good they are at Spanish, even going so far as to pronounce Mexico "Meh HEE Ko" when it comes up in conversation. However, with Korean it's different. It's very common to meet people who have lived in South Korea for six years or more and who still have only a basic working knowledge of the language.
Now, most of you who have never lived in Korea might think this is because everyone in South Korea speaks enough English that a foreigner can get by without speaking Korean. Therefore, there's no reason to use Korean, let alone learn it. This is not really true. While much of the South Korean youth have a rudimentary knowledge of English, and it has found its way into the Korean culture (albeit in often improperly-applied ways), one shouldn't think that he or she can take care of such things as banking, internet service, or even grocery shopping without knowledge of Korean. There is a language barrier here, so much so that foreigners need someone else to rely on (someone who speaks Korean) to make sure most of their basic needs are met. So it isn't simple laziness that prevents people from absorbing the language here. It's my theory that the reason so few foreigners in Korea are able to learn the language is that Korean and English are so fundamentally different that nothing short of intense studying can help you learn it.
Evidence can be found in the Korean youth. English is taught in public schools from as early as elementary school, and probably even kindergarten, if I had to guess. And yet, most of my high school students don't even know that "nice to meet you" is an inappropriate phrase when greeting someone whom you've been seeing five days a week for the last six months of your life.
Beyond the fact that Korean students are apathetic towards English, it's really hard for them to learn. I personally have studied Arabic intensively for two years of my life, and I can say that learning Arabic is a walk in the park compared to Korean.
That's not saying that Korean is poorly thought-out language or inefficient (a native of speaker of English calling another language inefficient seems a lot like the proverbial kettle calling the metaphorical pot "cookware"). In fact, I'm told that, much like it's easy for English speakers to learn Spanish, it's similarly easy for speakers of Japanese to learn Korean. But I'd venture that it's safe to assume that a Spanish speaker would find it every bit as difficult to learn Korean as I – uh, I mean English speakers – do.
So just how different are the two languages? Well, I think the best example is simple use of the word "what". Imagine that we're eating dinner together and I'm staring at you funny. You're not sure if it's because I'm trying to use my psychic powers to make your head explode, like that guy in the movie Scanners, or if I'm fascinated/disgusted by the goiter on your neck that makes "Kuwato" from Total Recall look like a freckle. So, in order to surmise why I'm staring at you the way I am, you'll stop chewing your tofu-dog and say:
Both being native speakers of English, we know that this is a short way of asking "What is the reason for which you are staring at me, you freaking weirdo?" However, if we were Koreans, you would stop chewing your still-squirming octopus, perhaps shoving a tentacle back in your mouth as it tries to escape and say:
A seemingly small difference, but imagine that applied to everything you say. Not only must one learn vocabulary, but there is also an element of culture, and learning how to phrase things. Let's look at another example. Let's say we're eating dinner together again and you're wondering if it's possible that anyone out there could fall in love with the pathetic slob in front of you, who didn't even bother to put on pants when he left the house, but still chose to wear a mustard-stained Poison t-shirt. So you ask:
"Are you married?"
In Korean, the way they choose to phrase this question is "Did you marry?"
When learning Arabic, I found that, once one gained mastery of the various grammatical concepts, it was generally okay to translate what you wanted to say word-for-word. Even expressions such as "on the other hand" occasionally translate to mean exactly the same thing. But was we can see from the above example, even when asking a simple question, one must change it so that we are no longer using an adjective, but rather a past-tense verb.
Now, I should point out that my understanding of Korean is very rudimentary, and I'm sure that there is more than one way to posit the above question in a way that's more akin to English verbiage, but the very fact that the question is generally stated in that way hints at how difficult it is to learn Korean.
On final example of the differences between English and Korean: I was in my co-workers' office one day. They had seen fit to let me out of my cage at that time, since they understand that it's good to let me stretch my legs once in a while. The young, highly attractive student teacher was sitting off to the side, not noticing my existence, as she was wont to do. Suddenly her sweater (the periwinkle-colored one that complemented her eyes nicely, and that she usually wore on Tuesdays, but today was wearing on a Wednesday, for some reason) had slipped off the back of her chair upon which it was hanging and fell to the floor. Before I could dash over and pick up, presenting the sweater to her in the same way a dog presents a pair of slippers before his master, eagerly wagging his tail and hoping for praise, my co-teacher pointed to the sweater and uttered one single word which, I was told, is Korean for "fell".
Now, had the same thing happened in the U.S., or Canada, she would have more likely said something like "Oh, your sweater fell on the floor." But in Korean, this entire sentence was condensed to a single word.
This brevity of language can be evidenced with students. When speaking in English, they often tend to use only minimal sentence fragments when conferring their ideas, and frequently need to be reminded to implement subjects and other things when speaking.
If the above examples haven't driven home just how different Korean and English is, maybe this will: a common task of English teachers in Korea is teaching students how to organize essays when writing in English. The tactic of using and introduction, then body (with supporting details) and finally, a conclusion, is a concept that is completely alien to speakers of Korean. Of course, not being able to fully read Korean, I can't read any essays or papers written in that language, which only leaves me to fantasize at what sort of roundabout stream-of-consciousness three-ring-circuses their papers must be. When I've asked my Korean friends about Korean essay writing, it's been explained that such linear organization as is found in western papers is unnecessary to accommodate the eastern way of thinking.
Of course, this alternate way of thought expression involved in the learning of Korean is only one of several hurdles English speakers have to overcome. Add to it things such as foreign sounds (such as the notoriously difficult-to-pronounce "eu"), verb conjugation, different speech patterns depending on level of formality, and words that simply have no equivalent in English, and one can clearly see the myriad obstacles that English speakers encounter on their way to becoming fluent in Korean. I'd like to see Antonio Banderas and his rugged Latino good looks deal with that.---