Amateur Language Study Adventures

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Yesterday I came down with what was probably Swine Flu and shortly began thinking and speaking almost entirely in Korean, which did not help me a great deal when I happened to find myself listening to the pronouncements of a Korean doctor late that afternoon, hiding my gaping mouth (through which I was gasping, slack-jawed, like an inbred country boy) behind a hospital-provided medical mask; lucky for me this doctor spoke flawless English, which she revealed by translating my high temperature from Celsius to Fahrenheit without being asked. I was running a fever of about a hundred and one.

A friend in Japan revealed to me some months ago that, surprise surprise, Akira is a lot better in Japanese. Having recently watched My Neighbor Totoro over the weekend with my son, who was sick with the same disease at the time (although it seems to be a very weak strain), I decided to find myself a version of the film that was not dubbed, and after I did so I started pausing the film to check up on vocabulary words with the help of google translate. If one of the girls said father, I would head on over to find out how the word is written in Japanese; I can remember without checking that the word is otosan, but I can’t even visualize the spelling (お父さん, apparently) on my own, though I do remember the right kanji character and I do remember the letters for ah and n. I would then write the words down once and continue watching the movie. As a result I think I’ve learned a few more hiragana characters as well as a couple of expressions. This was after an hour of studying; to have done so in a more traditional way, with a textbook and maybe a basic language movie or something, might have been more useful and more effective, but not as fun; being tutored by someone in person is always the most effective way to conquer a foreign tongue, but Japanese people are a lot harder to come by in Korea than you might imagine.

I hear Chinese outside on the street almost every time I go outside in Gyeongju (my wife and I even ran into some rich-looking students heading over to check out the university), I see Southrons from god knows where constantly (one in Busan was even arm-in-arm with an ajumma!), but I believe I have only heard Japanese spoken in Busan three times—twice on the subway (once between a pair of old nationalist-looking men who were videotaping their surroundings with a small camcorder and glaring at me with a very unique form of xenophobic hatred, with rectangle-shaped bloodshot eyes, with perhaps a drop of curry-flavored jaundice mixed in—not nearly so comfortable, wholesome, warm, and cozy as the I-really-have-nothing-better-to-do glares you get from random ajummas), once on the beach. You know it’s Japanese because it sounds just like Korean only you cannot understand a single word, rather than the occasional snatches you are used to.

I also spent a lot of time looking at a list of Chinese radicals on wikipedia, which cleared up one or two questions—邑, Eup, in Korean, which looks like a cat to me, but really means town, comes up a lot in Korean place names, and is usually written like a B or a beta, 阝, so back in Busan I was seeing it all the time without having any idea as to the meaning; ⻍ apparently means walk, but I always thought it resembled a dragon…whereas the character for dragon looks nothing like a dragon

This morning the thing that got me out of bed after a long recuperation from my illness was the thought that I should start trying to read Madame Bovary in French, an idea that’s been kicking around in the back of my mind, tied up in the attic like a secret twin, forever. Here is the first line in French:

Nous étions à l’Étude, quand le Proviseur entra, suivi d’un nouveau habillé en bourgeois et d’un garçon de classe qui portait un grand pupitre. Ceux qui dormaient se réveillèrent, et chacun se leva comme surpris dans son travail.

And the translation in my old Modern Library edition:

We were in class when the head-master came in, followed by a “new fellow”, not wearing the school uniform, and a school servant carrying a large desk. Those who had been asleep woke up, and every one rose as if just surprised at his work.

Even if you don’t speak a word of French—my credentials here are several months auditing a class at Mt. Holyoke—you can see that there is a major difference between the two of them, as Flaubert did not write any quotation marks. Upon closer inspection we learn that the nouveau is dressed “en bourgeois”, and that there is nothing about the school uniform; the word was perhaps Flaubert’s favorite, it has huge meaning for him, he once climbed the great pyramid in Egypt and left the business card of a Parisian upholsterer at the very top for his friend, Maxime du Camp, to find—this Maxime also took some of the first pictures of the Sphinx—but because bourgeois has a very strong Marxist sound in English it really cannot be used, because (I believe) Flaubert is trying to establish from the get-go that his nouveau is an idiot, not a communist. It’s not the translator’s fault. The passage could not be translated (without an annoying footnote).

Although I can speak Korean far better than any other language, especially if I am drunk or delirious, reading French or Spanish is still a lot easier because there are so many cognates. In the cases of Chinese and Japanese my status is utterly hopeless on all counts.

I will probably get nowhere with any of these endeavors, especially after I return to work after my unbelievably long vacation in a few weeks, and have less time to pursue these pursuits, but it’s still fun, and I can show off a little here. I should end now by saying that I still feel somewhat delusional and that my body is a bit hot, so if I have written anything that is seriously bizarre, that is my excuse.


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