Sunday, August 24, 2008

At first, Korean didn't seem to be a very easy language to learn. People back home said it looked like alien writing, and I was inclined to agree. This is a language where both 'yay' and 'nay' mean yes, where A is B, C is D, T is U, G and K are the same, as are R and L.

Still, I learned some Korean within a half hour of landing at the airport. I had to take a bus from the airport to Suwon, the suburb where I live. The woman at the information desk wrote it down for me on a piece of paper, which I was to show at the ticket counter. I figured it might come in handy to memorize how Suwon was written in Korean, so I did: it's a T with a hat on it next to a baby holding a key over an upside-down J.

So far, so good. Then, while running around, I kept seeing 24 with an upside down V and an I, which is 81 in Arabic. That's how I learned that the Arabic 81 means 'hours' in Korean. When someone told me that the upside down V was an S, and that the I was an I, I had a few more letters. I picked up on W, O and N by seeing the baby holding a key over an upside down J at the pizza place, won being the currency. Just like that, I knew six of the 24 letters in alphabet.

I found a book on the Korean alphabet in my apartment and some friends took the time to teach me the alphabet and how words are put together (each cluster of letters is one syllable). I learned the letters best, though, by seeing station names written in Korean and then English on the subway for an hour each way. It was remarkably easy: A is an I with a right hand, B is an upside A, C is the same as S, D is C, E is an I with a right-hand, there's no F, G is a 7, H is a head with a hat, I is I, J I don't know, K is the same as G, L is 2, M is a box, N is a sideways J, an 'Ng' sound is achieved with a circle, though this is silent at the start of a word, P is a roman 2, R is L, S is an upside down V, T is E, U is T, V I don't know, W is the torso of a stick figure, there is mercifully no X, Y is an I with two right hands, and Z is J (as in Jimbabwe, jeebra, etc.).

Armed with this knowledge, I can now write my name: 0, I with a right hand, C, I, 2. Armed with this knowledge, actually, I'm driving myself nuts. I felt impervious to advertising and signs, of which there are lots everywhere, because I couldn't read any of it. It was very peaceful walking around because there was nothing to intrude on my thoughts. Now, I try and read everything, to the point that it gives me a headache. The other day at lunch, I spent a few minutes gazing at a sign across the street to painstakingly spell out B, ee, l, d, ng, a: building!

Korean is the third alphabet I have learned after Urdu, and English, and I learned the first two before I was six. I can't remember how it was learning Urdu and English. I have a memory of learning Urdu, but not of English, but I don't think I managed to learn either as easily as Korean, even though I'm learning Korean at a much older age. English is absurdly and maddeningly hard to learn, as I realize everyday when my students grapple with its constantly changing sounds, spellings and meanings.

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