The geography of language – valley

When I embarked on this series of posts, the first two were fairly straight-forward. Using the desert as an analogy for Arabic was a no-brainer. And I don’t know whether my esteemed readers ever think about Poland, but I have a strong image in my mind of forests, so that was another easy selection for me.

Along with the easy geographical choices, I felt confident in my ability to talk about those two languages. I came to Arabic with an expectation that my experience in having learned Hebrew would be of value, and so far I have not been disappointed. From simple words like “what” and “from where” to slightly more advanced words like “wind” and “house”, the analogies have been strong enough to allow me to pick up Arabic vocabulary reasonably easily (so far).

My learning approach to Polish was to use (purchased) language software, which I supplemented by buying a Polish grammar guide. This combination has allowed me to advance at my own pace, while also dipping into “explanatory” mode when I choose. In this way I was able (in my previous post) to combine my perceptions of the language (really challenging but fun) from the software, with the structural descriptions from the grammar guide (incredibly challenging).

So I now move further east. When I was allocating languages to methods, I worked by elimination – I doubted my ability to find language-swap partners for Arabic and Polish, so ticked off group class and software. I found a web-site for Hindi, so I selected that as my free online option, and the importance of the Chinese language in Australia meant that I was able to find a teacher who would give me individual instruction.

Which left Korean and language exchange. I felt confident initially, as there is now a sizeable Korean “strip” in central Melbourne, combining bar/restaurants (frequently playing KPop), Asian groceries and language schools teaching English. So I went to my favourite Korean grocery and put up a “Study buddy wanted!” sign. And waited.

And waited.

And waited (and tried a couple of internet-based searches for study buddies).

And waited.

And finally was rewarded with one hit. Which was enough.

Fortunately, my study buddy almost immediately referred me onto a Korean-language web-site. Which has proved to be a real winner, alongside the occasional catch-ups over tea and coffee to exchange English language conversation and support, for Korean instruction and travel tips.

So, why is Korean the “valley” of geography. I think that it sits (undeservedly) in the shadow of its two larger neighbours – Japan and China. Inasmuch as most people have a perception of Chinese and Japanese, even if they might struggle to speak more than “Kung Po” and “sayonara”, that level of awareness is almost non-existent for Korean.

As I am discovering, the Korean language has managed to borrow elements from its neighbours while remaining distinct. Korean contains particles which resemble Japanese particles; Korean has two separate sets of numbers, one native Korean, and one Sino-Korean. When I recently tweeted about the odd Korean word for Australia 호주 (hoju), a respondent (thanks CS Bogan) was able to explain that this probably had Chinese origins.

My SB also told me that there are distinctive regional variations in the different provinces (six?) of South Korea, never mind the linguistic development or otherwise taking place in the North.

Altogether this has given me the sense of a linguistic and cultural Shangri-La, hidden away from the sight of most of us rushing along and living our frantic lives, but waiting to open up all kinds of wonderful discoveries if we stop to check it out.

The pronunciation is not totally straight-forward for the English-speaker, with a separation between “eo” and “o” that causes me a few headaches, as well as some tricky consonants. “s” isn’t really an [s] sound but more of a sibilant; there is the classic Asian [r], [l] blend and the [g] and [k] sounds seem to flip around at will.

Grammar includes the afore-mentioned particles, but otherwise shares the North Asian simplicity of verbs. If I do (hae-yo) then we, she, you, they all “do” the same (hae-yo).

Add to this an alphabet (as opposed to logograms like Chinese or syllabic writing like the Japanese kana) and Korean is surprisingly approachable. After a few months, I am almost at the point of claiming to be able to read.

Now if someone could just convince Koreans to speak a little more slowly!

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