Tonight, my cab driver who took me to the girls’ school where I work twice a week was an interesting fellow. When he picked me up, unlike a lot of guys he knew exactly where I wanted to go, and started talking with me right away.
When he asked where I was from and I replied I was from Canada, he observed what a lot of cab drivers observe when they ask me that question: that in Jeonju, a lot of hakwon teachers come from Canada. I asked him how many of them speak Korean with him, and he said very very few could say more than a few words. We got into a conversation of the various reasons why many foreigners in Korea don’t seem to feel the need or urge to learn Korean even whilst living here, such as lack of interest, a sense that it may not be “useful” later like, say, Spanish or Russian might be, and lack of interest in studying since many new teachers are recent graduates of university. I noted also that a lot of Canadians seem to come here for a single year and then return to Canada.
He asked why I study, and I told him I felt it was a good chance to learn Korean, that I want to learn about the place where I live, that anyway language study is interesting and good for your head.
Then he asked about my pedagogy in teaching and how I learn. Well, I think he did. He was saying something about, “If people come here, I think they could learn Korean quickly.” I explained that a lot of foreigners, even those who are interested in learning Korean, have trouble finding someone willing to practice with them, since most people want to practice their English with any available foreigner. He laughed and said he understood, and then asked how I study, and kept using the word “quickly”.
I told him, no, I think slow and careful work is better for really internalizing a language. Study a little, carefully and slowly, and practice it a lot. Slowly, but spending a lot of time on it, is the key, I told him. He agreed. Then he launched into the most scattered vocabulary lesson I’ve ever experienced… more even than the notebook one of my ex-teachers gave me full of handwritten vocabulary like “greenhouse effect” and “global warming” and “orbital satellite”… at which point I closed it and asked her to please teach me the basicv pronouns, which I didn’t yet know.
This guy was farther out than that! While driving, and commenting on the rain and the other drivers, he started pointing at random objects and saying the names of those things in Korea, very rapidly and loudly. He told me the name for door handle. For a car’s steering wheel (that I remember, it’s simply 핸들, the Koreanized version of the English word “handle”). For a CB radio. For a driver’s ID card. For the interior and exterior lights in a car. For streetlights. For a chair in a car (which is the same as other chairs, 의자). For a bunch of other objects I can’t ever remember (let alone the Korean names of the objects).
I think after a few minutes, when I asked him what the name for the car’s interior light is, he realized none of this was really sticking in my head. I explained that since the roots are unfamiliar to me, it’s hard to remember so many words. I used the example of his ID sign in the car. 사진표, he said that was called. 사진 I know, it means photograph, and 표 is also familiar as the word for “ticket” or, well, “other small printed paper”. So that was easy to remember, while the word for light alone is something new to me, so it’s hard to remember the name of “traffic light”, let alone “traffic light for traffic going straight” versus “traffic light for traffic turning left”.
While I think he understood, especially when I showed him all the English words for those things and he noticed how hard they were to remember a minute later, he also seemed a little disappointed at my retention of his teachings, or lack thereof. Ah well, I told myself, when I come across those words in a textbook or conversation, maybe I’ll recognize them. It’s a slow process, that’s all.