Mother Tongue Tuesday (on a Wednesday again): Korean

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Korean Primer

I’ve worked with many Korean students over the years, but woven throughout my life I’ve also been blessed with many Korean American friends.

These lovely friends have touched my life in ways large and small. One lady came to my house to teach me her language. A professor friend once helped me write an essay when I was in high school. Other friends invited me to their sheep ranch in the Green River Valley and took me to festivals where I had sweet bean deserts.

When I was young my mother’s best friend was another nurse whose two young boys became marvelous violin players. We once went to their immaculate home where we had won ton soup the mother made without any packages, and then we listened to her boys play for us. We were all delighted and crushed when those boys were accepted at Julliard, causing the family to move away to the East Coast.

These friends and students I have known have had an inner strength that allows them to move forward. Once a Korean friend from church was attacked in her tutoring business. Even though she probably weighs half as much as I do, she put up a tremendous fight. I pitied the fool with a knife who thought he could rob her without consequence.

When I think of the language these amazing friends all speak, I am always most impressed by the alphabet my friend started to teach me.

Once a king in Korea decided to reform the ridiculously complex Chinese-based character system Korea used at the time. King Sejong worked in the 1440’s to devise an alphabet called Hangul with 28 symbols, spelling the different sounds of Korean. Some call it a syllabary instead of an alphabet because the symbols represent syllable sounds.

This logical and simple writing system has dramatically increased literacy for Korea. If you’d like to read more about one of the youngest and (in my opinion) best writing systems in the world, check out this excellent article in The Economist. English spelling could use a little reform like this, too.

Other Korean Tidbits from the UCLA Language Project

  • Korean grammar is complex enough to hurt my head. While it does not use articles or plural nouns, it has a variety of ways to change its verbs including markers for the social status of the speakers. It uses 7 different cases for nouns, including the usual nominative, accusative, dative, genitive and others I had never heard of before.
  • It uses Subject-Object-Verb word order.
  • It is technically a language isolate but many scholars argue that Korean should be included with other Altaic or Uralic languages like Japanese, Turkic and even Finnish.

Famous Korean Americans 

Michelle Wie, golfer

Toby Dawson, freestyle skier

When I went to Germany many years ago, I felt a bit less homesick sitting in the McDonald’s, sipping coffee. Almost 15 years later, I traveled across the world in the other direction to China. It amazed me how at home I felt in the Korean restaurant down the street from my apartment.

After meeting the remarkable people who speak Korean, spicy noodles and won ton soup had begun to feel like home.

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Mother Tongue Tuesday: Russian

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After a day in Tian An Men Square with a trip to the mausoleum to see Mao Tse Tung, I stayed in a hotel nearby with many other tourists. I went down to the lobby to write for my first NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) because my mother was sleeping in our hotel room. I was surprised to hear Russian from the group sitting crowded together on the couch across from me.

After so many days and months of struggling to pull out words from Mandarin, the Slavic sounds felt comforting and reminded me so much of my life before that they made me homesick. I even felt slightly capable again because I could pick out the different words so much more easily. Slightly capable.

Russian has crazy verb changes, more consonants than I can often wrap my tongue around, and enough challenges to keep me occupied even when it makes me nostalgic to hear it in Beijing.

Russian Tidbits 

  • Russian uses the Cyrillic alphabet with two letters that don’t make a sound in themselves but change the sounds of the letters written before them. My Russian speaking friends have enjoyed watching  me try (unsuccessfully) to get these sound changes right.
  • Russian changes words. A lot. Women put different endings on adjectives to describe their feelings than men do. An English equivalent would be something like: He is happy and she is happiette.
  • Probably because it has so many changes in the words to indicate the use of the words, the order is very free. A Russian speaker often uses Subject Verb Object order but can switch things up and still easily be understood.
  • The basketball star Sue Bird for the Seattle Storm has a father of Russian ancestry. Their name was originally spelled ‘Boorda.’

It feels somehow wrong because so many of my students would object to the lack of dignity, but here is one way I like to work on my Russian: My son watches kid videos on YouTube and doesn’t mind if they are in other languages. It gives me a little language challenge and keeps me from getting bored like I do in English with trains that have a very limited plot line.