17 June 2005

Muninn's Linguistically Fractured Conversations

While Muninn is in South Korea trying to add Korean to his already proficient Japanese and Chinese, he has been posting some charming and insightful accounts of his experiences with the new language and culture. Here's a little taste:
I have had some of the most interesting conversations talking to random old people and as someone who is interested in the history of East Asia, I especially enjoy those who I have met while on this side of the Pacific pond....

Today I had another one of these experiences, this time, sitting just across from the entrance of Korea’s National Library.

It actually started yesterday when I went to meet a friend who works at the National Library for dinner. While I was waiting I was approached by an elderly man wanting to try out his English on me. It didn’t work very well, as his listening skills were minimal. My Korean sucks too. He managed to tell me he was born in 1932 and after a few more frustrated attempts at making some sentences, I asked him if he spoke Japanese. Of course, he did, he was taught Japanese in elementary school and was only 13 when the colonial period ended.

Once we shifted into Japanese, our conversation moved much more smoothly. However, we both had six o’clock meetings to go to so we agreed to meet again at the library tonight at six to continue our conversation....

It was a wonderful chat, and I’m sure he had many more stories to tell but it was getting cooler and dark, so we exchanged contact info and parted ways. It was then, towards the end of our conversation that I noticed something about his Japanese. He spoke surprisingly well, albeit with a lot of common mistakes that I often hear less skilled Korean speakers of Japanese make, and had a vocabulary roughly equal to his half dozen years in the Japanese education system of the colonial period. He would throw in more difficult Korean nouns, which we either looked up or were similar enough to Japanese that I could often guess them from context. However, what took me longer to notice was something I found fascinatingly similar to how Sayaka and I communicate (a mish mash of English, Japanese, and Chinese): He had basically been using Korean particles and grammatical words (e.g. (으)니까) at least half of the time. One reason, I realized, why this took me so long to notice is that it simply fits so well. It rarely, if ever, altered the order or structure of his sentences.

Also, since I have been here over a week now, these words don’t seem out of place so I didn’t even recognize them as not being Japanese until the end of our conversation. Also, he was essentially doing the reverse of what I have been doing here when I speak to Japanese classmates or Japanese speaking Korean friends. I feel so much more comfortable talking to them in Korean because I can randomly throw in Japanese words or grammar into the various gaping holes of my Korean and not skip a beat in sentence construction. Of course, I know, I am supposed to be filling those holes with real Korean, but you know… I got stuff to say, debates to win, long-winded stories to tell!

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