Saturday, March 27, 2010

In which I go all Linguistic Anthropology on you

Apparently, in Korean, when you ask a question you put the question word at the end of the sentence. And its a well known linguistic phenomenon that people who learn a foreign language often take the properties from their own language and apply it to the new language.

A good example in this case is what is referred to in academic circles as 'Black English Vernacular' or BEV. It has also been called 'ebonics'. Both of these term I find amusing but for lack of a better work I will use 'BEV.'. The word 'be' in BEV can denote habitual action. For example: 'he be running' means 'he is habitually running'. And although it may sound like improper verb usage, it is proper verb usage in many African languages where verbs can denote both habitualness and one time action without a change in form. Yay for Linguistic Anthropology 101.

How this applies to Korea is that when one of the kids asks a question its always "Teacher, dog is what?" or "Teacher, do I read where?".

There are other small things that make teaching English interesting. For example, the pronounciation of R's and L's are always mixed up to the point where, when choosing an English name for a student, the Korean teachers will give them names like 'Rucy' instead of 'Lucy'. F's and P's are also mixed up as well as V's and B's. The word 'five' sounds like 'pibe'.

Koreans don't like words that end in a consonant, either. They will add a vowel sound onto the end of a word instead of pronouncing it the way it is written. Words like 'think' become 'think-eh' and 'dog' becomes 'dog-uh'.

Its also confusing for them to learn English because they have way more vowels than we do. Or I should say, Korean spells out how each vowel sounds and they don't vary from that sound. In English, vowels sound the way they sound, until they don't. We have r-controlled vowels (as in 'torn' as opposed to 'ton'), long and short vowels (dog versus hippo, igloo versus isolate) and diphthongs such as 'ae' (which is pronounced 'eye' until its not) and 'au' ('ow'). And then some vowels are ignored all together - like in the word 'you' and 'like'.

Don't even get me started on trying to explain the whole 'gh' thing to the kids. Why 'laugh' and 'enough' have F sounds while 'thought' and 'through' don't. Because there is no reason. Language is born from speed and laziness, not logic. That's why the most irregular verbs are the ones most often used in any language. People use them so much they change them beyond recognition. (For example: Latin: sum, ero, esse, fui, sim; Spanish: soy, era, fui, sere; English: am, is, are, were, be, had been, will be - all forms of 'to be'. Oh yeah, I can conjugate in three languages).

I started in on this language thing to tell a story and then totally got carried away. Okay, here goes. One day, a kid came into the teacher's lounge crying. He was a boy about 8-10 years old and I can't even remember what he was upset about. But he was explaining it to us (three foreign teachers) and we were all sympathy. My co-teacher held out his arms to the kid and asked "Do you want a hug?"

The little guy just stared at us for a long time and finally said 'Teacher, hug is what?". Like he'd never had a hug before in his life. He was just so darn pitiful we all started laughing.

Wow. Long explanation for a story that you really had to be there for. I'd say it won't happen again, but I'd be lying.

On a completely unrelated-to-Korea note, I am super excited for this movie to come out, even if it won't be as good as the comics. One of my favorite actresses is in it (at the end, 'oh, thats not that bad'). What do you guys think? Personally, I'm getting sick of Micheal Cera.

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