Thursday, February 24, 2011

How I Learned to Read Hangul... in a Morning

While looking into different things to do in Busan, one thing that I kept reading is that I ought to learn how to read Korean. You may not know what it means, but since it's an alphabet (versus, say, kanji in Japanese), you can sound it out. Many travel blogs mentioned it's usefulness at restaurants and navigating street signs. Due to my inherent laziness, I didn't bother looking into it until the last day (literally the morning of my flight). I wasn't going to, but since I found myself with some free time in the morning, I figured I'd take a stab at it.

While looking online at different explanations, I stumbled upon this.

These pictures did little to help me though. I mean seriously... let's look at the first one, ㄱ, for G. How is their example, "G as in Games," relate in any way to the picture? It doesn't. Furthermore, after looking at this picture, I got even more confused. The characters on this chart and actual Korean writing looked nothing alike. There were similarities, but actual writing looked much more complex. 

One quick Wikipedia search later, I learned that syllables are formed using a combination of the above characters. Instead of forming words with letters like in English, their letters combine to form syllables. The chart shows how to break down the character into its components. Things were starting to make sense... but I still needed a way to memorize the basic characters unless I wanted to carry a chart around with me all the time.

I decided that I should create my own method for memorizing each letter. Below is the way I memorized it and though it may not be useful for you, it shows that we all learn differently. As in, my brain can make some pretty random pictures out of nothing and draw connections where there aren't be any. Some are more of a stretch than others, but meh... it worked for me.

(The Hangul [Korean writing] is first, followed by the expression I used to remember it. In parentheses are the pronunciation and the logic or lack thereof for the expression)

  • ㄱ - 7 Grand (Pronounced G, but it looks like a 7, doesn't it?)
  • ㄴ - NULL/LAN (Pronounced N, but looks like an L. My logic isn't always straightforward.)
  • ㄷ - DoC (Pronounced D. Looks like a C. DoC as in Doctor....?)
  • ㄹ- 2 Low (Pronounce L. Looks like a 2, as in, at a club, "Damn, girl... you're gettin' 2 Low.")
  • ㅁ- Mouth (Pronounce M. Reminds me of Japanese kanji, 口, for Mouth)
  • ㅂ - Bull (Pronounced B. Looks like a Bull with horns)
  • ㅅ - 人 Same thing (Pronounced S. As in, Japanese kanji has the Same thing 人.)
  • ㅇ- ONG Bak (Pronounced Ng, as in, O for ONG Bak, the Muay Thai movie.)
  • ㅈ - ス  (Pronounced J, reminds me the character in my name, ジャスティン.)
  • ㅊ - 小さい (Pronounced Ch, as in 小さい, which kinda looks the same... if you squint really hard...)
  • ㅋ - Quick (Pronounced K, but looks like a lowercase q. The K sound in quick [kwik?]).
  • ㅌ - ET (Pronounced T, but looks like an E as in ET.)
  • ㅍ - Part II (Pronounced P, looks like Roman Numeral II.) 
  • ㅎ - Hat (Pronounced H, looks like a guy wearing a hat.)

  • ㅏ - "Ah, zombie!" (Pronounced Ah, Looks like a zombie walking towards this sentence)
  • ㅓ - "Uh, what?" (Pronounced eo, or uh. This guy is facing away from the zombie and is confused)
  • ㅗ- "Oh, I died." (Pronounced Oh, looks like you died from the zombie.)
  • ㅜ - "You fail." (Pronounced u, or the end of yOU. You died, but running away and fell on your face)
  • ㅡ - Eu... (Pronounced eu, as in "Euh... je sais pas." The French version of "umm... I don't know.")
  • ㅣ- I (Pronounced eeh, but looks like Japanese い, which in romaji is I).

Let's take the example, 비빔밥. Looks simple enough. The first syllable, , is a bull and an I, spelling 'Bi.' The second syllable, is the first one but with a third consonant at the bottom, , which looks like a mouth, M. The second syllable is 'Bim.' That leaves the last syllable. There is still a bull, so we know it starts with B. The vowels is the zombie, Ah. The last letter is another bull (which actually changes to a p, but if you pronounced it with a b, it'd probably be understood). The full word is bibimbap, or the best cure for a long, soju-filled night.

With my new mnemonics, I hopped on the plane to 부산. Armed with my new, rudimentary understanding of한글, I was able to impress some new Korean friends, pick the right bus to the airport, eat at locals only spots, and perhaps most importantly, pick out the 갈비 onigiri at convenience stores.

All in all, a productive morning.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

A Different Kind of Tourism

I have traveled to my fair share of cities. As such, I've found that in more touristy areas, the industry is designed to serve a diverse group of people, particularly when it comes to foreign languages. For example, many restaurants I visited in Vietnam had menus outside in English, French, and Japanese, with signs in Russian and Chinese (indicating they can speak them as well, I'm assuming). However, all the places I've been to in the world have catered to some sort of English speaking population. Whether it's geared towards British tourists in France, Australians in South-East Asia, or Americans in Mexico, if a place is touristy, it'll have a decent English speaking ability.

That's not to say that everywhere can (and should) speak English. When you travel off the beaten path, you'll discover that the simplest act such as ordering food becomes an adventure if you can't speak the local language. That being said, if you stay on the main drag and visit the places meant for tourists, English is your best bet.

Haedong Yonggungsa Temple, Busan, South Korea

Busan is the exception.

We went out one night to an international party. It was hosted at a cafe that during the day, offers a language exchange of sorts with local university students and foreigners. On Friday nights, though, it turns into a party. Thanks to its prime location between two Universities, its proximity to our hostel, and the all-you-can-drink beer for about $12, it was the perfect chance to meet some locals.

Our table was mostly Koreans. There were a few guys who were in the Air Force. They spoke Korean and some knew a bit of English. The girls, though, were all Japanese majors at one of the universities and spoke fluent Japanese... but no English. Guess what language we were speaking in most of the night?

In all seriousness, though, it was the best Japanese practice I've had during my time in Japan (well, in Asia). When the common language is no one's first language, there's no cheating by switching into your first. It also matters less when you make mistakes. Since neither of you are native speakers, you understand the other's difficulty with learning the language and feel less pressured to be perfect.

No joke--I spoke more Japanese in Korea than in Japan

Throughout the trip, Japanese trumped English numerous times. At Jagalchi fish market, we gorged on Korean sashimi. Our server started taking our order in English, but as soon as he realized that we spoke Japanese, he switched over since it was more comfortable for him.

The first night, we were playing beer pong with a Korean couple. We struggled to communicate with them in English as the guy only spoke a little, but his girlfriend couldn't at all. After one disastrous turn, Yannick and I were cursing at each other in Japanese. Instantly, they both switched to Japanese, and after that point, the conversation flowed smoothly.

At Burger King, the cashier struggled to understand my order of a cheeseburger and fries but as soon as Yannick ask for his order of フライドポテト, she took his order perfectly, even though the menu is written in Korean... and English.

It was such an eye-opening experience. Don't get me wrong--I've always believed that foreign languages are important. It shows interest in the country's culture to speak their language. However, I never thought that knowing any foreign language (foreign to them, not to me) could be more useful than English. For example, if I went somewhere, I wouldn't get by with French. Outside of countries that used French as an official language, the chances to use French decrease dramatically. English is much more likely to be spoken (ex. Take Vietnam, a former French colony. The only time I found French useful was talking to a French guy once. It never once helped me speak to a local).

Yet, Busan proved me wrong. It was the first place that English lost to another foreign language in terms of practicality and number of speakers. As I continue traveling, I'm sure it won't be my last.

And though I hate the idea of returning to the same place more than once, Busan may have to be the exception...