What’s in a name?

One of the reasons I love watching Korean and Japanese dramas is because language often plays a role in the progression of a relationship.  Sometimes within just sixteen episodes of a Korean drama, we can hear the shift from honorific language to polite language to plain language; and, I don’t know if it’s just me, but hearing the change from polite to intimate language makes me giggle and spazz and flail more than physical displays of affection.

In particular, I love hearing the use of honorific suffixes.  I’m sure students of the Korean and/or Japanese language are no strangers to honorific suffixes.  In Japanese we have most commonly  さま (sama)、さん (san)、くん (kun)、ちゃん (chan)、先生 (sensei)、先輩 (senpai) and, unless you’re addressing a peer by his/her last name only, it’s pretty uncommon to hear a name without one of these suffixes.  In Korean, we mostly see 씨 (ssi), 군/양 (goon/yang), -님 (-nim), 선생 (seonsaeng), and 선배 (sunbae), which are similar to but do not directly parallel their Japanese counterparts.  Another related concept is that of occupational titles.  I know in Korean at least, it’s not uncommon to address a person by his/her title such as 양 작가 (Writer Yang) or 김 검사님 (Prosecutor Kim).

Anyway, I love that the intimacy between two characters can be shown through the use (or lack) of honorific suffixes.  For example, I always found it amazing that couples in Japanese anime or dramas would address each other by their last names even though they were “dating.”  For example when I was reading 君に届け (Kimi ni todoke), Kazehaya and Kuronuma fantasized about calling each other by their first names (no honorifics) but just the thought would make them blush, as if it was too intimate to even think about.

In Korean dramas, I’ll admit the most heart-fluttering moment for me is when the guy drops honorifics with the girl.  Best example of this?  Lie To Me.  Throughout the first half, we have Kang Ji-hwan’s character calling Yoon Eun-hye’s character “Gong Ah-jung ssi” and then when he suddenly starts calling her “Ah-jung-ah,” not just once but over and over again?  I just about melted.  Clearly, it had that effect on Ah-jung too, since she kept replaying the recording of him saying the diminutive form her name.

Another one of my favorite examples is in 건빵선생과 별사탕 (Biscuit Teacher and Star Candy) when Tae-in says “Na Bori ssi” instead of “Na Bori seonsaeng-nim,” showing that he regards their relationship as that of a man and woman instead of  student-teacher.  This type of courtship is something you can only appreciate if you understand the language and  the culture to some extent.  And to someone who grew up in a culture that oversexualizes everything, it’s refreshing to watch romance unfold through language.  It almost makes me cry with happiness.

Romance aside, I also love relationship terms following a person’s name:  오빠 (oppa), 언니 (unnie), 형 (hyung), 누나 (noona), all of those terms literally make me squeal.  I remember being surprised but also happy when a Korean-American friend of mine called me 언니 once when we were chatting in Korean, even though I’m not Korean myself.  Haha.  All of a sudden, it made me want to act all elder-sisterly.

In Act II scene 2 of Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare writes “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose //By any other name would smell as sweet” to mean that an object is an object, regardless of what it is called.  Though that may be the case in English, we see that in other languages, how one uses another’s  name is indeed a significant matter to consider.  Whether or not you say that person’s name with an honorific suffix, an occupational title, or a relationship term matters.  Whether or not you say that person’s name at all matters too. In Korean and Japanese, the way a person addresses you can give you insight into how that person perceives your relationship with him/her.  It can be a tricky thing to grasp… but I still wish English had some sort of thing like it.

Learning versus memorizing

When I first started out learning Korean,  I learned most of my grammar and vocabulary by translating Korean songs.  These days, I pick up new words by reading books, 만화, articles, and watching interviews and reality shows.  But the critical question is, of course, how does one retain this seemingly endless onslaught of unfamiliar words?  With regards to that, I’ve seen that there are usually two factions of language-learners:  those who swear by flashcards and those who condemn them.  I fall under the latter category.

Honestly, I like to think I have a fairly good memory (you can’t really be a scientist without one heh) but I just cannot memorize decks and decks of flashcards and store them in my long-term memory.  And this problem isn’t just limited to Korean.  I made about 200 flashcards in order to study vocabulary for the GRE but the only words I could remember consistently were the ones I had encountered while reading something.  Why was this the case?  I strongly believe it was because I was incapable of just memorizing definitions; I had to actually learn how to use the words for it to stick.

The general way I go about learning new vocabulary is this:  I pick a song or an article or a passage out of a book and write down all the words I don’t know.  Then I look up the words in a dictionary and write down the part of speech and the definition that most closely matches the context of the word.  I don’t bother with writing down numerous example sentences (maybe one or two); the main example is already in the original source.  After that, I DO NOT SPEND HOURS MEMORIZING THE WORDS I’VE LOOKED UP.  I’m a huge proponent of learning a language organically – that is, not really forcing yourself to sit down and STUDY (I mean, unless you’re in a language class or something.)  My language acquisition process is kind of undisciplined in that regard.

But despite that, I noticed the more I read, the more I would come across a certain new word or phrase I’d just looked up in the dictionary.  Sometimes while I watched a drama, I would start picking out those newly-encountered words in the dialogue as well.  Soon, I would develop a fairly good sense of not only the definition of the word, but also its nuance and the context in which it’s usually used.  That right there is the difference between memorizing vocabulary and learning vocabulary.  To me, memorizing is superficial recollection of the definition of a word through repetition but learning implies that you know how to correctly use the word yourself in different contexts.  That sort of solid, thorough understanding cannot be attained by merely seeing the word once, noting its definition, and then losing it in a stack of 200 flashcards.  It’s critical that one develops a deeper knowledge of how the word is used by encountering it in not just one but several different circumstances.

Nouns don’t present that much of a challenge; in fact, I would say that flashcards are effective for the rote memorization of nouns.  But one has to be careful to learn how to appropriately use certain adjectives and verbs.  When I wrote my entries for Lang-8, I tried to use only the words I felt I had learned well enough to use correctly (you might argue this defeats the purpose of Lang-8, but I’ve noticed that many native speakers just correct a misused word without really explaining why).  I only looked up nouns and avoided looking up adjectives and verbs.  Undoubtedly, the one unfamiliar adjective I used, I had used incorrectly.

Of course, I’m not saying there’s no merit in flashcards.  In fact, I applaud you if you can retain new words in your long-term memory with just rote memorization (I can’t, no matter how hard I try.)  Flashcard proponents may also argue that it’s fine to quickly and steadily build a base of words that you “semi-know” (i.e. know only the basic definition but don’t use that much) and then wait for the deeper understanding (i.e. the nuance, stylistic usage) to come later.  I think that’s fine too, but personally, the only way I can remember a new word is if I learn its definition in tandem with how and in what context it’s used.

The only issue with my way of learning vocabulary is that it can be slow.  If I look up 100 new words in the span of a week, because I don’t force myself to memorize, I’ll probably only learn the twenty that I encounter over and over again.  But the advantage is that I usually end up knowing those 20 new words fairly well; they’ll be nestled in my long-term memory, ready to be used when needed.

Korean reality shows

As if being hooked to Korean dramas wasn’t bad enough, lately I’ve also found myself addicted to Korean reality-variety shows.   SIGH.  It all started with watching CNBLUE’s Jung Yonghwa and SNSD’s Seohyun on 우리 결혼했어요 (We Got Married).  I didn’t expect to be hooked but, well, I was barely one episode in and the damage was already done.  And now that one of my good friends has turned me into a legit SHINee fangirl, I’ve watched SHINee’s mini reality show 샤이니의 연하남, back from the time of their debut, and now I’m watching SHINee’s Hello Baby.

Aside from being just plain entertaining, I find that Korean reality shows also help me learn Korean better than dramas!  This is because of the existence of WONDERFUL, GLORIOUS KOREAN CAPTIONS.  Most of the shows I’ve watched tend to have captions that either match what someone’s saying word-for-word or that summarize whatever is going on in a particular situation.  In addition, there are other words or word bubbles that pop up on screen (I’m sure there’s an official word for this) around a person, usually describing their feelings or mood – words like 민망, 고민, 걱정, etc.  Captions and word bubbles make it so incredibly easy to look up words and build vocabulary faster.  And you may even find that you don’t rely on the English subtitles as much.

I’ve realized that with dramas, I’m at that awkward stage where I understand enough Korean to be sufficiently distracted by English subtitles (they’re actually really messing with my mind) but not good enough to follow what’s going on without them.  But when I watch Korean reality shows or interviews, the Korean captions have eliminated my dependence on English subtitles.  I first noticed this when I watched 불후의 명곡2 (Immortal Song 2) without subtitles a few days ago.  I guess my listening comprehension is actually better than I thought it would be because I found that most the time I could understand what was being spoken before I had time to read the captions.  But when I couldn’t understand what was going on, I just paused the video, read the caption, and looked up a few words here and there.  It was amazing!!

I really want to watch more Korean variety and/or reality shows so if you know any good ones, please recommend them!

Fishing for compliments

No matter what language you’re trying to learn, if you’re learning by yourself, you’re bound to get discouraged at some point – especially if it’s a language that you don’t get to practice on a daily basis.  Unless you have the opportunity to communicate with a native speaker, there’s still a degree of unreality, a sense of “foreignness” associated with that language that I feel has to be overcome before you can aim for fluency.  For example, when I first learned Hangeul, typed my first Korean sentence, and submitted it as a comment on TTMIK, I still felt like I didn’t know what I was doing – until one of the teachers replied back.  It’s really hard to describe the amazing feeling of being understood by native speakers of the language you’re studying.  That, in itself, was a powerful motivation to learn more and to keep improving.

I don’t live in Korea nor do I really live in place populated with many Koreans but still, as I learned more Korean, I kept trying to find ways to communicate with native speakers.  (My best friend is Korean-American, but she’s also a second-year medical student so I’d rather not bother her!)  I’ve talked to some people on Twitter, left comments on Talk To Me In Korean, communicated with my fellow Korean-language bloggers, posted on Lang-8, and even messaged people on tumblr.  I’ve been so fortunate to get incredible feedback from so many people.  One person mistook me for an actual Korean person!  And my fellow language-learners have been more than generous with their compliments.  I even received this incredible comment from someone on Lang-8 that nearly brought tears to my eyes.

정말 훌륭합니다. 1년밖에 배우지 않은 실력에 이렇게까지 쓸 수 있다니 놀랍습니다.

Sometimes, a person might just say 한국어 잘 하시네요 simply to be polite but even that can be encouraging to a self-learner.  What I’m trying to say is that when you feel deflated and discouraged some time during your language-learning pursuit, or when you just feel stuck in a rut, FISH FOR COMPLIMENTS.  Not in the crude sense of belittling your ability in order to be complimented – rather, put yourself out there to the language-learning community, to the community of native speakers to be motivated.  Sometimes that motivation is a compliment, sometimes it’s a correction or a suggestion, or sometimes it’s just an answer to a comment or question you made in the language you’re learning.  Nothing is more motivating than being able to communicate in the language you labored to study by yourself.  The important thing is to not just bury yourself in an academic atmosphere of language-learning – among books, professors, and exams.

Of course, after reaching a more advanced level, compliments or communication without criticism, can be more frustrating than motivating; people tend to just say you’re good without giving you any points to improve on.  I’m guilty of that in English – I prefer not to point out every single English grammar and/or spelling mistake an advanced English-learner makes, even if he/she asks to be corrected.  For now, I don’t have to worry about that in Korean.  Whether it’s compliments or criticism, feedback of any kind always motivates me!

Productive summer ahead(?)

It’s been a while since I’ve updated but I just thought I’d like to share some 빅뉴스 (big news) with all of you:  Two weeks ago, I officially graduated from college!  While all of my friends were rejoicing over the last lecture, last class, last exam of college I was stressing out about giving the commencement speech in front of about a 1,000 graduates and their families.  I actually made an audio post about my graduation ceremony and my experience being the commencement speaker, so if you’re interested, check it out!  And I’ll just try not to think about the fact that my speech and a recording of the ceremony will be posted for posterity on our college website. ><

Anyway, this summer will probably be the longest break I’ll have in a while (in fact, let me just say goodbye to the concept of “summer break” once I start graduate school).  Since I start classes in mid-September, that gives me about four glorious months of freedom.  Things are a little complicated at home so although it would have been nice to go on a trip, I think that won’t be happening.  But no worries, I have a lot of grand plans for the summer (keh).

  1. Actually study Korean.  Watching dramas and listening to K-pop doesn’t count.
  2. Watch K-dramas without feeling guilty
  3. Learn how to play the guitar
  4. Learn how to cook (ughhh)
  5. Work out (double ughhhh)
  6. Become a better driver (I hate driving)
  7. Attend white-coat ceremonies!
  8. Hang out with friends
  9. Waste time and shamelessly fangirl on tumblr
  10. Update Lang-8
  11. Update this blog!!
Yeah, life’s good.^^