The most useful phrase to know in Korean (and any language)

Literal ‘did that just happen?!’ moment last week.

A friend of mine reached out to me last week, saying a coworker of hers needed help placing an order for 떡 for her child’s 백일 from a Korean bakery in Santa Clara.

I’m not sure what this person’s situation was–whether she was Korean(-American) or married to Korean(-American)–but I was more than a little baffled when my friend reached out to me.

Turns out this particular bakery (for fellow South Bay residents it’s 이화당 떡집 – Ehwa Dang Rice Bakery down in Korea Town Santa Clara, if you’re curious) isn’t English-friendly. It seems that they don’t have any English-speaking employees at all, in fact, which I found astounding–but I guess that just shows you what an arrogant American I am. Heh.

Anyway, said coworker’s dilemma was three-fold: her Korean wasn’t good enough to place a phone order with them, the owner’s Korean was too fast for her to understand, and her Korean relatives couldn’t help because they didn’t understand her English. So, I guess that’s where I came in.

She emailed me a bunch of specifics for her order–the date of the event, preferred pick up time, amount she required, questions about payment, etc. And I made the call to the bakery.

Making phone calls in English gives me anxiety, but making this phone call in Korean almost gave me a panic attack. There was a very real possibility I would ruin this complete stranger’s child’s 백일 forever, and that was terrifying.

But long story short, I was able to place the order according to all the specs I was given. And few days later, I heard back from my friend that her coworker’s party was a success!

The whole thing was kind of a small victory, but it made my week nonetheless. It also made me realize something.

The phone call in Korean was a challenge, but not so much as I feared it would be. The thing that helped me get through the anxiety was just staying humble while I was on the line. Instead of pretending like I was totally fluent in Korean and stretching myself to the max of my ability, I downplayed it and really made sure the bakery employee and I understood each other.

I started out in Korean, explaining my situation that I was trying to place an order on someone else’s behalf. And then I said the one phrase that has pretty much helped me in every challenging Korean speaking situation that I’ve been in:

저 한국말은 잘 못해요…

“I’m not that good at Korean….”

Nine times out of ten, if you’re in a situation where you have to speak Korean but you feel intimidated or overwhelmed, this phrase works wonders.

I was amazed how the bakery employee (who, indeed, spoke incredibly fast) just slowed down and listened a lot more carefully, let me finish my sentences without interrupting, and encouraged me when I stumbled, after I told her that I wasn’t that good at Korean but that I would try. She encouraged me to use the little Korean that I knew, instead of struggling to communicate in English. And she even used the opportunity to teach me some new words!

Admitting that you don’t know Korean that well often triggers one of two scenarios: 1) The individual you’re speaking with switches to English because they’re more confident in their English skills than your Korean skills or 2) The individual trusts your basic Korean ability and continues to speak Korean, but it’s less stressful and the interaction turns into a learning opportunity for the both of you.

That latter scenario was definitely what unfolded for me during the bakery phone call; I walked away from that conversation feeling so much more confident in my speaking abilities.

***

Ever since TOPIK II, I’ve been…. feeling really apathetic toward Korean. It scares me, because I used to be so invested in the language and culture. I still am, to some extent, but the 욕심 is gone.

Self-studying a language in a bubble is challenging because you’re not only expending energy studying on your own, you also have to actively pop the bubble you’re in and create an environment where you’re immersed. And lately, I’ve been redirecting that energy into other things.

Helping out this stranger with her bakery order was the first time in a long time that I did something related to Korean outside of books and the Internet. It reminded me of the ‘humanness’ of language, so to speak. And it made me really really want to go back to Korea. Maybe some day soon.

Language Tag

Well, this is fun! Riccardo of Kaito Monogatari tagged me in this language learning questionnaire. Of all the people I know studying Japanese, Riccardo is the most prolific reader of Japanese literature that I know of. I hope I can be just as good some day.

Anyway, thanks for tagging me, Riccardo! I’m always happy to talk about myself (heh).

What would you consider your native language?

English and Marathi (of the South Indian variety, but who’s nitpicking?). Marathi is my mother tongue; my entire extended family speaks it and I’m still attached to it, though I’m not very good.

What was your first language learning experience?

French class in 5th grade. I don’t know why my elementary school offered a second language, but I’m glad it did, and I learned a lot, surprisingly! Pretty much all of high school  French 1 was a repeat of what I had learned in 5th grade.

What languages have you studied and why did you learn them?

Oh gosh. Where do I even begin.

  • French  – I studied this for four years in high school (and that one year in elementary) because it was part of the curriculum.
  • Japanese – I’ve studied Japanese on and off since high school and took 1 year of it in college. I’m still really really not that good at it. I can speak it well enough to get around Japan and I can read manga more or less, but Kanji kills me.
  • Korean – To this day, I don’t have a straight answer as to why I decided to study Korean. It’s more like… Korean chose me. I started off being intrigued by the way the language sounded and then started actually learning things after listening to TTMIK’s podcasts.
  • Sanskrit – My grandfather is a Sanskrit scholar. I spent a whole summer learning the alphabet and some basic grammar. I have a bunch of books too, but haven’t revisited the language in a long while.
  • Italian – It sounds so beautiful! Also one of my best friends knows Italian quite well so I wanted to learn it too. I’m not that good at it, nor am I learning seriously. I’ve just been playing around with it on Duolingo.

How does your personality affect your language learning?

I lack focus when it comes to my hobbies. I always want to do a million different things all at the same time. When I’m studying Korean, I all of a sudden start thinking about studying Japanese or writing my novel or blogging or coding… my mind starts wandering. I find it really hard to focus in front of a textbook. I basically fail at studying, which means I can never advance past a certain level of fluency in any language. Sigh.

Do you prefer learning a language in a class or on your own?

On my own.

What are your favourite language learning materials?

Novels.

How much time do you spend on language per day?

I always do something that relates to Korean everyday – whether that’s reading a webcomic or novel, listening to music, watching a variety show/drama. But as for actual studying? Hahaha….

What are your short-term and long-term language goals?

  • Short-term: Pass TOPIK Level 6 in October.
  • Long-term: Become fluent in Korean.

What is your favourite language?

Korean

What is the next language you want to learn?

Hindi

What advice could you give new language learners?

Be proud of every small thing you accomplish. It all adds up!

And now I shall tag some fellow language learning peeps:

Blogging resolutions for 2016

I’m not a fan of New Year’s resolutions, mainly because I think people can and should resolve to improve themselves throughout the year. (Besides, most people end up giving up on their resolutions mere weeks into the year, so why set yourself up for failure?) Dividing up time into years and such is a human construct and celebrating a new year is actually meaningless.

But no need to get nihilistic about it, right?!

Joking aside, I get it. What with the holiday spirit in the air and days off from work/school and time spent with family, people get nostalgic at the end of the year. They reflect and realize things they could have done better. Things they will do better in the coming year.

On that note, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I can be a better language blogger in the coming year. So here we go. These are my blogging resolutions for 2016.

resolutions post

  1. Post more.  I’ve been fairly regular with my blog posts, averaging about 1 a month. What a sad number though. I’m not going to get too ambitious and say that in 2016 I’ll post once a week (though I’d really like to!), so let’s say – one post every 10 days.
  2. Engage more.  If I’m following you, chances are I’m checking out your blog and reading your posts on a regular basis. I creep. I very, very rarely leave comments; when/where I leave comments has nothing to do with the quality of the post either. For all the blogging and social media that I do, at the end of the day, I’m an online introvert so I rarely take the first step to engaging with others. I’ve only just gotten better at replying to comments (I’m not ignoring you – I’m just shy!) and in 2016, I want to initiate more. Honestly, seeing the proof (in the form of comments, likes, sweet emails, etc.) that people are actually reading and getting something out of my blog is one of the greatest feelings in the world and I want to return that to my fellow bloggers.
  3. Update travelogue. It’s been months and I haven’t even scratched the surface of all the stuff I saw and did in Korea (in 2014!) and Japan. I also have a bunch of posts on travel tips that I haven’t gotten out yet. The latter, I think, will at least be useful to people. I don’t profess to be a great travel blogger (let’s be honest – I’m a pretty bad one because I hate taking photos and I don’t post in a timely manner) but at least for the sake of my own memories, I really want to share my experiences in Korea and Japan.
  4. Book reviews. I HAVE SO MANY BOOKS, both Korean and Japanese, that I want to talk about. Some of them are textbooks, some of them are novels, a lot of them have a story behind why I bought them. Each and every one of them is a part of my language learning experience and I think they’re worth sharing with my fellow language learners.  The main reason I haven’t been more diligent about this?  I’m really lazy about taking photos (which you’ll see if you check out my sporadically updated Instagram).  Ugh. I need to get over that. No one likes to read huge blocks of text.
  5. TOPIK preparation. I swear I am cursed when it comes to TOPIK. I have tried for about 3 years to try to take this exam. Other life things have always gotten in the way (graduate school examinations, job search, grant submissions, trips, and – most inexcusable excuse of all – missing the  deadline to apply). It doesn’t help that there are only two TOPIK exam dates in the U.S. This year, I will hold myself accountable by blogging about my TOPIK preparation throughout the year and hopefully take it in the fall.
  6. Single space after a period. English class has apparently failed me all these years.

This blog means a lot to me.  I was scrolling through some of my old posts and came across a post titled “10 Favorite Korean Songs of 2012” and it just hit me like, wow, I have been keeping up with this blog for so long, through so many ups and downs, so many life changes. (And I probably hate all of those songs that I listed in that post. Haha). I don’t care about monetizing or getting thousands of views.  I care most about being a part of this community – making friends and nurturing relationships with people all over the world,  bonded through our mutual love of language. Here’s to 2016.

Brief Update

So I see that I have been getting in at least one post every month and I don’t plan on breaking that flow (though I really would like to post more often though).  I have SO many posts still stuck in drafts because they take thought and energy to write and… honestly, I’ve been lacking in that department for a few weeks now.  I’ve made no secret about the fact that I struggle with depression and, yes, I’m going through a bit of a low at the moment.

But for those of you who may be curious, here are a couple general updates about the state of my life, this blog, etc.

1) For various reasons, I deleted my tumblr a few months ago and I’ve been much happier without it.  The downside is I’ve lost all the casual translations that I’ve posted on there for the past 4 years so many of the links on my “Translations” page are dead.  Boo.  But not to worry – I have started a portfolio of my translations on Google Drive and will be updating links over the next couple months.

2) I still have a (very infrequently) updated Korean language diary on tumblr here.

3) I was in the Motherland (i.e. India) for two weeks in August.  Overall it was a very unremarkable experience.

4) I’ve been reading a lot, LOT more (not Korean) and have thus mostly given up on television – including Korean dramas and anime.  This makes me so happy because I’d always loved reading but then graduate school sucked all the enjoyment out of it for me.  I’m finally falling back in love with books.  Are any of you avid readers?  Friend me on Goodreads!  The slight downside to this is that language-learning has taken a backseat for the time being.

5) A big hug and THANK YOU to all the people who have followed me on this blog, sent me sweet emails/messages/tweets, and have stuck with me from the beginning.  You guys are the ones who keep me writing and learning.

Epik High in San Francisco

Okay so this happened:  On May 28, Epik High commenced their 2015 North American Tour at the Warfield Theatre in San Francisco.

AND I WAS THERE.

The stage at the Warfield Theater
The stage at the Warfield Theater

This was a big deal for me because it was my first ever concert.  I’m a homebody and the idea of standing in line, enduring screaming fans and general madness just to hear/see artists live never seemed appealing to me – especially since I can just listen to a CD or watch a YouTube video in the comfort of own home.  But I’m thrilled to give up my… uh… concert virginity to Epik High.  Honestly there’s no other group I’d want that honor to go to.  Hee.

I still can’t believe my two eyes saw them in the flesh.

San Francisco was the first stop on their tour so their energy was really fresh.  Tablo’s always been my musical bias (I still think he’s one of the best wordsmiths in this industry) but Mithra was FANTASTIC at rapping live.  The venue was small enough that the whole concert itself felt intimate.  So intimate, in fact, that their true dorkiness shone through.  During the intermission, the trio listed off their favorite things about North America and – I kid you not – Tablo said geocities and hotmail.  Woooowww.  (Tablo couldn’t hide his nerdiness – Mithra and Tukutz named some popular movies and Tablo’s like, “Uh… F. Scott Fitzgerald…”  I screamed extra loud for that.)

A fan requested poor Mithra to do aegyo…. let’s just say that is a memory I want to bleach out of my brain forever.

The concert ranged from songs from their relatively new stuff (“Born Hater,” “Don’t Hate Me,” “Happen Ending,” “Eyes, Nose, Lips”) to old fan favorites (“Umbrella,” “Love, Love, Love,” “Fan”).  Such nostalgia.  A tiny part of me wishes I had splurged on VIP tickets but we had pretty great seats overall.

I swear I have photos from the concert and will add them to this post at a later time (they’re on my phone – haven’t had time to transfer them to my computer).  Better late than never!  Photos below.

Achievement Unlocked: Siri

Funny story.  Sometime last month I happened to be studying next to a group of very excitable medical students.  In the middle of eavesdropping on their conversation, I overheard one person saying that she had changed Siri’s settings to Japanese and that she had instructed it to address her as hime-sama.  I almost cried trying not to laugh.

First beta launched with the Apple iPhone 4S back in 2011, Siri is the “intelligent personal assistant” component Apple’s iOS.  In all honesty, I don’t really use Siri.  I think some time right after I got my iPhone 5 like a year ago, when I was feeling particularly existential, I think I told Siri that “I’m lonely” and she replied back with something surprisingly poignant for an AI device.  And then I disabled her.

Out of curiosity, I launched Siri in Korean.  Spoke a few, really simple, beginner-level sentences.  The cool thing is you can actually also see the Hangeul transcript of what Siri thinks you said!

고마워 시리야!

Now, when I went to Korea, I was pretty successful at getting around speaking in Korean with tons of people.  But I’ve always kind of wondered – am I glotallizing/aspirating my consonants correctly?  Can I properly differentiate 어 and 오 when I’m speaking?  Is my intonation right?  Well, according to Korean Siri – I AM TOTALLY UNDERSTANDABLE!

I could be completely wrong about this because I know nothing about speech recognition technology (much less what was actually used for developing Siri), but it seems to me that it would be much more difficult for a computer to “understand” what you are saying versus a human.  Because computers have to convert analog sound waves (speech) to digital data, what I think happens when you royally mess up the pronunciation of a word is the computer recognizes wrong phonemes and then outputs wrong corresponding text.  So!  Getting Siri to actually “understand” my Korean speech, transcribe it correctly, AND execute my commands was a huge personal achievement.

I haven’t experimented with whether Siri responds appropriately to both 반말 and 존댓말 but I figured it doesn’t ever hurt to be too polite.

2014: A Year of Change

Stuff happened in 2014.

So.  Much.  Stuff.

When I think about growing up and taking on responsibilities and such, I think this is the year that I really threw myself into the ocean of adulthood and taught myself how to swim.  It wasn’t easy.  I’m fairly sure that I cried more this year than I ever have in my recent past and was almost continuously sick because of stress.  Nevertheless, 2014 is a year that I will look back on fondly in the future.  These were the highlights of my year.

Continue reading “2014: A Year of Change”