October 24, 2015

Speaking the Same Language

Check out this fascinating interview with Hyunwoo Sun (선현우).
ttmik logoSun is the founder of Talk to Me in Korean, an ever-expanding Korean-language-learning site produced by Koreans living in Korea. In addition to podcast lessons and pdfs, which are free, the site offers videos, books, and every other language aid or service you can think of. Sun also opened a cafe in Seoul in 2014.

I started listening to the TTMIK podcasts about three years ago. The lesson topics seemed somewhat randomly ordered, and I listened to the first couple of levels repeatedly without retaining much, since I had no Korean speakers to talk to. However, when I had a Korean email partner for awhile, I found the downloadable pdfs that go with each lesson to be extremely useful.

Sun is interviewed by Colin Marshall, an American (as far as I can tell) with a website of his own on international urban cultures, who has visited Korea several times.

A map of Korea with the city of Gwangju in the southwestern region circledDuring the free ranging hour long podcast, Sun describes the way his personality shifts depending on the language he is thinking and speaking in, explains why Koreans avoid conversations with native English-speakers, and reflects on events in the Gwangju area around the time of his birth, an unsettled era of government repression and civil unrest which crops up in many dramas (the opening episodes of Love Rain, for instance, or the 4-part KBS Drama Special Amore Mio).

Sun also explains how Koreans become English teachers without actually being able to speak English. His examples of English as it is taught in Korea by these teachers are illuminating.

In fact, I was reminded of this interview when I was watching an appearance by Korean-American singer Ailee on Yu Huiyeol’s Sketchbook last night. She said something in English with her typical American accent at the host’s request, and when he looked blank, lapsed into a version of the same English phrase as English is commonly (mis)pronounced by Koreans, thanks to the above-mentioned inadequately trained Korean English teachers. I thought it was interesting that Ailee – who moved from the U.S. to Korea in 2010 – had evidently heard so much of this form of English that she shifted into it automatically, as if it was a third language.

Logo for the TOEIC English certification test, with the tagline "Know English. Know Success."Political support for English instruction in Korean schools fluctuates, but high scores on English certification exams have long been considered advantageous in a highly competitive job market. This assumption has come under question in recent years, but a great deal of money and time is still spent on lessons that don’t prepare students to communicate effectively in English, Sun points out.

But returning to the podcast: How Korean vs. American concepts of time impact conversation, high school elites, the progression of Korean friendships, and the impact of Korean group identification on elections are a few more of the topics it covers. Both host and guest e·nun·ci·ate ver·y dis·tinct·ly throughout the interview (for different reasons, I suspect, but the result is amusing, since the precision of the speech is at odds with the informality of the conversation).

I found this podcast on XiiaLive Pro, an internationally popular music app based in China, on a station called KoreaFM1. I haven’t figured out exactly what is going on with the station, but I think it broadcasts the same podcast nonstop for days (or weeks?), then rotates to another one. English-language resources about Korea from a Korean point of view are still few and far between, so in-depth, candid discussions like this one are a real treasure trove. Don’t miss it!

Related Links:

Talk to Me in Korean website
Hyunwoo Sun’s staff page on TTMIK
Hyunwoo Sun’s personal site – at first glance, seems pretty light on content, but check out the videos, especially this whiteboard cartoon story of his life, which really deserves a post of its own.
Hyunwoo Sun’s Korean-language blog, Why Be Normal
About page on Colin Marshall’s site
Marshall’s page describing (and linking to) this podcast

4 comments to Speaking the Same Language

  • Kim in Gran Couva

    fascinating! I’ll view as much as i can find.

    So… new life plan.
    get a job teaching English in Korea, find myself a rural guy who looks like Lee Seo Jin, who doesn’t drink excessively, who wont beat me and who doesn’t already have a wife or concubine. Love him till death do us part.


    • You know the weather there is horrible, right? You’re used to a hot and humid rainy season, but are you prepared for months of snow? Not to mention the horrible architecture, the air pollution that blows over from China, and the loose cannon nuclear power 25 miles from Seoul that likes to launch things. Remember that Korean dramas represent the escapist fantasies of Koreans, so things are prettied up a lot of the time (also true of American TV, for sure).

      In your favor is the fact that Korean women are notoriously reluctant to marry men without high incomes, especially rural men. OTOH, Korean men are equally notorious for romancing 외국인, but dumping them for a Korean woman when it comes time to bring the 여자친구 home to mom. Also, Korean law now requires that 한국-외국 couples have at least one language in common, so prepare to learn Korean.

      Then there’s the narrow Korean beauty standard (white skin, big eyes, small face, skinny as a rail), which can be brutal on women who may be considered highly attractive in their own countries. That one standard is universal – there’s no concept of individual beauty – so it is not considered rude or mean, just factual, to call someone ugly to their face. Repeatedly.

      And if you do manage to marry a Korean man, remember the oldest son will live with the in-laws for life. Even if the in-laws don’t live with you, they will consider it perfectly OK to enter your home when you aren’t there and cook, clean, or throw away any of your property they don’t approve of – lots of complaints about this on blogs the world over of women who have married sons of Korean immigrants.

      Last but not least, expect to work WAY more than 40 hours a week as an English teacher, with very little time off, whatever your contract says. Contracts are merely advisory in Korea, and difficult to enforce.

      Oh, and I understand there is hot pepper paste, and lots of it, in pretty much everything.

      This all sounds pretty harsh, so let me add that I continue to find Korean people dynamic, hard-working, humorous, creative and empathetic. But the culture is a lot more different from your average western culture (if there is such a thing) than it seems on the surface. I have read a lot of posts by shell-shocked kdrama and kpop bloggers who take their first trip to Korea and find it is nothing like their expectations. I’ve spoken with a number of Korean-Americans who find it pretty different, too.

      I know most of this is not news to you, but it might be to other readers, so please forgive me for raining on your fantasy. Travel to Korea is not cheap, and I feel a responsibility to be straight with people about what they’re getting into. That said, I’ll visit myself, if I ever learn the language (I’m way too verbal to go somewhere that I can’t talk to anyone!), but living there is an entirely different thing. The ex-pat community in Korea is growing, but it’s still a tiny percentage of the total population compared to other countries.

      • Kim in gran Couva

        That’s South Korea in a nutshell alright. I’m an optimist though and believe that all generalizations are well founded but not necessarily true for every individual. That said I like pepper paste and am looking forward to the adventure. So save up and we’ll go together. You can be my wing (WO)man.

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