During the first six months of 2007 I was an exchange student in South Korea. First of all I must say that I had a great experience there. The people, the culture, the food; I loved almost all aspects of the country. Inevitably however, while being Swedish, I was bound to experience some cultural clashes during my exchange semester. Some of which I could laugh about afterwards and some that I’d rather just forget. If I were to tell you about all of them it would probably take up every post from now until the end of the year. Therefore, I will focus on one experience in particular, namely learning the Korean language.
I ended up in the late class, made up chiefly of Indonesian, Malaysian and Chinese people. The Europeans all had Korean in the morning when I had Psychology, a subject that only I and one other exchange student took.
Anyhow, when I first stepped into the classroom I noticed a sturdy, stern looking woman in her sixties standing by the chalkboard. She was our Korean teacher and a good one at that, I later came to think. I soon realized that she didn’t speak a word of English but would use gestures and draw pictures on the board to make us understand. This worked amazingly well. Our first homework was to learn the Korean symbol alphabet “the Hangul” (한글). It’s not an alphabet too difficult to learn since it only consists of 24 different symbols. Even so, one week was a bit scarce to do so. Our Korean teacher really set the pace right from the start and I could get a hint of what was to come.
I did learn the Hangul in a week though and it almost became an addiction to become as quick at deciphering it as possible. We had a lot of fun, getting tasks to go to the campus store to buy things in Korean, role-playing and using vocabulary to come up with sentences of our own.
During one such occasion, to my huge embarrassment, I actually managed to say that our teacher was fat. What I meant to say was that she was intelligent. Before you judge me you must know that these words are rather similar in Korean. Tuk-tuk han (똑똑한) is intelligent and tung-tung han (뚱뚱한) is fat. Son saeng nim (선생님) means teacher. So what I said was “Son saeng nim tung-tung haejo”. She stared at me then with those stern, icy eyes of hers and while the whole classroom held its breath she said: “The teacher is not fat. But she is very dangerous”. And then she laughed, long and hard and all of us students joined in.
She was really a character, that one. From then on I took a habit of saying at least once each lecture that “the teacher is not fat, she’s very smart”. Feel free to call me a suck-up but as a result that one sentence lingered in my head and while most of my Korean skills have faded over the past four years I can still tell any Korean teachers that I might come across that they are not fat but actually really intelligent.
Should my little story get you in the mood for learning a foreign language you could always visit the site of ESL – Language studies abroad to appease your appetite. They offer language trips to 140 destinations in over 40 countries and in more than 10 languages.