At my university in Korea, there was a tall, quiet Chinese teacher from Inner Mongolia. Li Su, attractive and graceful, showed up one day when I was trying to buy bananas at the grocery store. She interpreted for me when the lady there was trying to tell me I had to buy a certain quantity.
Instead of being grateful, I was ashamed at my incompetence and envious of Li Su. How did she know Korean?
I learned later that she had already spent one year at the university and, more to the point, that the grammar of Chinese, and some of the vocabulary, are similar to those of Korean and Japanese. For these people, learning each other’s languages is like learning French and Spanish for me.
I became friends with Li Su later, when the faculty took an overnight trip to a resort area at the end of the first semester, that is, in May or June. We climbed a mountain together and were hot and exhausted at the end.
These team-building and bonding trips seemed to be quite common. Maybe that’s because they work. After that, I felt comfortable enough to join Li Su for lunch in the cafeteria. We could speak English together; she knew some, and liked to practice. But we had some exchanges in Korean too.
“Tari appayo?” I asked her when we first met after the mountain trip. I had learned the phrase in a Korean textbook. “Tari” meant leg, and “appayo” meant both it hurts and does it hurt.
“Ne,” she said with a smile. “Ne” is yes. “Appayo!” It was our shared experience. She asked me the same question back, and I also said yes, it hurts. Not scintillating conversation, but we laughed. We deepened our friendship.
Another phrase that served us well in the cafeteria was “oepsoyo,” which means there isn’t any, it doesn’t exist, it isn’t here. It’s the opposite of “issoyo,” there is, it exists, it is here.
This handy little phrase could be used in so many ways. We made jokes using it.
We joked about the food. Actually, I loved the meals in the cafeteria, which always included rice, soup and side dishes—for a good price. The Chinese people, though—there were two others—didn’t think much of it. They missed Chinese food, which was so much better, they claimed.
“Gogi oepsoyo,” Li Su would say, lifting her spoonful of soup, shrugging her shoulders. She thought the soup was thin and unsatisfying, lacking “gogi,” meat.
I could show an interest in her Chinese colleagues by asking, “Toksu isseoyo?” Is Toksu here? And she would answer, “Oepsoyo. Onul chip-e isseoyo.” She’s not here. She’s at home today. A whole conversation! These little nothings meant so much to me.
Most language learners want the whole thing, right now. I did too. I became frustrated when I didn’t understand the conversation in a social setting, when I had no idea what the bus driver was asking me, as others waited in line behind me, waiting to get on.
But I also had fun and got such satisfaction using the little bits of language I knew to get what I needed. “Chuseyo” meant please. I could go to the fruit vendor on the street and say, “Kam, chuseyo.” Persimmons, please, “tasot-kye,” and get five of them. She would hand them to me, and I would say “Kamsahamnida,” thank you—and walk away like a normal person.
I could go to a restaurant and order “Keopi, chuseyo.” Coffee was easy. I could ask for milk in it. “Uyu, isseoyo?” I could say thank you, I’m sorry, I don’t understand, and just a minute. These phrases covered a pretty wide range of daily experiences.
Of course, I still had days when shopkeepers gave me blank stares, having no clue what I was asking for, when I thought I was speaking their language. And just as often, times when strangers intervened, helping me in the checkout line, translating the simplest things into English for me. So many Koreans can speak English. They might say they don’t, but when it is clear that your Korean is not even close to their English proficiency, they will come forward and be very helpful.
For a foreign-language learner, persistence, humility and a sense of humor are helpful too.