3.4 Winter 2021-2022,  Korean

January 28, We’re back, baby!

My throat is sore from the five hours or so I spent talking with my kiddos. A month apart! Not much has changed– 4-6 is as shy and fidgety as ever, 5-3 as excitable and loud as usual. 5-4 was shyer than before the break but 5-2 made up for any lassoing I had to do with their vibe.

I can finally be the evil trickster I’ve missed so much.

Phonics is my favorite part of every lesson and it’s what we spend the first quarter of class on so today I tripped up fifth grade with this question:

Do “in” and “인” have the same pronunciation?

Classes were split fifty-fifty, and even the homeroom teachers of 5-4 (a former English teacher) and 5-2 (currently studying EFL, English as a foreign language, at a local university) answered incorrectly. I could hear their exhales of surprise when I revelaed the answer.

We are making progress, albeit it slowly! There’s so much about English that the average Korean doesn’t have access to just on the basis of exposure. Kids usually don’t have a native English teacher past sixth grade, and thus the subtleties of our language are lost to soulless test-prep.

The answer to that question by the way is no. 인 is pronounced like “een”. English has double the vowel sounds of Korean and unfortunately because of Konglish, romanization, and lack of exposure, a lot of people bulldoze over the complexities of pronunciation.

Another sound pair that troubles Koreans is short A (as in “bat”) and short E (as in “bet”). Korean doesn’t have short A and thus substitutes all English approximations with /eh/. That, too, is an ongoing challenge, especially since I can’t just pull down my mask and show the kids what mouth shape is required.

Likewise, Korean doesn’t have short I (as in “bit”).  Instead, long E (as in “teen”) is substituted. This is common in Romance language speakers, too. For example, a Cuban learning English might say “I see eet” instead of “I see it”.

There are specific rules for translating Hangeul to the Roman alphabet and unfortunately, these standards stipulate a 1:1 ratio between Korean letters and English letters.

This drives me bonkers because Korean romanization rules stipulate that when writing Korean with the Roman alphabet, 이 should be written as “i” and vice versa. Letters are honored instead of sounds.

This means that in native Korean, kimchi is actually pronounced “keemchee” and the common surname Kim is actually pronounced “Keem”.

As you know, English letters change sound depending on the letters around them: at, ate, art all use “a” and yet have three separate sounds in English. As the standard beginner English textbook neglects phonics in favor of memorizing sentences, English education is hard. The kids are slowly learning that English letters can have multiple sounds, which is an impossibility in Korean, just like Spanish or Italian. Fun fact: Korean has around 27 phonemes (sounds) and English has 44.

The end result is that I have to reteach phonics to kids who’ve been learning English for two or more years.

I don’t mind. In fact, I enjoy it immensely.

5-2 provided the most amusement from this.

One boy who has grown almost as tall as me nearly pulled his hair out in frustration. “Teacher, you keep saying ‘it’s not I but I.’ What are you saying? They are the same!!!”

I just laughed behind my mask. Kid, I could say the same about Korean ㅊ and ㅈ, and probably have grumbled about it at length before.

While they watched Teacher Oliver gently explain the difference on YouTube, I wrote a chart of i/e/e_e/i_e words on the board. I love blowing their minds with basic phonics, it is my greatest joy. By now they’ve improved Z, R, and A which is an accomplishment!

My next evil challenge is _rl words.

The _rl combination is notoriously difficult for Koreans. Not because Korean lacks R or L, but because R and L in Korean are pronounced using vastly different tongue placements. I could go on in passionate detail about why that is, but I’ll spare you and just say that R in Korean is a flap (like the Spanish R) and L in Korean is made with a super stiff upright tongue so for Koreans, making these two tongue shapes in direct succession is impossible.

…If they are using Korean pronunciation.

Now, if they are using American English tongue placements (“linguistics” does come from Latin for “tongue”), obviously they’re golden. I really could write a whole article about soft palate, flap Rs, and Korean phonemes but perhaps I’ll save that for it’s own post. Or maybe even a low level journal or online forums if I can get more research in.

The 5-2 homeroom teacher, the one studying EFL, filmed me tapping each word one by one with my makeshift pointer, a long cooking chopstick I bought from Daiso for a dollar. Depending on the season, I tape a different paper object to the end. For a while I had a lopsided star, and more recently it was a Christmas tree which I dramatically tore off in class this week to the giggles of fourth grade.

(This is actually what it means to be a teacher. You are nothing without a pointer.)

The 5-2 teacher had answered “yes” to my first question and so I wonder if she will report back to her classmates about this new development. She did ask permission to film me awhile back but I do wonder where those videos end up…

On a more social note, I spent the rest of class having the kids play a game using what they did over vacation.

“Did anyone get taller?” A smattering raised their hands. I was surprised they kept such metiuclous track.

“Did anyone change their hair?” A few girls I had already chatted to in the halls about this pointed to their new bangs or bobs. We also have a new girl student, as the girls excitedely pointed out to me in the hall. She seemed somewhat awed by our casual conversation but luckily not overwhelmed during class.

The tall boy from earlier pointed to me like I was on trial.

“You did!”

“Oh this? This is my natural hair.” I said, gesturing to my wavy bob. Helen had asked in the morning how I got my bangs like this. “Roller? Curling iron?” She said expectantly.

“Um, no. This is real.” I had to explain that naturally wavy hair, unlike her wavy perm, is inconsistent. My hair has a personality of its own.

“If I wash my hair in the morning it looks like this,” I explained to the tall, accusing boy.

And now that I’m writing this I realize how much I wouldn’t be able to talk to my students if I didn’t know Korean. I certainly wouldn’t have caught the next sentence the boy said which was:

“Then why don’t you wash your hair in the morning every day?” The rest of the class “oooh”ed like he had thrown down a challenge.

Hey, at least he likes my style!

“Because I go to the gym,” I told him. I don’t want to wash my hair twice a day. I barely can convince myself to shower every day.

The rest of class was just as entertaining because when my kiddos are good, they’re very good.

And boy I have MISSED these little gremlins. There’s no time for existential crises when preteens are screaming your name in the hall: “Abigail teacherrrrrrrrrrr!”

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: