Placement Test = Humiliation : (

30 09 2009

So after 7 months in Seoul, I finally got my act together enough to register for Korean language classes, which is ostensibly the whole reason I came here in the first place! After doing a bit of web research and emailing different schools with questions, I decided to register with Ganada Korean Language Institute. (

I chose them because they actually responded to my questions pretty quickly, and answered them effectively. A lot of the schools didn’t even bother to respond!! Now, it’s been a really long time since I was a student, so the thought of registering for full-time studies at Yonsei or one of the other universities seemed a bit too much to handle. This class was 4 times a week, for 3 hours per day, which seemed like exactly enough time to get started. I’ll be immersed enough, but it won’t overwhelm the small (very small) portion of my brain that is effective at language learning.

Today, I went for the placement test which would determine the level I would be placed in. Let’s just say that it was a somewhat humiliating experience. I arrived and was immediately rushed into a small classroom with 3 other students already writing the test. One was Caucasian, and the other 2 appeared to be gyopo (overseas Korean). I picked up the 3 page test and stared in horror at the first page. It was all in KOREAN, with only a few English words!! I felt a sudden moment of panic, my palms began to sweat, and I was transported back to a traumatic 5th grade math test experience, (which also ended badly).

The feeling was identical! Truth be told, I thought that I would be a little better than beginner level, but woe is me, this proved to be nothing more than empty arrogance. The only difference between THIS test and my 5th grade math test, was that I had been able to fill in most of THAT test, albeit with wrong answers! I flipped through all 3 pages, hoping the situation would improve, and upon realizing it would not, attempted to phonetically sound out the letters on the first question. One word and five minutes later, I decided to take a break (my brain was hurting), and observe the other students in the room. I surreptitiously snuck a peek at the Caucasian girl…surely she would be as dumbfounded as I. Imagine my horror when I saw her merrily filling in the answers!

Fortunately, one of the instructors entered the room at just that moment and asked me if I wanted to have the interview. (I guess they knew that I wouldn’t be able to write the test, since they gave me exactly 15 minutes to do it in!!!) I stood up so quickly in relief that I almost knocked the desk over! I am happy to report that the interview went much better, since my comprehension skills are passable. I wasn’t able to (or was too humiliated to) answer in Korean, but at least I could understand her!

At the end of the interview, she smiled at me sadly, and said that even though I could understand Korean pretty well, perhaps it would be best if I started with the beginner level. I wholeheartedly agreed. Class starts on October 5th.

Korean Vocabulary Lessons

6 04 2009

“Your pronunciation is excellent,” Doris Spicy Fox said, peering out at me from under the brim of her large, floppy straw hat.

We were at a weekend craft market in Hongdae. Doris was at a booth selling handmade ties. She’d just explained to us that she had 2 names – a Korean name and a native American name – despite being 100% Korean. I’m sure you can guess which one this was.

Friend Jane and I were in the process of phonetically sounding out the winning word on a scratch and win card I’d been handed on the street. “What does this say? G?? JJ?? Joooo….C? Soooo. Jui-Soo!!” we had proclaimed excitedly. And it was this that had prompted the Spicy Fox to give us her praise.

What I’d actually won, was a free juice. The Korean word for juice, believe it or not, is, actually juisoo. There is no Korean translation as far as I know, like there are for other words, like rice or dummy, which translate respectively to sal and babo. Korean is a funny language. It is phonetic and has consonants and vowels, so theoretically, you should be able to end a word with a consonant, or a double consonant. In practice however, you can’t, because the language is structured consonant/vowel/consonant/vowel/consonant vowel etc…etc… Thus, you have juisoo for juice, and Soo-Taroo-bucksoo for Starbucks. Pretty funny…especially when you sound out the Korean letters on the easily recognizable Starbucks branded storefront, before running in for a latte.

Even funnier was Doris Spicy Fox’s assessment of my perfect Korean pronunciation of an English word, which to her, was a Korean word. And even funnier still, was Doris’ amazement when I told her I was Korean. I mean, I look Korean, at least I think so, but this is the second time a Korean person has been unable to recognize me as such, due to the fact that I speak perfect English.

The last time, was in multicultural Toronto, of all places. I was mystery shopping a telecom store that was geared towards international students, and the staff happened to be Korean. From Korea. And while I could understand what they were saying in Korean, they could not really speak English. Asking them to demonstrate the video calling feature of a cellphone prompted a call to the manager, where I distinctively heard the staff member refer to me as a “hi-yun sa-dam,” which translates to “white person.” When I told him I could understand him, and was in fact, a member of his own tribe, he looked at me in amazement and said, “jin-ja??” which means “really?”

“Jin-ja,” I said, reassuring him, and myself.