Reflections: A Lesson in Language Learning
By: Elizabeth Maxey
Deep in conversation, I am talking with Mr. Kiyong Lee about the education systems in Korea and America. Mr. Lee (who I affectionately refer to as harabeoji, or grandfather) is a retired high school English teacher and is well acquainted with the inner-workings of Korean schools. He elaborates on what he observed to be flaws in the system as I nod in agreement, recalling my days spent in the classroom during my nine months attending a Korean high school. As a student learning Korean, SAY has provided me ample opportunities like this to practice my speaking. But I wasn’t always a confident conversationalist.
When I first began having SAY calls, I was honestly quite nervous. This was not because I had to converse in only Korean but rather due to my lack of confidence in speaking the formal style. When speaking Korean, one has to switch between using formal and informal speech with people of different ages and status positions. Having learned to speak Korean mainly through conversations with high school students and friends close to my age, I am far more experienced and comfortable with speaking informally. But since my harabeoji is older than me, I am to speak to him with respect and in the formal speech style. One mistake could be potentially offensive, and I was worried about being rude to someone who was older than me, let alone a Korean elderly.
“When speaking Korean, one has to switch between using formal and informal speech with people of different ages and status positions”
Harabeoji, however, doesn’t seem phased by my apprehension; he’s more curious about what issues American schools face and if any are similar to those present in Korea. I open my mouth to speak, but I have to fight the urge to slip into the informal speaking style. Firmly resisting the whims of my lazy tongue, I begin to formulate my response — speaking slowly as to avoid an embarrassing (and potentially rude!) error by not employing formal speech.
I start with giving harabeoji an insider’s perspective on American high schools and offering my reflections on the effectiveness of the system. And then — I mess up. I begin to ask harabeoji to repeat the question he has just asked and realize with horror: I don’t know how to say this phrase politely! I stumble over my words and hope that what I say somewhat resembles the proper honorific form of “Could you please repeat that?”
I feel embarrassment whenever I slip up, but my harabeoji has always been patient. I can tell that he’s excited to share his thoughts with me, and always eager to hear my opinions and experiences. Over time, I’ve become increasingly comfortable during my SAY calls. I realize that my harabeoji will not judge me for my mistakes; he enjoys talking with me to exchange ideas, hear about my life, and help me practice Korean.
Although I have not mastered the formal speaking style, I am no longer nervous to talk with harabeoji. He often mentions his desire to improve my Korean and never fails to introduce me to new words and phrases. To this extent, the SAY calls have provided me a comfortable and understanding environment to overcome the weaknesses in my Korean speaking ability, so that eventually I may go out on the streets of Korea and apply what I have learned without fear.