a language without words:

a language without words:

I crouch down to be eye level with a small girl. For the thousand time I attempt to say her name 열완 (Ryeo-won). It comes out a mess of vowels and sounds, tumbling over my tongue, expelled in chaos and very far from how you say her name. 열완 stares at me, blinking several times in exasperation before slowly and loudly saying each syllable. If she could roll her eyes  she would, but I think my title as teacher is the only thing saving me from her letting loose the full barrage of attitude. I repeat after her, painful slow. “Okay.” She responds equally as slow and loud as before, giving me her approval of her butchered name, her disbelief at my struggles plain displayed on her face. Our interaction ends and she goes back to the other children. I once again schooled by a 8 year old child.

IMG_1802 (1).jpg(The feeling or 기분 (Gi-boon) chat. How are you feeling today?) 

This is a daily occurrence at my work site. I am constantly in awe of the children’s use of simple English sentences to communicate with me, when I can barely manage to say their two syllable name the same way twice, let alone a full thought. Mostly they speak quickly in Korean at me, not waiting for my struggling brain to catch up. Alternatively they snicker openly at my poor attempts of piecing together a sentence.

fullsizerender-1(What did you do last week? Did it involve butterflies and rivers? )

I am volunteering at a Children’s Center called Saeum. It is on the outskirts of Deajeon, a  mere 50 minute bus ride for me. The site provides  homework help, extracurricular activities and a hot meal after school to children living on or below the poverty line. All the children family’s receive welfare and make less then a certain income.  The center is run by a pastor, 목사님 (pastor in Korean, Mok-sa-neem) and his wife 사모님 (Soe-sa-neem). The two of them have such love and passion for the work that they do, that I am constantly finding myself honored to be a part of their organization.  I think caring for members of one’s own community  is such important work; work that is frequently overlooked. Often when people think of helping poverty they ignore their own communities and backdoor poverty,  instead look to far off countries to “save”. Ironic then that I have fallen into this same paradox, serving communities outside of my home and country. Living and working in Korea, has made me begin to think of ways that I can continue to serve whatever community I am living in.

img_1814(What starts out as a meaningful activity pretty quickly turns silliness.) 

Some days the language gap between the children and I  is less. The days in which a Korean “Buddy” Volunteers with me. On those days we lead games and lessons together, hoping to make the children laugh. Other days, it is just me and we end up playing games that take little language to communicate or tried and true favorites.  My children’s favorite words are “Outside” and “Poor Kitty” (a game in which you pretend to be a cat, and attempt to make other laugh.)

img_1808(Sometimes is really fun to draw silly pictures together!) 

Laughter is universal. People are born knowing in their heart how to laugh. Its the small moments of watching a ten year old crawl around meowing while the seven other children roll on the floor laughing that reminds me the spoken language is but one of many ways we build relationships. A helpful and convenient way, but not always required.

We have also been playing theatre games and music. Recently we have been miming extraordinary adventures with balloons, bikes and ladders and creating rhythms with our bodies. I am discovering each day the joy of learning to express one’s self without spoken word.

img_0295(Music is one of the most universal languages!) 

I get to spend time with three different groups, a younger, lower elementary group of roughly 7 children, an upper elementary group of 8 and 3 lovely middle school girls.  The younger children have taken it upon themselves to teach me all the outside games that are the most enjoyable. Using over exasperated motions, cutting over top of each other they explain.

img_1297(My Monday Buddy 수휘. We spend a lot of time laughing on the bus together, or just waiting for the bus that we missed…..)

As weeks go by,I have begun to realize that its not just games they are teaching. All the children are teaching me about Korean life.  They are teaching me the rules; the expected behaviors and customs of their life and world. ( I was loudly corrected for putting the wrong piece of recycling in the wrong bin by one of the youngest students.) I am a stranger in their land and they have graciously taken me in. At times I see them look at me in confusion, wondering how I ever managed to get so big and still have so little understanding of the basic things.

I have entered their world; I am more of their student then they are mine.




친구를 먹었다 ~ Or ~ “I ate a friend”

친구를 먹었다 ~  Or ~  “I ate a friend”

“To have another language is to possess a second soul.”  ~ Charlemagne


Over the last few weeks I’ve attended an intensive four hours a day Korean class . In that time I have come to a conclusion. Grammar is a horrid concept to learn, regardless of the language. For example, the other day in class, I tried to say “I ate with my friends.” However, I incorrectly applied the object marker suffix 를 and the meaning of the sentence became “I ate my friends.”  (친구 먹었다 vs. 친구를 먹었다.)  It really does makes more sense if you see it in Korean for you to fully understand the error.)

There is a marker for the object of the sentence 를/, the subject 는/은 or 이/가 based on the sentence. Dependent on the absence of vowels and consonants you use certain ending markers. These are ways to identify what the sentence is about.  Sounds completely confusing right? (I won’t even get into to all the different versions of “And”)  

IMG_1219.jpg(Learning how to cognate verbs both negative and positive)

Here is the thing, English is just as confusing.  We use a small swipe of ink at the bottom of the word to denote the sentence meaning. The coma. (,) With out that little guy, sentence meaning gets incredibly complex and not in a good way. There are also no capitol or lower case letters, which help in showing what is important in a sentence. This is another reason ending markers are important.  

Sejong_of_Joseon.jpg(Sejong the Great (r.1418-1450) King during the Joseon Dynasty. Super cool guy. )

한국어를 (Korean, or Hangul)  has been spoken for centuries, but until the 15th century there was no written language.  They used the Chinese characters for any written documents. Then along came this bloke, King Sejong (r.1418-1450) or Sejong the Great. He was a really cool guy and thought that Maybe now since Korea was an kingdom united under the Joseon Dynasty having their own writing system might be a really good idea. So he made one up.

Then he thought, maybe an alphabet that didn’t just represent sounds, maybe having them literally show how the tongue looks in the mouth when making the sounds would be even cooler.  The Alphabet has 24 letters: 14 consonants and 10 vowels. The letters are combined together into syllable blocks.


(Consonants: The hardest thing is learning the sound in between an L and R. ) 

That should clear some of your questions up. Now, here is the other fun thing about Korean. The words look really long and complicated, but once you learn a few basic sentence endings, your quickly realize that words are much shorter then originally thought. You learn to recognize what are endings, many of which are verbs and signals of past present or future tense.  Then there are the polite endings that can be added for politeness. Keep in mind that all of the endings, have several variations that denote how formal. If speaking with someone the same age as you you would use one type of ending, as opposed to a teacher or boss. Then there is one even above that reserved for public functions or other formal arenas.

Challenging it may be, it has been a lot of fun learning to understand Korean.  At times I grow frustrated that I cannot learn faster. I often remind myself that I spent 12 years in school learning to read and write, another 4 at college learning to perfect what I knew and the years before the age of 5 were spent learning to speak, listen and understand English. In 3 months of language classes I will be happy to know what I have learned and continue to want to learn more, knowing I have a long way to go.

IMG_1510.JPG(Fellow YAVs and one student from Vietnam during a class field trip to the Hannam University Museum.) 

And lastly, if you want to learn how to say the Alphabet! Just listen to this song on repeat!