How to Teach English in Korea

There is nothing more deceptively challenging as teaching English.  I majored in Finance and Japanese and came to Corea to, among other things, discover the culture of a nation almost entirely unknown to nearly every American of Caucasian descent; to grow introspectively in patience and understanding in the scheme of the greater social structure of Corean society (primarily that which concerns life in Corean middle schools); to eat Corean food, and—most significantly—to spend time with my girlfriend of then one-and-a-half years and get to know her family, where she grew up, and (with a bit of luck) blossom together in a beautiful and meaningful relationship.  What I discovered was that teaching English in Corea, though on many levels a rewarding and enlightening experience, is a land laced with mines of depression and setbacks, frustrations and stress.  It is a process of self-discovery that needs the very best of one’s personal determination and a mind so free and empty so that all words and daily activities, all information of any kind, can simply pass through your consciousness without maiming it permanently.

Playing in a Stream

Playing in a Stream

When I was asked recently about motivation I realized that the topic and therefore problem of motivating students was one that actually dealt not with the students but with you, the teacher, and your own level of motivation.  Continue reading

Esperanto: The Phoenix of all Languages

Esperanto, a language developed in the late 1800s by an ophthalmologist in the former Russian Empire, is spoken today by roughly one-million people worldwide.  Hailed by many as the language of world peace and in fact created solely to foster harmony between nations and peoples with different language backgrounds, I find it a perfect fit into this blog–the underlying purpose of which is to connect people through language exploration.  However, Esperanto has no real home, so to speak, as there has yet to be any nation that accepts Esperanto as its official language.  You see, Esperanto has its problems (namely that the use of the Roman alphabet will undoubtedly alienate nations who use otherwise) but the existence and use of a single world language has an undeniable allure.  Unfortunately the ultimate question remains:  Will the birth of Esperanto as a means to world communication lead to the withering and eventual death of our mother tongue forever?

What is Esperanto?  What is the purpose, grammar, challenge, beauty, and future of this unique language?

“Ĝi estas lingvo tre taŭga por internacia komunikado.”
It’s a language that is particularly useful for international communication. Continue reading

Grafting & Language Etiquette

Grafting: Six Trees to One "Basket"
Grafting: Six Trees to One “Basket”

When native English speakers learn Japanese, they learn the word for “I” and “You”.  In Japan it is uncommon to use “You” but native English speakers use it regularly–in English–and are therefore very likely to use it regularly when speaking Japanese (due to the perpetuation of the habit or simply ignorance of the language etiquette of Japan) As a result, the use of the 2nd person pronoun begins to be absorbed by the Japanese people into the Japanese language.  Soon the usage of “You” will be just as common in Japanese as in English

Similarly in Korea where different levels of respectful language govern the manner of speech in each specific situation (mother-daughter, boss-employee, neighbor-golfing partner, etc.), native-English speakers are likely to carry over their pre-established rules of language etiquette.  Native-English speakers are likely to try to show respect based on the choice of words rather than recognize the importance of the verb ending 요(YO) in Korean speech etiquette.  As a result, Western speech etiquette may become absorbed by the Korean language and respectful verb-endings may become a thing of the past.

It is another case of the classic language vs. culture question: How deep is their connection; and can language be separated from culture, at all? Continue reading

Language Exchange: Mutually Detrimental

Language Exchange

Language Exchange

Around the world and in almost every city there exist now places of gathering for verbal communication in a foreign language: Language Exchange.  In case you have not had the fortune of attending such a gathering (whether it be in Spanish, English, Japanese, German, French, etc.) allow me a minute to introduce to you the setting and the goals that drive these intercultural communication sessions. A language exchange is a gathering of two kinds of people: Those that can not speak the target language and those that can speak the target language–either because they are more advanced or because they are native speakers of the language. The language in question is not a language readily spoken in that area/country and so therefore the goal is simply to give both parties the chance to improve their speaking skill.

How is this improvement made?

Those with little experience are supposed to speak to those with more experience, through which an increase in confidence should help boost their ability to communicate verbally in the target language. Likewise, the more advanced speakers may speak with native speakers of the language who have come to help.  To consider an alternative, the more advanced speakers may benefit by speaking to the lower-level speakers simply by the act of explaining more complex facets of the language to them: Learning through teaching.  Most of the people that I know that have participated in such events have all come out of it with a positive experience, but “having a good time” vs. “learning to speak” are different, are they not? Continue reading

Happy Kanji: Positive vs. Negative Japanese


Eternal Kanji Symbol

Hand-Painted Kanji: Eternal

As a way of mediation, contemplation, and preparation for the new year, I decided to write down 400 kanji (the sino-Japanese text).  In an effort to call forth positive energy into my life  this new year, only characters that had some positive connotation were chosen.  The kanji  are chosen from a list of 1,947 kanji that can be found in the reference book “Kanji in Context” The list includes all Joyo kanji.  Joyo simply refers to the set of kanji that have been set up by the Japanese Ministry of education as mandatory for all students up through secondary school.  The Japanese language in total consists of roughly 3,000 separate kanji characters but luckily for us non-native speakers any kanji outside of the list of 1,945 Joyo kanji that is used in Japanese newsprint must be accompanied by corresponding furigana.

So with this in mind I set out to create a list of 400 kanji that have some kind of positive denotation.  Of course it occurrs to me that there will be some subjectivity when it comes to determining what things are positive and what things are not so please do not regard this list as definitive.  There are certain characters which may have positive connotations if not widely then personally and I am sure that we all can agree that certain gray areas are quite acceptable. Also be aware than many kanji can have more than one meaning: 安(AN) for example can mean either safe or cheap.

What becomes clear as the list is being made is that there are relatively few kanji that have positive denotations.  Out of the 1,947 kanji reviewed only a few hundred can really be handpicked as uplifting, positive, soothing, etc.  The final hundred or so come down to things that I would like to consider as positive.  That is to say, these final kanji are no more positive than they are negative but because I have no more positive kanji I simply have to settle for something which is at least not harmful or negative.  You will see that many elements of nature stand in for the final section. Also notice that I chose to include many elements of the body because any and all good feelings must originate and radiate from the body.

The list is as follows:


(If you want to know the meaning: Go to this site->Polarcloud and download Rikaichan for Firefox, Thunderbird, or Seamonkey.  Then download the corresponding dictionary.  Now all that is left is to simply activate Rikaichan and hover your mouse over the kanji you want to know more about and VIOLA! )

That’s it.  That should be 400.  For those of you who can read Japanese (or Chinese as well) it should be easy to tell that some of the characters above are a bit of a stretch;  “Peach Tree” (桃) would be one such case. No matter, my point is not that there are exactly 400 examples of positive kanji but it is that fact that there are really quite fewer than that number.  While the amount of kanji people are required to know in order to read a newspaper in Japan may be roughly 2,000, of those less than 1/5th of them are positive even just slightly!  Let me repeat,  fewer than one-fifth of all the Chinese characters used in Japanese text are positive even slightlyContinue reading

It Simply Does Not Translate.

Talk to anyone who knows more than one language and they will almost surely tell you that the hardest phrases to translate into another language are found in comedies.  Jokes tend to be incredibly hard to carry over from one language into another, and not just incredibly hard but sometimes just downright impossible.  What would be an example of things impossible to carry over in language?  Take this scenario that I have translated directly from Japanese into English without consideration of the preservation of the joke:

There are two people on a boat. One looks up into the sky and yells to his comrade, “There are so many clouds!” The second man begins to panic and yells, “SPIDERS!?  WHERE!?”

The problem with this joke is that the word “CLOUD” in English sounds nothing like the word “SPIDERS” whereas in Japanese 雲 (kumo) means cloud and 蜘蛛 (kumo) means spider.  They are homonyms and thus perfect for a play on words…in Japanese.  English as well as many if not all other languages are filled with examples just like this one that make it nearly impossible to preserve the original humor and translate at the same time.  They are beautiful inside jokes available only to those who speak the language and outside of that language they sound nonsensical and awkward.

Are you Pulling my Leg?

Are You Pulling My Leg?

But it is not just to jokes that such translation problems are confined, many idioms and set phrases in language are (perhaps) best left in that original language.  Why?  Take this other example from Korean: A student wishes to express gratitude to their teacher for being caring and always giving her the time of day.  This is what results from her trying to directly translate a Korean expression into English:

You always gave ear to me

Reading it a couple times is all it takes to fully understand the meaning within the sentence but the phrase sounds odd.  Yet, upon inquiring about the sentence with native Korean speakers I found, as anticipated, that an expression of the same exact wording exists in Korean and is a perfectly natural and common saying.  When trying to think of some similar expression in English, the Beatles song “With a little help from my friends” comes to mind: “Lend me your ears and I’ll sing you a song…”

Yes these expressions are plentiful in any language:  French, Portuguese, German, Spanish, English, Japanese, and many many others of course.  Language is literally spotted with idioms and expressions which, if translated word for word will be odd and awkward to the native speaker.  It is a problem that translators must face and overcome every day: Should the phrase be translated directly but with an explanation or should a similar but different idiom be chosen in the target language as a substitute? Continue reading

Evolution of Language

Language has taken many forms around the world (roughly 5000 forms would actually be a low estimate).  Here, in this blog, we only will dip into four languages: English, Spanish, Japanese, and Korean.  Of these four, each in very many ways is similar to the other.  However, the English-Spanish and Korean-Japanese pairs are especially similar.  English is especially similar to Spanish as Korean is especially similar to Japanese.  Grammatically bound by similar rules, containing similar signs of respect within the language, and even words that sounds similar or almost identical are some of the examples of ways that these language pairs are the same. But why? How is it that these languages share these similarities?

Norse Text

A sample of Norse text

Take any language and trace it back.  Discover the meaning and origin behind the words in one language and you will undoubtedly begin to learn a new language.  For none of the most widely spoken languages these days were simply born out of nothing, they evolved.  They were or rather are the elegant product of generations of change taking place as one culture and its people mixed with another culture and its people.  Take for example the romance languages: Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, and Catalan to name a few (there are apparently 47 types of romance languages).   These languages can all trace their origins to one single language: Latin.  That is to say that from one single, established, and by many thinkers standards’ perfect language came 47 entirely different and equally beautiful languages.  To think that today even the language from which all the romance languages evolved from is spoken now by only very few is another mystery in itself:  Why was there any need to create new and different languages when the first did the job just fine?

The simple answer is…well, the first language did not do the job just fine.  Culture and counterculture, most likely, was the driver and catalyst for change in language.  It is human nature to change what was established (as much as we desire stability and ritual).  We will take something and make it “better” even if it only looks better but performs the exact same function.  Every language performs the exact same function: communication.  That’s all there is to it(?)  Why one language developed letters like “Aa, Bb, and Cc” while another developed into “あ, ぶ, and す” is another question for another week entirely but is still worth pondering here.  Even despite commonalities and a single originating language we have arrived at languages that share almost nothing in common with each other except for their basic function.  It’s incredible really and  I am constantly baffled by it.

English on its very own is a crazy mix of languages, cultures, and the effect of time.  Listen to this:  The English language consists of 26 letters but 44 phonemes! (phonemes are distinct sounds that are made in spoken language)  That means that there are 18 sounds that English speakers make but are not even accounted for in the written part of the language! Similarly, the letter “c” in the words “cat”, “watch”, and “face” for example is written the same but pronounced quite differently.  Vowels as well are irregular.  In other languages like Spanish, Thai, or Japanese on the other hand, a vowel is pronounced the same no matter where it is in the word, no matter what letter it is next to. Continue reading