Just thought I’d clear this up once and for all.

Since beginning Korean language classes, several of my fellow ETA’s have commented on the fact that I’m so good at picking up the language. “Well, you’re a linguist,” they say. “It’s easier for you.”

This has also come up a few times while I was trying to tutor someone. I could understand her frustration — being under a lot of pressure to learn a language so unlike English, in so short a time span, can really do a number on you. At the same time, “you’re a linguist” was quickly becoming this person’s number one excuse as to why I “got it” and she “didn’t.”

1. Linguists are not professional language learners.

As the slideshow emphasized, we are scientists. I didn’t get my degree by learning Japanese; I earned it by conducting research and experiments, by memorizing statistics and writing formulas. Though yes, having a background in a foreign language was one requirement of the program. In any case, while I can’t tell you the Quechua word for “antidisestablishmentarianism,” I can give you such trivia as this:

  • Fewer than 9% of the world’s languages do not have fricatives.
  • Object-Subject-Verb is one of six potential word orders in language, yet there are perhaps only 5 languages in the world that use it — close to 0%.
  • In linguist speak, “a lower low-central unrounded oral vowel followed by a voiceless grooved aspirated alveo-palatal affricate with egressive lung air followed by an extended high back rounded oral vowel” is the description for a sneeze.

2. Being a linguist doesn’t entail having epic language learning skills.

We have to memorize vocabulary and practice our grammar and verb conjugations just like everyone else. Being a linguist does not mean that every aspect of language learning suddenly becomes easy. Sure, I can tell you that the Korean ㅃ is a tense, non-aspirated, voiced bilabial stop — but does that automatically mean I can pronounce it? And I’m not even physically capable of articulating that lovely French R, which is actually a voiced uvular fricative.

Likewise, does knowing that a language is agglutinative and that its word order is Subject-Object-Verb mean that I automatically know how to add and conjugate each individual verb ending?

That’s not to say that having some familiarity with the concepts doesn’t help. But that’s not something you get solely from studying Linguistics, either…

3. Not being a linguist does not mean you are doomed to forever live in a linguist’s shadow.

First, for most any language you can take a formal class on, there is a multitude of textbooks you can use, and each takes a different approach. I have one Korean textbook, for instance, that actually takes a lot of time to explain just the concepts in Korean that are completely foreign to monolingual English speakers. If I didn’t have a background in Japanese, this would be my number one resource.

Second, if you are fluent, near-fluent, or even conversational in just one language other than your native tongue, picking up your third language will be a lot easier because you now have about twice as many neural connections in your brain than a monolingual — congrats! And for every language you add on, you build more connections. It just keeps getting easier!

Finally, there is one thing I will concede to here: things do tend to click and stick with me in class more than with my classmates, and not just because I read ahead and know Japanese.

Yes, it is because I am a linguist — I love language! I get excited for real-life encounters with linguistic phenomena I’ve read about, as well as those that are completely new to me. I love the speech patterns of native speakers, and so I notice their intonation and pronunciation and hence acquire it more quickly myself. I also love comparing Korean with Japanese because, guess what one of the greatest debates of the last decade was? The historical relationship between them! Now I can examine the research of my linguistic heroes right in the field!

You don’t need to have a degree in Linguists to find the subject fascinating, though. Think about it: of all the billions of people on this planet, not one of us lacks a language. Whether we use our mouths, our hands, writing, dance, you name it — we all need and use language every day. Everything we will ever want to communicate to another living being must be done in language. And yet so many of us are barred from doing so because our arbitrary collections of sounds and symbols doesn’t match those used by speakers of other languages. Heck, even sharing a language can’t avoid all miscommunications!

But without these thousands and thousands of languages, entire cultures wouldn’t exist. With every language lost to time, assimilation, or prestige, we also lose words carrying concepts that exist in no other language. No German, no schadenfreude. No Korean, no neunchi.

Feeling more inspired to learn a new language? I’m going to open this up:

What language would you like to learn, and what is its appeal to you? 

Goesan, Day 24: Things I’ve done today AND Identity part 2

Starting at midnight, I:

  • walked home drunk for the first time ever. Fortunately, I was not as drunk as I could have been, but I did drunk-talk the entire way. Largely about Linguistics.
  • drunk-talked with one of my closest friends here as soon as I got back to campus. I don’t even KNOW what I said to her.
  • got back to my room and thought my roomie was already in bed, and hence stumbled around in the dark trying not to wake her. She came in some time after I’d fallen asleep.
  • woke up blissfully not hungover at 7:30.
  • blew up about 40 balloons for the Camp Fulbright Olympics.
  • ran around in the sun and heat for two hours, trying to control up to 20 screaming Korean kids at a time while they played soccer… five times in a row with only water breaks.
  • got sunburnt, as expected. @D (Though it was worth it for the kids who got really into it — especially one tiny elementary school girl with a love for bugs, who refused to back down in a game against boys literally twice her size! Tough as nails. >^_^<)
  • forgot I’d left the shower head on instead of the faucet and accidentally sprayed ice water all over my left side… for the second time since coming here.
  • hung out with my writer friend, Andrea, and had a “writers’ afternoon.”
  • took a much needed nap.
  • wound up talking gossip with my friend Kristal over dinner.
  • and just got back from watching the movie UP, several parts of which made me cry and several others of which made me think of a certain someone. I predict lots of introspection over the next few days.

Well, the list started out entertaining enough.

At some point during the writers’ afternoon, I mentioned to Andrea something that I realized for myself not too long ago: the fact that I’ve been given the rare opportunity to start anew and choose who I want to be.

Back in the states, I went by my real name more often than not; even friends who called me May only did so in certain circumstances, like in KakaoTalk. So when I mentioned, in a rather offhand way, that I liked to be called that on the Fulbright forum, I had no idea that I would actually arrive in Korea to find my nice, official name tag stamped with “May Myers.”

It took longer than it should have, but I eventually realized that this was a real life Call to Adventure, Joseph Campbell style. I wrote here that it felt like my true self had been smothered by the pressure of trying not earn a negative reputation (not in those words, though). Since then, I’ve gradually become more outgoing, more confident, and more satisfied with my experiences here. All the while, there was a single question in my head, wanting to be answered:

Who do I want to be?

At this point, the answer could be anything. Sweet or bitchy; brave or cowardly; innocent or wise; lazy or motivated; a victim, or a strong, independent woman. All of these aspects exist within me right now, just as they exist, to varying degrees, in everyone. My identity lies in the ones that I will choose to foster. The ones I deign important enough to actively strive for, rather than giving in to their opposites. In some cases, though, opposite does not mean bad; just that I want to be one more than the other. And sometimes the middle road is alright, too.

So my next step is to actively consider these aspects, their pros and cons, and how to work toward becoming my ideal self.









Donghae Weekend: In which I am a wild, waterfall-climbing monkey!

This past weekend my fellow ETA’s and I were gifted with a trip to the coastal town of Donghae — kind of a last hurrah before the two weeks of Camp Fulbright madness that started Monday. The first day of the trip, Friday, was alright; we spent some time on the beach, heard a lecture from a Buddhist monk, and visited a temple in the mountains.

Saturday was a triumph in existentialism.

A lot of us wanted to take advantage of our free day and hike the mountain where the temple is located. But, as will happen in a group of 81 where everyone assumes someone else knows what they’re doing, no one knew when to go, how to get there, or even where to meet up. It was by sheer luck that my friends and I found ourselves in the right place at the right time, assisted by one of the orientation coordinators and a decidedly patient bus driver.

(NOTE: Like the airhead I am I forgot to bring my camera on the interesting part of the hike. The photos contained herein are the work of the brilliant Tyler Van Arsdale, a professional photographer whose amazing website you can find here. I highly recommend checking it out, because this post does not do his work justice!)

At first, the goal was to hike two paths, declared on the internet as taking 25 and 45 minutes to complete. We decided to take the longer one first, and had only been on it about five minutes when we came to our first waterfall.

It was around this time that my fellow hikers saw the first hints of the person I was to become for the duration of the hike. Tyler quickly scaled the rocks beside the fall, inciting the rest of us to do the same. At this point, we were all infected with the same energy. We were ready to conquer the mountain. And then I decided to climb a boulder just for the heck of it.

My friends realized very fast that May + mountain = insanity.

I was ready to climb everything. Conveniently placed boulder? On it. Random rock jutting out of the path? One of my stepping stones across a non-existent river. Except walking wasn’t as much fun as hopping and leaping.

We were maybe a mile out when Tyler exclaimed, “Who wants to rock climb? Because it’s about time!” Perhaps indicative of just how stupid a move this might be, we became the only two nutballs in our group of six to actually do it. The path followed a rocky, quick-flowing stream, and within moments we’d found a suitable looking place to run amok.

With the spirit of adventure filling our lungs, we rock-hopped across the water while the others sat down for a break. I barely hung around for a minute before racing up the side of the second waterfall of our journey.

When Tyler came up and joined me, he suggested we cross even higher up the waterfall. Which we did. Though there was no path, the landscape itself was both challenging enough and navigable enough that we were moved to keep going. We leapt boulders and scaled granite slabs with little more than moss and sapling branches for grip. Twice I slipped and soaked my feet and the hem of my pants. Once, clinging to a shrub on the side of a cliff, I almost fell a good ten feet onto a jumble of rock.

Oddly enough I didn’t consider this a dangerous trip until we were safely back in the village.

After several levels of waterfall climbing, Tyler and I came upon our buddy, Cameron. I don’t know how he’d done it so quickly, but in the time it had taken us to get that far he’d gone around the long way and actually come out above us. “I came down those stairs,” he said, pointing.

Yes, that is as steep as it looks. In fact, it was practically a ladder.

Which obviously made us want to climb it.

We got within 1 mile of the mountain summit before deciding to call it a day. Unfortunately, there are few pictures of our path back down — which was less of a path and more of a “oh, there’s a rope here… are we supposed to follow it?” In many cases, “following it” actually turned into “hanging on for dear life.” Consider the following picture, which was NOT taken at an angle. Notice how there are two choices for stepping: the left-hand boulder slanting into the abyss at a 60+ degree angle, or the six-inch wide “stairway” full of sharp rocks. I think we unanimously took the sharp rocks.

In the end, though, we all made it safely back to the village at the mountain’s base and found the rest of our group mates.

And then we, you know, chatted for a while with the most awesome Aussie-educated Korean guide woman, nearly died at the hands of a crazy Korean cab driver who didn’t know what speed limits and red lights were, got shanghaied into eating at this highly recommended but eerily empty seafood restaurant, and accidentally ordered and ate live octopus. Just another mellow ending to a fun-packed day. 😉

Er… all things considered, Sunday isn’t really worth mentioning now. XD

Goesan, Day 10: Archery, Pizza, and YA Fantasy

Going off the last entry, this week totally ended with a festive bang.

On Friday I decided I’d been too antisocial and decided to accompany my roommate into Goesan for a party. That was an experience I won’t soon forget; with all the energy packed into that tiny, one-room bar, I could have lived the entire night vicariously from blocks away. Much of it was not my scene (grinding, moshing, musical taste in general), but I think it was good to experience, especially in the company of the people I went with: the self-proclaimed “water only” table. I definitely ended up having fun with the mellow crowd. 🙂

Water. Ironically, it’s in a beer pitcher.

Yesterday, though, was epic, and this is why: ARCHERY.

Me! And a bow! And my elbow not in the right position!

In the afternoon a large group of us walked through Goesan to an archery school on the opposite side of town. It didn’t look like much: two low buildings, a long, covered porch from which to shoot, and a large field spotted with targets at various distances. I thought it was charmingly typical and quaint, until I realized the two professional archers next to us were there training for the Olympics.

Coolness rating: +1000.

Because there were so many ETA’s there to learn, we had to split into three groups. My group shot first, quickly alerting me to the gaps in my (Amtgard-provided) prior knowledge of the sport. I remembered the stance, remembered to keep my elbow up and my drawing hand under my chin; but I had to get used to pulling the string right across the middle of my nose and chin, as well as focusing through the sight with my right eye. In fact, I’d never used a sight before, and moreover I’m extremely left-eye dominant. By the end of my turn, my glasses were disposed of and I was squinting through one eye, half blind. For the entire last set, I couldn’t even see where my arrows were landing in the target.

Saving grace: I looked SO COOL.

Fortunately, these were just physical hinderances. After my turn was over, I was able to coach to other ETA’s so that they were able to improve more than I had. In fact, by dinner time my name had actually gone around to the orientation coordinators as an “expert archer!” (I’m still correcting people on that…)

We then got to watch a shooting demonstration with traditional Korean bows, which was really cool. These bows bent a lot further back than the normal recurve, and there didn’t appear to be an actual nock for the arrow — it looked like the archers were just shooting off their index fingers.

Badassery in progress.

Oh, and they were shooting targets 145 meters away. Or, simply put…

…all the way over there.

On the way home some of us stopped in town and got Korean-style pizzas with potato, bacon, onion, and corn. This was honestly more satisfying than anything else I’d eaten here. Though small, it was filling and tasted like a wonderful mix of the U.S. and Japan — probably because Koreans love corn on pizza just as much as the Japanese.


Coincidently, the ETA in this picture, I discovered, is also a YA fantasy novelist. Hence the entire walk home consisted of genre discussion and exchanging our own works. In fact, thanks to her presence last night I was able to work on Ciphers for the first time since arriving here. There are also several poets and a short story writer among the ETA’s, so a writers circle is looking like a possibility. 🙂

Goesan, Day 8: Delayed Jetlag?

Many of the ETA’s, including me, have been feeling worn out the past few days, and with good reason. Korean language classes have begun, and they’re just as draining physically as mentally. Since Tuesday, all the beginner level students have spent four hours of each day drilling for pronunciation. That’s four hours a day of

Teacher: Cheo-neun haksaeng imnida.

Class: Jaw noon hock sang ‘im knee duh.

Teacher: Cheo-NEUN hakSAENG imniDA.

Class: Joe none hack sing ‘im knee duh.


If you don’t bring water to class, you regret it.

This is our day from nine til one, when we break for lunch. From two to five we have a lecture or interactive workshop, and then our first free hour of the day until dinner at six. Evenings consist of studying and often completing assignments to better ourselves as teachers. Sometimes we have a mandatory meeting as well.

It’s all really interesting, and certainly the opportunity of a lifetime.

And as I listen to the screams of my fellow ETA’s playing Jenga in the background, I also have to say that it is definitely not boring. XD

Still, I wonder how the week will end… Festive bang or studious whimper?

In the ETA “lounge”

Tune in next time to find out!

(Yes, yes. I promise I’ll put up something introspective/ground-breaking/eye-candy-ish eventually.)

Goesan, Day 4: Identity

As a young professional in a prestigious program set in one of the most social yet conservative countries in Asia (try saying that through a mouthful of rice!), there is a lot of pressure put on you to look, act, and effectively be everything you are expected/socially obligated to be.

Which is something I’ve never been good at… being.

I’m shy. I spent most of my life with my head down, my shoulders shrugged, and my lips glued together. I couldn’t initiate conversations with classmates. I could barely approach teachers with questions, even one on one. I never made a friend with anyone who didn’t break the silence first.

When I got to college, I was still antisocial to a painful degree. It took years of club involvement (and presidency), multiple trips to Japan, and the presence of some really super people in my life to change it. But it did change. The fact that I survived grad school, tutoring in the language lab, and finally teaching at the ELI is proof.

What I’ve been discovering these past four days in Korea, however, is that I still have a “socialization limit” that’s quite a bit below what other people seem to have. With each day, I find myself more worn out and less appreciative of the humongous family I’m living with 24/7. Today, I realized there is a bit more to this than just “I’m an introvert.” It would actually be more accurate to say that “I’m not the person the rest of the group sees.”

In forcing myself to be more sociable, I’ve been hiding the majority of my true identity in favor of a more general, blander version. I’m not me; I’m that girl from Miami and a graduate of FIU with a degree in Linguistics and no, I don’t speak any Korean, just like 90% of the ETAs. I occasionally have an opinion on something, but more often than not I can’t expand on it before someone else is expanding on theirs, or changing the topic, or talking to someone else entirely. Even those I’ve been hanging out with semi-regularly didn’t know I had my Master’s, and very few people know that I write novels. Only one person knows that I knit. No one knows my favorite color, my birthday, or my age — just like I don’t know theirs.

In a group of 81 people all trying to get to know each other at once, who are all equally different and nice and interesting, it’s hard to be anything more than your name, hometown, and field of study at first. You want someone to be interested in you, but you don’t want to brag, because we all have some claim to awesomeness. At the same time, you want to be polite and learn more about the other person, but it’s hard to keep people straight when you get 20 introductions in about as many minutes.

On a side note, even personal style is out the window until you can figure out a way around the dress code. I’ve never thought of myself as a conspicuous dresser — I don’t like cleavage or crop tops or mini skirts. And yet even at orientation I have to choose my outfits very carefully. For the first time today I wore a V-neck shirt without a tank top underneath. The first comment I received on it? “Wow, are we trying to seduce somebody today?” (She meant it jokingly, but obviously there was still a grain of truth. What a “conservative” American considers normal is not decent to Koreans.) Needless to say, my personal style is going to be colored by this way of thinking quite a bit for the next year, so I’d better get used to it.

Back to the sociability issue, though, it really can feel like everything that makes me me has been compressed into a pea-sized capsule and then entombed in stone. Rather than showing my true face, I just show the one that will offend people least, surprise them least, and ultimately interest them least.

It makes me wonder when I’ll meet someone who can bring my guard down; when I’ll know my fellow ETAs well enough to let them see something beyond the bland, unintentional facade.

But little by little, I do see certain bonds growing. Just like in college, I’m changing, and becoming a wiser and stronger person — and this time, it’s not taking six years. It’s happening much more quickly. Will I be able to find myself again by the end of the next six weeks? It’s pretty feasible. However, it’s not a situation where I can just say “screw it” and do whatever I want; inhibition is relatively easy to overcome, though the consequences might not be. But the reality is that inhibition is not the issue here. It’s not that I have urges to break out of the mold and do something crazy, because that’s never been who I am. It’s that the person I am just isn’t here right now.

All I can do is wait for her to come back with her new changes.

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