A useful roadmap, but not without a few detours

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A useful roadmap, but not without a few detours

The idea behind this new book by Richard Harris is an intriguing one. In his preface, Mr. Harris says that his intent was “to make it a roadmap to the language in its entirety.”
That’s a vaulting ambition, and Mr. Harris has fallen short in some ways, but the book should be interesting for anyone who is past the stage of memorizing basic phrases and is beginning to try to figure out just how this maddening language is really structured.
The book is divided into five parts. The first is a brief history of the Korean language, the use of Chinese characters and of the invention of the Korean script, called Hangeul, in the 15th century. It also lays out some of the cultural underpinnings of the language and discusses a very useful concept, high-context and low-context languages. Then comes a section on some of the details of how Korean is spoken and written, followed by discussions in more detail of some of the aspects of the language that are very different from English usage. Part 4 is about language-learning strategies and Part 5 is a sort of almanac of information about the Korean calendar, holidays, mythology, the Chinese zodiac and fortune-telling. Appendices cover proverbs, phrases, conjugations and word lists. An index would have been useful.
Mr. Harris, while saying he is trying to make things easier for the new learner, seems to delight at times in pointing out how difficult some of the language concepts are, and at times makes things sound more difficult than they actually are.
And things are difficult enough. Even being charitable, and thinking for a moment about the number of oddities and irregulatities in English, it is still a shock to encounter a seemingly huge number of different words for the concept of wearing something. When Koreans complain to me about how difficult English is, my usual comeback is to ask a series of questions to elicit all the different words. Mr. Harris has covered that topic admirably, and his section on family relationships is also well done.
All these intricacies are beyond the novice Korean learner, however, and would probably drive him away from any attempt to get to know the language better. The advanced Korean speaker has probably already mastered most of them. The problem for the intermediate learner, though, is that Mr. Harris’s explanations may often differ from the way other Korean language instructors teach the concepts.
In addition to the lack of an index, I had a few other petty grievances, including the choice of italic type style that makes the letters h and b hard to distinguish, the author’s spirited defense of an older Romanization system for Korean that he then does not use, the sometimes cutesy interjections (“cough, cough..now throw up your hands and say, ‘Whew!’”) and the inexplicable relocation of Haein Temple to central Seoul. Quibbles aside, this book will be valuable for persons who are on the road to learning the language but still have a long way to go.

Roadmap to Korean
By Richard Harris
Cover price: 15,000 won

by John Hoog
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