Laughing all the way to learning English“Sorry, that person does not live here.” I heard the phone hit the cradle. That was the answer I got to my question, “Hello, I am looking for a car.”
Several years ago, while living in the United States, I called a number in a classified ad to ask about a used car. Confused by the lady’s answer, I called back. She repeated her words and hung up again.
When I asked my friend Ray, he said the woman must have thought I’d asked for “Karl,” a man’s name, not a “car.”
The thought that I couldn’t pronounce a simple word shocked me. Since starting to learn English, I was instructed endlessly on how to pronounce the letter “R.” But though I practiced rolling my tongue umpteen times, I still ran into difficulties.
Like most Koreans, instead of foolish, I said “poolish;” instead of “roll,” out came “loll.”
The 2003 movie “Yeoseotgaeeui Siseon” (If You Were Me) graphically illustrated Koreans’ obsession with English. One episode tells of parents who force their nine-year-old son to have tongue surgery, believing it will help his pronunciation.
If I had an operation on my tongue, would I speak like a native? Somehow, I still don’t think I’d cut it. To this day, I can’t pronounce R’s like a native speaker. But do you know what? I don’t care anymore. My goal has changed to just enjoying the language.
My teacher, Laura Battles, finally convinced me of the truth ― there’s no need to speak like a native speaker. “I cannot, I cannot, I cannot,” I proclaimed.
I think language learning shares something with culture shock, which sociologists sum up in the four stages of “honeymoon, horror, humor and home.”
When everything seemed new and novel, I was clearly in the “honeymoon” stage. Watching Hollywood films without captions was a challenge, and memorizing 100 new vocabulary words was more fun than chore.
The R affair, however, took me to the second stage ― horror. The more difficulties I experienced, the more rejections I suffered. The language wall looked too high to climb. Laura advised me to move on to the humor stage and reflect, even laugh, at my mistakes.
“You need to sit down and find out what you can and cannot do. Accept the things you cannot.” She was right. I was building up unnecessary language barriers.
Now, only the final “home” stage awaits. I don’t know when it will come, but I can wait. I’m having a blast in the “humor” stage.
by Song Hee-jung
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