Greeting Another Language
The school day begins in Ms. Kim’s class at Los Angeles High not with “Good morning” or “Buenos dias,” but with “Ahn-young- ha-sae-yo.”
“Ahn-young-ha-sae-yo!” students say to their teacher and one another as they enter Room 165, a cheerful place bedecked with colorful displays of students’ photographs and other works.
There is much laughter as learners of Korean string together their newly acquired vocabulary to converse with their teacher and classmates.
Two words in particular give them trouble: ohjae (yesterday) and onjae (when).
After repeating ohjae and onjae several times with them, Kim advises: “Just remember: O.J. [Simpson] is yesterday’s story.”
More than 100 Los Angeles High School students are learning Korean from Young-Hwa Kim, who developed the Korean language curriculum and began teaching it three years ago, after Korean was approved as an achievement test portion of the SAT exam.
It is the Los Angeles Unified School District’s only full-time Korean language program. Korean is taught in 35 secondary schools in the country, 17 of them in Southern California, according to the Koreatown-based Foundation for SAT II Korean.
Los Angeles High is at the edge of Koreatown, but its student population might make it seem an unlikely place for the language classes: 75% Latino, 14% black and 7% Asian, with a small mix of others. About 80% of Kim’s students are non-Korean, mostly Latinos who get a chance to use the language in the neighborhood.
Many of Kim’s non-Korean students have become so accustomed to hearing Korean that saying nae (yes) and aniyo (no) is second nature to them.
Kara and Anna Cruz, Filipino American twins in Kim’s beginner class, have even adopted the Korean custom of bowing when saying Ahn-young-ha-sae-yo? meaning, “Are things well with you?”
The sisters say they were motivated to learn Korean because they have so many Korean neighbors and they attend St. Basil’s Catholic Church in the Mid-Wilshire district, which includes a Korean congregation.
“I always wanted to read what was written in Korean. I also wanted to read their bulletin, which is in Korean,” says Kara.
Korean grammar and sentence structure are hard, Anna says. So she says she studies at least 30 minutes a day, repeating new words, then typing them over and over into her computer.
Kara, meanwhile, often tests her Korean. “After doing my homework and studying Korean at home, I practice it when doing grocery shopping with my mother at a Korean market,” she says.
Today’s assignment in the beginners class, composed mostly of ninth-graders, is writing a poem in Korean about an emotion. Students are to choose from love, happiness, loneliness, peacefulness, sadness, fear, hatred or anger. Then they must describe the color, sound, taste, smell and feel of the emotion. Finally, they are to capture the emotion in a drawing.
The students are busy creating. First they write in English, then they translate into Korean.
Some flip through their English-Korean dictionaries. Others consult their classmates and printed material their teacher has given them. Still others raise their hands and call out “Kim sonsaeng-nim, Kim sonsaeng-nim” (teacher Kim) for help.
Fear is the subject of Los Angeles-born David Gonzalez’s poem:
Fear is red pepper
Fear sounds like high school kids running around
Fear tastes like garlic, onion and radish
Fear smells like Western food that has a lot of fat
Fear is like dancing with pain
Fear is like sadness and hatred and anger
Fear is worse than kindergarten students
Fear is not like an apple or a cherry
Fear is like a potato
A drawing of two red chili peppers adorns the poem.
Kim is pleased with what she sees. Stopping at each desk, she and two student teachers go over the poems and correct with a green felt pen errors in the phonetic Korean script called hangul.
Invented in 1443 by a team of scholars under the direction of a Korean king named Sejong, the 24-letter hangul alphabet enabled the masses to read and write. Until then, Koreans used Chinese ideograms, which were mastered only by the educated upper classes.
A novice can master the alphabet quickly. But getting a firm grasp on the language is quite another matter. Even for the best students, it could take three years, Kim says.
Korean American teenagers enroll mainly in Kim’s advanced classes to practice their reading and writing.
“Korean is a difficult language to learn,” acknowledges Kim, who earned a degree in Korean from the prestigious Ewha Womans University in Seoul in 1973. “Some pick up Korean much more easily than others. I try to meet each student where he or she is.”
David Gonzalez, who wrote the poem on fear, concedes the difficulty but says he enjoys studying Korean because “it’s not like anything I’ve studied before.”
In addition to five hours of class time a week, he puts in at least 20 minutes a day at home.
“I keep pronouncing the words I learn and keep writing them down--over and over again,” he says.
Jose Segura, a senior who is completing his fourth semester of Korean, says he enjoys being able to understand when Korean is spoken, such as when his family was invited to the home of his father’s employer, an auto shop owner.
“When we visited his boss’ home, we had to take off our shoes,” he says. But he wasn’t offended because he knew that is a Korean custom.
“Each culture has its place; we need to teach students to respect that,” Kim says. “So much of friction [comes] from ignorance.”
Learning a language is a key. Too many people, the teacher stresses, “refuse to even acknowledge the power of language and cultural embrace among our own.”
One of the most difficult aspects of Korean is the layers of honorifics, requiring the speaker to pay attention to age, social status and education in even the simplest of exchanges.
This is one reason many Korean Americans proficient in both languages prefer to converse in English among themselves. In English, even a child can say “you” to his grandfather. But to do that in Korean would be insulting.
The honorific form of the Ahn-young-ha-sae-yo greeting is Ahn-young-hashim-nika, Kim reminds her students.
They aren’t worrying about the intricacies of honorifics yet. But she sometimes uses the form to familiarize them with it.
One of her recent assignments was to send students to a Koreatown restaurant to check out the menus and converse with the proprietor.
During one of those visits, a student got free pastry.
“When he told the proprietor bissayo (it’s expensive), she was so delighted [to hear a non-Korean youngster speaking Korean] that she didn’t charge him,” Kim recalls.
In Room 165, Kim says learning is a two-way street.
“I have a student from Nicaragua who corrected my pronunciation of Nicaragua until I got it right,” she says.
“My students crack me up. Sometimes when I go home after school, I am dead tired. But when I think of them, I start laughing by myself. Even some of the rascals are cute. I have so much fun with those kids.”