There's something about learning a language that isn't just studying and memorizing. I honestly believe that our language trains us to hear things in certain ways. It's as if our range of specific sounds limits our understanding of sounds outside of it. And I don't just mean in speaking, as in accents. I mean hearing. It took me a long time to be convinced that I didn't sometimes hear a definite "d" sound at the beginning of "neh". After a few weeks of paying careful attention every single time I heard and said the word, however, I finally realized how the "d" I was hearing was actually an "n" -- or, rather, not an "n" but a "ㄴ". But it definitely wasn't the "d" I had heard before.
That's going to sound completely bizarre, unless you've lived in an environment before where you are learning the language that is natively spoken around you.
It's the same with "b" and "m". "Mweoh? for ages was undeniably "Boh?" in my ears. I listened and listened, but still, the word was definitely "boh". Then, suddenly, one day I heard it. The sound actually changed.
A lot of the trouble comes from the fact that we try to transfer sounds exactly, instead of learn them new. It's the place you almost have to start from. Even when you study the sounds of a particular alphabet, instead of transliterating the text into your own alphabet, you still (in the beginning) understand the new alphabet as a version of your old one. It can take an immense amount of effort to really learn the new sounds. And don't even get me started on recreating them yourself with your own mouth. But once you can hear the sounds, you can get a lot closer to making them.
Anyway, sitting here reviewing what I studied today in Korean, I FINALLY stumbled on what it is about 어. This has been driving me crazy for ages. When I hear it in natively spoken Korean, I hear a hard "o" -- no doubt about it. But when I ask a Korean to demonstrate just this sound, I hear "uh". Why why why? I knew the sound was somewhere in between, but I could not figure out where, or how to make it. I finally nailed, and heard it correctly for the first time. The only thing I can tell you is, it's the sound you might make if someone threw a hard elbow in your stomach.
This is such an important thing for me to have learned, for the sake of my students. Not that 어 sounds like being elbowed in the stomach, but that, even with me -- a native English speaker -- demonstrating over and over how something sounds, it's going to take some time before they can actually hear it.
I'm still completely puzzled by ㄹ and 으. But these are the two sounds it is hardest to remove from English for native Korean speakers, so that's really no surprise. Still, every time I come across 를, I want to burst into tears. I can't imagine ever, ever being able to make any sound close to that. And when I ask a Korean to say it for me, it sounds like pure static. I'll just keep tuning in and waiting for the day when, suddenly, it will come through loud and clear.
Coteacher said something else completely brilliant this week, while we were discussing the students. She said that learning a language is "especially emotional". And it's true -- even when (as with a lot of our students) you aren't emotionally invested in the language at all. There's something about the vitality of how a language functions that transfers over, unlike the comparative sterility of learning math or science or history. Language is an emotional thing, and when you fail in language, you feel that failure much more intensely. Because it isn't just memorizing, or understanding concepts -- it's much more abstract, like learning an art form. When I would watch certain friends work on paintings or sculptures at university, I was often struck with complete and total awe. How do you learn to do that? How does someone explain that to you -- how do you recreate it?
It's almost like magic. And there's an element to second language acquisition that is exactly like that. It's mysterious. When you create a piece of art, in the process, you aren't always sure of how it looks to anyone else. When you study math, science, or history, there is a right answer. You know you are either right, or you are wrong. When you make a piece of art, or speak a second language, it's the fact that you are in the process of learning that keeps you unsure of exactly how well you've just done. In two months' time, in two years' time, you'll know if what you just made, or said, is what you meant to make or say -- if it gave the right impression. But not until then. It's the uncertainty that makes it emotional -- the fact that you can't see, or hear, what you are doing, for yourself.
My point is, I'm not kidding when I say 를 makes me want to cry.....