Native speakers of English probably don't even realize how cute (or strange) some of our words and idioms are. Imagine trying to explain the meaning of "toadstool" to a new English learner, for example. Korean has some similar sorts of words/idioms that I have enjoyed learning:
Fish = 물고기 = mool goh-ghee. Which literally means "water meat." Is that perfect or what? English could get more creative like this. Cows would be "pasture meat" and chickens would be "coop meat".... (Please feel free to add your own ideas in the comments below. :) )
Runny nose = 콧물 = kote mool. Which means, well, "nose water." Which is admittedly more accurate than our English “runny nose.”
Extreme tiredness = 코피 = koh pee (NOT to be confused with 커피 = kaw pee, which is coffee). This literally means "nose blood." This has confused me. A banner on campus has red blood spatter images all over it and says 코피가 터져도 새벽기도는 계속됀다. I could only read “nose blood” at the beginning and assumed this (rather tasteless) sign might be a health center announcement. Even my TA's interpretation of the Korean was not entirely helpful: "Even though we get nosebleeds, early morning prayer meeting will continue.” Wait - what?? My curiosity was definitely not satisified, so I pushed further: how are nosebleeds connected to morning prayer??? Oh. "Nosebleed" is Korean slang for "extreme tiredness" or "stress." Wow. Idioms are tricky.
Working on the Language
A few times recently, I have found myself with something to say to Koreans and I worked hard to get the Korean sentence all worked out in my head. The situations did not go quite as I had imagined, however, much like any well-rehearsed conversations, I suppose. In June our family was at the beach north of Chilpo (do not picture sand: it's rocks and gravel and cars and lots of Koreans in tents and fishing from the rocks but no one is in the water except the crazy Americans doing the season’s first snorkel and trying out our new kayaks). I came into shore from snorkeling (wonderful, but very cold) and thus knew exactly where the big fish were (and were not) lurking. Said lurking area was not where our nearest beach neighbor guy was doing his fishing. So: I wanted to be a Good Samaritan (of sorts). Thus, I quietly practiced with Elisabeth to fine-tune my earth-shattering Fish Location Knowledge into passable Korean. Then worked up the nerve to go tell him my big news. “Man!" (because that's what you say here). "Many fish! 20 meters!” And I pointed to the Great Fish Hangout. I was super proud that I could put this message together in Korean and actually communicate with a native, helping him to succeed in landing his lunch. In response, he smiled broadly at me, paused a second or two, and said, perfectly clearly, “Thank you.” In English. Without a trace of an accent. Arg.
When I was a kid growing up in Michigan, our neighbors had family visiting from the southern U.S. and their kids came over to play. I had never heard a southern US accent before and I therefore understood very little of what they said. When I showed off my pet gerbils, the older girl kept asking me, “Dawzee baht?” I would shake my head in confusion and she would repeat this inexplicable question while pointing with increasing intensity to my pets. This went on much too long and I just could not understand her. Much, much later I finally realized she had been inquiring about the animal's proclivity to bite. Oh. Right. I hope she doesn't remember that.
The English and Korean languages have overlapping sets of sounds as well as their own unique sounds. Thus, even English-fluent Koreans speak with an accent that reflects these language differences, so it can be hard for English speakers to figure out what a Korean is saying. Here are some examples from our international church, which is led by a Korean pastor/missionary:
(1) The Biblical story of Jackie S. You don't remember it either? Here's a hint: he climbed a tree to better see Jee-juss. (Korean doesn’t have a “z” sound so they substitute a “j” for English words with that sound. As a result, I will probably say “pee-jah” forevermore when ordering a large pepperoni.)
(2) The cheap tax collector. I spent much of a sermon trying to figure out what Biblical character this. Then I remembered that Korean lacks the “f” sound and often substitutes a "p." So...that would be Matthew. That lesson was helpful when a later sermon referred to the “steep nekka” people of Israel. :)
3) During prayer, God was praised for being warty. So warty! What? Oh, yeah, no “th” sound in Korean. Got it. And it took me far, FAR too long to figure out that bee-leebers were, well, Christians, and that needing "face" to be saved was not actually about maintaining one's social reputation.
(4) Finally, the English distinction between “r” and “l” is not made in Korean. (Instead, the comparable sound is like the Spanish “r” where the tongue hits mid-palate in preparation for a rolling sound.) So what I heard in church sounded like “Lula” but was actually, well, referring to a rich young ruler.
Sometimes, a memo from the kids' school or the university comes through that’s only in Korean and I ask Google to give me a sense of what’s going on. We had one a couple of years ago that described a school camping trip and the kids were "horseshit horseshit" (a terrible translation of the word for "nervous/excited"). A recent memo demonstrated another problem. After some comments about how parents can access students’ information via a Korean government website, this heading appeared:
성적 및 생활기록부 확인. Hmmm.
Google told me this meant: “And sexual life record check”
Um, WHAT? I continued reading and was not comforted:
"Sexual and life record of service after parents sign up students can be found on the menu.
"Nice Parent Services ( http://par.gbe.kr/ )> Student Performance> Grades
"Nice Parent Services ( http://par.gbe.kr/ )> Student Life> Living Record"
WHOA! My kids have performance grades given for their sexual activity? I THOUGHT THIS WAS KOREA! I THOUGHT THIS WAS A CHRISTIAN SCHOOL!
I turned to my new TA, begging for clarification. As it turns out, the same Korean word can be translated as either “sexual” or “grades.” Oh. Thanks, Google, for leaping to the worst possible interpretation there.