March 22, 2010 | Korean

It’s Harder to Study After Half-Marathons

In which I discover that racing 13.1 miles does not, in fact, enhance my language-learning abilities.

Yesterday I woke up shortly after 5:00 a.m., ate breakfast, put on running clothes, and jogged over to Central Park for the start of the NYC Half-Marathon. It was my first race of that distance in 11 years, on an amazing course through the park to Times Square, and then along the West Side Highway down to Lower Manhattan.

I ran a 1:37:34, thus qualifying for the New York City Marathon, should I wish to try it again. Brandt cheered me on from three different locations along the course and took these fabulous photos.

NYC Half-Marathoners, in Central Park

Times Square. I'm There Somewhere!

More of Times Square, with Policemen

My Ninth Half-Marathon, Finished

Back at home, I promptly fell asleep. When I woke up, I was still exhausted. I tried to redo Pimsleur lesson 9 (Level II), but was largely dysfunctional due to physical fallout from the race. Consuming a pint of peanut butter cup ice cream and some Pepto-Bismol improved my language performance somewhat, but then a dismaying moment arrived nine minutes and twenty seconds into lesson 10.

Recovery Food at Fairway Market

I had just translated, “How long are you going to stay in Seoul?” (Ulma tung-AN sour-ay eet ges-a-yo?) when I was told of another, more polite way of asking the same question. It sounded exactly the same except for the last word, which changed from ges-a-yo to something sounding like kay-say-yo.

I was informed—too breezily, I thought—by a man on the Pimsleur tape, “Kay-say-yo is a polite form which is often used on formal occasions when addressing other people.” He went on to explain that the first version, by contrast, is used when you refer to yourself and family members.

Really?! That’s it?! I have invested a lot of time into learning that first phrase, and I am thoroughly unimpressed by the breadth of its applications.

My heart sank as I considered the possibility that the arrival of this concept could presage a whole bunch of other Pimsleur lessons in courtesy forms and constructions. The politeness thing in languages is really hard for me. There is not a whole lot of politeness in English. I mean, you do not have to worry about whether to say usted or , as in Spanish, or Sie or du, as in German. I love English for that—very democratic.

And, the thing is, Korean seems to take these courtesy complications to a whole new level. Consider the lowly pronoun as just one example. “In general,” according to my Elementary Korean textbook, by Ross King and Jaehoon Yeon, “Koreans use pronouns much less in conversation than we do in English. When they do use pronouns, they have to choose between a number of different words depending on the social relationships of the people involved (this is probably why they avoid using them in the first place).” Note: The parenthetical comment in this quotation is the textbook writers’, not mine!

The book goes on to warn, “You are always safest using no pronoun at all.” Safest…that word choice is scary, unless you are a thoroughly intrepid language learner.

I am not; I fear offending people. So I decided to avoid the whole thing and go to bed.

After a pretty good night’s sleep, I felt better equipped for these language challenges, though still fragile from yesterday’s race. I redid the same two lessons I had gone through yesterday.

Mistakes were made. Oaths were uttered.

Nonetheless, I really did enjoy it. I swear. Also, I get a kick out of some of the sounds of Korean. Here’s how you say, “I often go on business trips.” Cha-JOO chul-CHUNG ga-YO. Now that’s fun.

The word for “milk” is cute, too. It sounds like this: OO-yoo. Which reminds me of my childhood, UHU glue sticks, and grade school art projects.

Comments (3)

Jill • Posted on Mon, March 29, 2010 - 7:48 am EST

Congratulations on the race!  You look very, very pleased in your photo, too!

Luba • Posted on Wed, February 16, 2011 - 1:14 am EST

Oh, polite forms…
I have a huge problem with the fact that there is no polite form (like usted in Spanish or vy in Russian) in English.
I mean, I spent most of my life in Russia, in all this complicated system of polite addressing, and now I need to address my university professors using the same pronoun which I use to address my fellow students!
My biggest problem is letters to professors. In Russian polite form of addressing a person is his/her name and a patronymic name. And there is no patronymic name in English. And I simply can’t address them just by their names, it looks so terribly rude to me… So I choose “Dear Prof. <last name>”, but I have a problem with that, too, because in Russian adressing a person by a last name is inappropriate in a polite conversation…
Strangely, I don’t have the same problem with Hebrew, I guess it’s because I mostly use Hebrew in more or less informal situations, while English I use at the university.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Wed, February 16, 2011 - 7:48 am EST

It is so interesting to hear this perspective, i.e., that the ABSENCE of polite forms in English could be difficult. It seems so much simpler to me. On the other hand, I guess it does make it harder to show respect through language. In the corporate seminars I teach on e-mail etiquette, I get many questions on salutations.

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