February 3, 2010 | Korean
The Art of Handwriting
There is art in learning a new alphabet.
I am having trouble “graduating” from the beginning Pimsleur lessons. I did lesson 1 for the third time in three days and decided I can finally move on.
Then I did lesson 2. I did not do well enough to move on. As with Arabic, there’s no language precedent in my brain for these Korean syllables to glue onto.
Some of this Pimsleur I did on the way to the Javitz Center, where I visited my cousin Beth Weintraub, an artist, at her booth at the New York International Gift Fair. She asked me to say something in Korean, and I couldn’t in the moment think of a single thing. Embarrassing.
After the visit, I decided to go to Koryo Books in Koreatown (which isn’t actually big enough to qualify as a town). There I found a book that I think will be helpful for learning the alphabet.
It’s a good thing, too; I have reached dead ends in both of the textbooks I am currently using, because they don’t give you enough work on the alphabet before proceeding to use it. That’s exactly what happened to me with Russian, too, and maybe Arabic as well.
The materials the bookstore had were totally different from what I had found at Barnes & Noble. They appear to have been written primarily by non-native speakers of English. Also, some of them must be really old, because they were accompanied by cassette tapes. Strange. The book I ended up buying was entitled Step by Step Korean Penmanship, with a happy student on the cover. And a cassette tape stuck to the back.
On the subway home, I struck up a conversation, in German, with a German family—mother, father, daughter. The parents live 40 kilometers from Göttingen, where my father and stepmother live. The mother is German, the father English, and the daughter grew up not speaking English, though she sounds American to me. She is here as an actress. A very nice family.
The mother said my German was perfect. It is not. At all. But I have to say, I did better in that one German conversation than I have in any other I can remember in at least 10 years. Perhaps this whole thing really is tickling my language neurons (my sense of biology is appalling). Even though I was speaking in German, I could still express my personality, I understood everything she said, I wasn’t horribly limited in my own speech by my constrained vocabulary, I made relatively few grammatical errors, and I took advantage of characteristically German speech patterns and structures that are not present in English. I was very happy about all of this.
Back to Korean though, where my accomplishments remain far more remedial. One great development for me is that I can now officially recognize Korean writing as Korean when I see it. Before I couldn’t. It may sound like a humble achievement, but to me it feels like a big deal.
Once back at home, I found myself quite sleepy. So I got out my Creative Zen device, which is what I carry my Pimsleur lessons around on, and got into bed fully dressed. I started doing Pimsleur lesson 2, but soon felt so overcome with exhaustion I thought I would explode with it, and wondered what I was doing still awake, and then I asked myself, why is this lesson so hard? And then I realized I was on lesson 4, not lesson 2, and that I had slept my way through a lesson and a half (45 minutes) of Pimsleur.
I can’t say it enough: I love Pimsleur as a sleep aid. It should be prescribed by doctors.
After I woke up, much refreshed, I went to Café Margot with my new Korean handwriting book.
It was a great choice. It gives me plenty of practice in the alphabet, which I desperately need.
You have to do the strokes in a particular order. I felt so happy sitting there learning the Korean alphabet. It appealed to the language part of me, but it was at the same time also kind of like taking an art class.