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Friday, December 17, 2010

I can't believe how little I've posted about WWOOFing

You wouldn't know it from the blog, but I've been to visit farmers in Busan four times, in Miryang thrice (I think), in Geoch'ang twice, and in Hwaseong once. I posted the picture pretty soon after the fact, but I've yet to write much about the experiences, mostly because I don't know how to make them interesting.

About a month ago, though, Jade, who works at the Korean WWOOF headquarters in Seoul, sent out an email asking WWOOFers to submit short letters about their WWOOF experiences so that she could combine them into a book. I wrote one. It's a little schmaltzy and I don't entirely like it, but I'll let you have a look anyway:


Wake-up calls at dawn. Vicious ant attacks by day, mosquito swarms arising from the rice paddies by night. Plodding around knee-deep in mud and rotten watermelons. Soybean paste soup with anchovy heads bobbing about. Suffocating dust clouds inside sweltering triple-layered plastic houses. Though a good deal of foreign teachers in Korea choose to spend their vacations at Haeundae [Korea's most popular beach] or in Phuket [the ultimate Korean package tour destination], soaking up the sun, people-watching, sipping cold drinks, and unwinding after several months of hard work, I chose instead to pursue even more of it by visiting Changwon and spend a week at Sweet Persimmon Village. But even if I try to conjure up the most painful-sounding memories I can – perhaps the worst of all was being surrounded by hundreds of trees, tens of thousands of low-hanging persimmons, all of them far too green and bitter to eat – I can’t help but admit that each of them is infused with pleasure and meaning and worth far beyond what I would have found had I just taken it easy.

It seems to me that the people who deserve vacations most are also the ones who are least likely to get them. We all know, somewhere in the back of our minds, that farmers labor year-round, tilling and irrigating, planting at just the right time, weeding and spraying and maintaining throughout the season, waiting for the perfect moment to pick, and then starting again, spring, summer, winter and fall. Even century-old fruit trees require regular, scientific pruning and coercion in order to produce what they’re really capable of – a fact I didn’t know before, but learned in my 10 days working with Mr. Gang and the others at Sweet Persimmon Village. All of this effort is directed towards feeding us, the city-dwellers and travelers and guests of the land, who have an indirect and generally underappreciated relationship with that which sustains us.

I look at WWOOFing as an opportunity to explore and reclaim this relationship, to learn about what I unknowingly require of the Earth, and what the Earth quietly, patiently asks of me in return. I wanted to learn how to listen to the ground, how to give back to it, and how to support the plants and bugs and microorganisms and myriad other lifeforms and systems that make my life possible. It turns out, it’s a lot of work, requiring study, planning, practice, creativity, diligence, dedication, [and] discipline, in addition to incessant bending, stooping, lifting, reaching, and sweating. Thankfully, though, the truth is that the best friendships are forged through work and effort directed at a common goal; even something as mundane weeding under the late afternoon sun, or as filthy as tearing apart a soggy watermelon patch at the end of the season, can bring people of different ages, vocations, skin colors, and nationalities together. Actually, it sort of makes sense - what could unite people better than the work that nobody, no being, can avoid: feeding him- or herself?

That’s not to say that there wasn’t leisure time – on the contrary, when the rains came, when the temperature topped 90 degrees before 10AM, or and [another typo!] when the sun set, we welcomed the opportunity to enjoy a long, slow meal, talk about the environment, about farming, about our homes and our travels, about upcoming events, and about nothing at all in particular. There was no shortage of fresh watermelon (the ones that had successfully dodged our boots) or cold Hite [Korean bear] (our most conspicuous “import”). We spent hours honing our archery skills and teaching each other tidbits of Enlish, Polish, French, and Korean, each release of the bow string and each repetition of a new word helping to build relationships that endure to this very day and now stretch across several continents.

Thank you, WWOOF, for creating the opportunity. And thank you, staff and residents of Sweet Persimmon Village, for opening your fields and homes and tool sheds to visitors from all around the world.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Have I Mastered the World's Hardest Language?

It's been one of those mornings where I just sit around on the computer and let Facebook, Google, and Wikipedia lead me wherever they want.

Facebook: Laura mentions speaking Swahili.

Wikipedia: Swahili looks pretty interesting. Only 5 vowel sounds, and no diphthongs? 22 noun classes, which we would call genders if the language were French or Spanish or German? Verb affixes and noun-class concord? Fascinating stuff!

Google: World's hardest language? Not because I expect a decent answer, but just because I want to see what people say. Proposed candidates: Icelandic, Russian, Mandarin, Cantonese, Arabic, Hungarian, English, Hindi, Tamil.

My take: I don't doubt that these languages are tough, but they are almost all wide-spread and widely spoken. Surely, though, out of the world's 6000 languages, in terms of pure probability, the odds are that the hardest language is one most of us haven't even heard of. Furthermore, if perhaps counter-intuitively, languages become easier as they mix with others and spread and are acquired by non-natives; this is why English has lost so many of its noun classes and so many of its inflectional rules. Thus, the most difficult language is probably one that's been isolated for generations and generations, learned only by little magic-brained-and-malleable-tongued babies capable of internalizing ridiculous grammatical systems and learning to manipulate their uvulae with precision.

Wikipedia: a search for Hardest Language proves interesting. It first debunks the possibility of an objective definition of "Hardest Language," given that so much depends on which one the learner speaks natively. And it becomes even more complicated if we take in non-lexical/grammatical obstacles like, say, whether or not there are books published in the language, whether or not its speakers have spread around the world, and whether or not there are opportunities to enter the speech community and learn by immersion.

What brought me to this post, though, was the following (still from the Wikipedia entry):

"The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) of the US Department of State has compiled approximate learning expectations for a number of languages. Of the 63 languages analyzed, the five most difficult languages to reach proficiency in speaking and proficiency in reading (for native English speakers who already know other languages), requiring 88 weeks, are "Arabic, Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese, Korean". The Foreign Service Institute considers Japanese to be the most difficult of this group.[3]"

Wowsa. If you consider that I did two one-year contracts between late 2006 and 2008, and that I was away for three weeks in Europe, one week in Thailand, and one week in Japan during that period, I don't think it's unfair to say that I achieved proficiency in speaking and reading in less than 100 weeks (52*2 - 3 - 1 -1 = 99), without the help of a US DOD-designed curriculum or intensive training. On the contrary, I did it with absolutely no help from (professional) teachers, and with very little help from native speakers of English - just books and sentences and friends and time and lots of annoying, annoying questions.

Because of this, I really doubt that Korean is one of the hardest languages to learn. That said, it's far from easy. In case you're interested, then, here are some tough things about it, of course from the perspective of an English-speaker:

1) Vocab - With Italian, when we see a word like, say "vomitare," [to vomit] we can more or less guess its meaning without much trouble. And, if you're strong on your Latin roots or GRE vocab, you might even recognize a word like "temere" [to fear]. Thus, actually, the more Italian you learn, the easier it is to pick up vocab, since the advanced words tends to look and sound similar to their English counterparts. In Korean, there's no chance of this. The only way to get good at decoding new Korean words is to...learn Chinese roots, which is of course no help, since that's another foreign language. No hints, no shortcuts.

2) Word order - English is, generally, SVO (Subject, Verb, Object). "I eat the bread." Korean is SOV. "I bread eat." This is manageable at the start, but as it goes on, it gets more complicated. "I bread buy to store to going be." "I tasty bread buy to store to going be." "I sister wanting tasty bread buy for to store to going be." "I tomorrow sister buy please say tasty bread buy for to store go think be." "I tomorrow sister buy please say tasty bread buy for to store go not hesitating middle be" Can you decode that last one?*

3) Implied subjects and objects - Often, Koreans will just leave out topics and subjects and expect that the meaning of the sentence will be clear from context. Something like "Downtown go think is" is relatively clear - someone is thinking about going downtown, and it's probably the person speaking. I saw a sentence the other day though, in reference to the TV show Dexter: "Quinn kill." My English mind, expecting the first word to be the subject, translated it as "Quinn kills..." (Korean doesn't bother conjugating its verbs to agree with their subjects) I assumed that the missing object was Dexter, because who else would Quinn kill? Actually, though, the real meaning was "(Dexter) Quinn Kill;" where I thought an object was missing at the end, the truth was that the subject was missing from the beginning. The Korean friend I was watching it with said that, somehow, the context made it clear to her. I kind of see her point, knowing what I know about the show and the characters and t the plot, but...it's a stretch.

4) Formality - Korean has four levels: plain, informal, polite, and formal. Many of the levels have different endings for declarative, interrogative, suggestive, and command forms. For instance, there are: 4 ways to say "He's going."; 4 ways (actually, more) to say "Where's he going?"; 2 ways (actually, more) to say "Let's go."; and 4 ways (actually, more) to say "Go." You can speak plain and informal levels to people who are younger than or the same age as you, or who are a little older but who you're on close terms with, or with members of your immediate family; you speak polite to people you don't know well, or with whom you have a professional relationship, or with someone who's a fair deal older than you; you speak formal when you're wearing a suit and schmoozing. Of course, if you want, you can speak formal in an informal situation just as a joke or as to emphasize something, and you can speak low level to your boss if you want to get fired. I often go back and forth between speaking informal and polite forms to my students - they're younger than me, and I want them to feel like they're able to approach me, but on the other hand, our relationship exists inside of a certain set of rules and roles and power dynamics that they need to understand and respect. And what do I do if there are fifteen 18-year olds and one 50-year old in my class? Do I have to speak politely to the whole class just because of that one lady?

5) Titles - The most awkward of all. For people who are younger, you can use names or say "no," which means "you." For people who are older but still close, you can usually use "brother" or "sister," though the words are different depending on whether you're a male or a female. People who aren't so close, maybe you call "aunt" or "uncle" or by their title. This results in extreme awkwardness, because, as with the speech levels, you kind of have to specify exactly how close you think are to someone when you address them. But what if you think you're closer then they think, or what if they think you're close and you address them distantly? People are also often identified by their title at work, such as "owner," "manager," "teacher," "professor," but I don't even know the difference between a chief and a deputy and a vice-whatever in English; how can I possibly remember in Korean?

6) Connections - Korean seems to have finer distinctions than English when it comes to expressing how two or more actions are related, whether in terms of space or time or causality. There are probably about 10 ways to say "because." "-nikka" is used in spoken language, but not generally while writing; "-so" seems a little weaker; "-neurago" is compatible only with actions (not with descriptions) and is used to make an excuse for failing to do something; "-baram" is also usually used with some action that has negative effects; "-godeun" is often a kind of defensive response; "-ddaemun" seems kind of factual and formal; "-deoni" means that you have first-hand knowledge about the cause; and there are probably more that I just don't know or which aren't coming to mind. Not to mention that several of these have other, non-causal uses: "-so" and "-nikka" can also be temporal, and "godeun" can be used when you want to stick your tongue out at someone and shoot spittle at them.

7) Other distinctions we don't make or make differently - Korean often uses suffixes to express what we Englishers would use separate words or intonation for. For instance, we'd say "Wow, that car is fast!" If we put the sentence stress on "fast" - say it to yourself out loud - we mean we are surprised at how fast the car is. In Korean, you'd put the suffix "ne" on the end of the word for "fast" to express this. If we put the stress on "is," then we mean that we had some doubt about the speed of the car, maybe because it looked slow, but that the doubt has been vanquished by recent evidence. For this, Koreans would put "goon" on the end of the word "fast." [And then maybe another ending depending on whether it's your little sister or grandmother who's listening to you.] This is the sort of thing you might not even be aware of until you learn a language that does it differently.

On the other hand, here are some things that are, not as tough as one might expect

1) Spelling - Unlike Chinese and Japanese, the writing system - an alphabet just like ours, but better thought ought - is unbelievably simple: 10 basic consonants (ㅂㅈㄷㄱㅅㅁㄴㅇㄹㅎ) and 6 basic vowels (ㅏㅗㅓㅜㅡㅣ). There are some strong consonants (ㅍㅊㅌㅋ), as well as some double consonants (ㅃㅉㄸㄲㅆ), as well as some iotized vowels (with a y sound in front) (ㅑㅛㅕㅠ) and some diphthongs (vowel combos) (ㅐㅙㅔㅞㅚㅟㅢ) and some iotized diphthongs (ㅒㅖ), but all of these latter things are clearly just slight modifications of the basic ones. I know it looks like a lot of new stuff, but it's all quite systematic and consistent and can be learned quickly.

2) Pronunciation - The characters look funny and foreign, but in fact, they are super easy. First of all, most Korean sounds are present in English, even if we don't quite know it. No clicks, no tones, few weird tongue contortions necessary. Second of all, 99% of the time, letters correspond to only one sound. No worries about soft C's (cereal, car) and G's (gate / garage), long and short E's (be / bet), or silent K's (knight) . Furthermore, all sound correspond to one and only one letter. Bernard Shaw once wrote that "GHOTI" could be pronounced "Fish," if you think about the sounds in "cough," "women," and "application." There's no way this could happen in Korean. PLUS, there are sounds in Enlglish that can't be represented by any of our letters; it takes us two letters to make the sound at the beginning of "cheese," despite that fact that it is just one sound, and has nothing to do with the standard sounds of the letters C or H themselves. Nor is there a way to look at the letters "th" and know what sound they make. The "th" in "think" and "that," may look the same, but they don't sound it. Korean does of course have some odd pronunciation rules, but they are much more systematic than English ones, which at times seem wholly arbitrary.

3) Honorifics / Humilifics - Admittedly, they seem weird at first. But the basics of it are that you throw a "she" sound into the middle of your verb when talking to someone to whom you'd like to show respect (this is an honorific). You can also use a humilific form of "I" ("cho" rather than the informal "na"). There are a few other things, like using a special words for "sleep" and "give" and "eat," but these are the exceptions rather than the rules.

4) Helping verbs
- are maybe the hardest thing about English grammar. Why the hell do we need "do" in questions and negative sentences, but not in plain ones? Why is the opposite of "I go" "I do not go" rather than "I not go."? What does the "do" do that the "not" doesn't? And why do we have to say "Do I go?" rather than just "I go?", when in either case we use rising intonation to express the question? Why does tense in positive sentences get expressed by changing the main verb - "I walk / I walked" - but in other sentences by changing the helping verb - "I didn't walk / Did I walk?"? Wouldn't "I not walked" be OK? And why does the same word act as both a helping verb and a lexical verb sometimes? What do you do? How do you do? What do you have? How long have you had it? This Friday, will you have had it for four days, or won't you have? Will you will yourself to make it to the end of this post? Well, will you?

5) Tenses
- Tenses are generally more straight forward in Korean than in English. We have all this strong and weak verb stuff, where some verbs get "ed" (the pronunciation of which varies, by the way; think of "called" and "walked") and others get a vowel change in the middle (sing, sang, sung, never singed). Korean verbs just put a double s on the end of the verb stem (there are often pronunciation issues here, but they follow rules). Furthermore, we mix up helping verbs to create difficult tenses, like "As of tomorrow, I will have been living in Korea for four years and 3 weeks" or something. Three helping verbs, one verb with meaning. This sentence is hard to replicate in Korean.

I could go on and on. There are a million simplifications above, places when I could have gone on about an example or counterexample or exception or revaluation of some statement. But I think I'll let you off the hook for now.

According to the most recent TOPIK test I took, I am higher than level 4 (intermediate) but not quite up to level 5 (low-advanced). Can you believe I know all this stuff and I've still got two levels to go? If I'm not up to level six (the max) by the end of year five, I think I'll have to go home for a while.

*Translation: I'm hesitating about whether or not going to the store tomorrow to buy the delicious bread that my sister asked for.

** To answer the title question: No. I highly doubt it.

*** This is all one of the primary reasons I love living abroad. I get to think about this crap all day every day. Languages are easily the most interesting things on the planet.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Some things that have been happening

Despite my not having posted for about two weeks, I think it's fair to say that 2010 has been a productive year, both for my blog and for my self. I believe this post is number 84, so means my chances of ever achieving ultimate blog symmetry, to which I came so close in 2009, are nil. But it also means that I've been up to a lot of stuff and had a lot on my mind.

I am tempted to say that I feel like a lot of what I've been doing - the gardening, the movie screenings, the other website, the WWOOFing, the biking, all these things that are tied up with one another in mind but feel so disparate in practice, and especially when juxtaposed with my work - is paying off, but that's not quite the right expression. The activities were and are all worth it on their own terms and I've been reaping their benefits since I started.

But nowadays things have sort of been coming together. For instance:

Thanks to my more-sociable-than-me friend Suze, who I met in Sadhana and cajoled into coming out to work at Yeungjin, I had a fantastic vegan thanksgiving potluck party (I made chili, others made indian, salads, soups, potatoes, tofurkey, gravy, a nut loaf, and more) and increased my number of vegetarian friends in Daegu from 1.5 to about 10. One of the girls I met works at a Montessori school, and she says they may need some help in the winter. I sense a chance to investigate the realm of alternative education a bit more directly...

Speaking of which, through an acquaintance of a friend I met while WWOOFing, I got offered a position at an eco-kids camp. I haven't met the staff yet, but I think I am going to be helping kids make campfires and roast sweet potatoes, and I'll also be translating for a local fisherman as he explains to the kids the significance of the wetlands and where they're headed. This will be in mid-January, and I'll be sure to write a little something about it.

Then, shortly after I agreed to do that camp, I got a call from an elder sister (Korean woman older than me) who I met at Sadhana. After 5 years of traveling, she came back to Korea a few months ago. Now she's going back on the road, this time as part of a "travel" school, taking some students with her. She asked me to come along - I suppose as a translator, mentor, and chaperone - and said that she and the kids and whatever organization she's with will pay for my flight, room, board, and other expenses for a few weeks if I accompany them to Thailand.

I also showed my fifth environmental documentary downtown - about fifteen people came. There is a core group of five or six that have come to several films, including my neighbor Mathan and some of his other friends from Tamil Nadu who are working at KNU, the big university nearby. There were some new faces as well, several of whom thanked me, asked me questions, and promised to come again. There's still a long way to go, but I think the early days of despair about Daegu Green Living are over.

In the process of distributing fliers for my movie - I never remember if it's "flier" or "flyer," but in either case, they don't really do much good - I finally stopped by 어색하지 않은 창고 (The Un-Awkward Warehouse, a name which can't be translated into English unawkwardly), a little hang-out I didn't know much about, last week. How I found out about the place is a long story, but in any case, when I got there, I found out that the owner is close with the people who organize the Ecobike rallies (which I posted about here) and that she had heard about me and was wondering when I'd stop by. Apparently I have managed to cultivate some sort of reputation - people in various local environmental circles seem to know who I am, which feels really nice. Not because I want the recognition, but because I don't want to be alone in doing what I'm doing.

A few people had gathered at the Warehouse to study and discuss Ivan Illich's "Deschooling Society," which I haven't read but which I think probably fits in with a lot of the stuff I've been reading lately, Derrick Jensen and Jules Henry in particular. One of the people at the study group, it turns out, was in Sadhana about a year ago and is taking some "travel school" students on a trip to India (and even Auroville, and maybe Sadhana) in just a few days. He's also interested in alternative education, and invited me to a lecture last night given by a philosophy teacher who returned to the countryside about 20 years ago and has run various alternative schools, many of them based around farming, since then.

Also, the Warehouse does a weekly vegetarian dinner. I went this week and, surprise, there was a TV crew, so I did a brief interview that will sooner or later be put on the local channels here. I think I made a mess of it (I recently took the TOPIK exam [Test Of Proficiency In Korean] and destroyed the mid-level test, which put me at level 4, so a bit more studying and I can probably get level 5 if I take the advanced test. A 5 means you're qualified to take university courses; 6 is the max.), but in any case, it's cool to have received a bit of coverage.

The people at the veg dinner weren't full-time vegetarians, so I got the usual "What do you eat?" question. I suppose my response - something along the lines of "I don't know, Italian pastas and Indian curries and salads and sandwiches and soups and porridges and stir-fries and other stuff I just make up as I go along" - tickled their fancy, because they all looked around the table with that "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" look, asked me to cook for them next week, and then started clapping until I accepted. I'm a bit nervous about it, but am also confident that a meal of baguettes and sliced veggies, Hummus, salad with lots of pumpkin seeds, and lentil soup will go over well.

Lastly, this morning I got an email from a fellow who works, I believe, for Ch'eonan City (not too far from here), and who translates a lot of about food and the environment from English to Korean. Someone had tipped him off about my movies and he said he was thoroughly surprised to find out that it was a foreigner behind them. He thanked me for my work and noted that it must be hard to do all this while having a completely unrelated day job, which I suppose is true. I think there is some collaboration in the cards, if time allows.

I'm not sure if there's anything else. It's hard for me to believe that this has all sort of come together over the last two weeks or so, but actually, the timing is pretty good, as I finished grading my exams today (I'll post some excerpts later), and just have one week of office hours left before I'm off for two months. I hope the news of all this exciting business will help you to forgive me if Christmas cards arrive late, or not at all. I promise, though, that anyone who reminds me of their address via email will be handsomely rewarded with something at some time this winter.