- Associated Press - Saturday, March 19, 2016

FAIRBANKS, Alaska (AP) - It looks harmless because it’s just a horizontal line, but the Korean letter ” - ” (pronounced eu) gave me more trouble than any other on my first day of class at the Korean Language School of Fairbanks in the fall.

“Uh,” I said.

“Eu,” said teacher Gyu Ri Kim, politely correcting me.

The sound, “is a short ‘u’, said in the back of the mouth. It is almost like a grunt,” in the words of a website I’ve used to supplement my studies.

I can kind of do it if I wind up to the sound.

“Oooh,” I said.

Five months later, I still struggle with the letter ” - ” but I’m making progress in learning to string simple sentences together.

Korean routinely makes the lists of the hardest languages for English-speakers to learn. Nonetheless in Fairbanks, there’s a steady stream of people willing to give it a try. Since 2008, the school has offered basic Korean language instruction to the public at no cost to students. The school is paid for by the Korean Association of Fairbanks, a local nonprofit organization. The school averages about 15 to 20 new students each year. Some start and don’t get much past the alphabet. Others attend regularly.

I started attending the weekly adult class last fall after spotting a flyer for the school at the Literacy Council of Alaska office. I enrolled because I wanted to learn a new language, and I’d already learned a few words from preparing for a trip to Korea last year. More importantly, I picked Korean because I’d heard of the Korean Community of Fairbanks. I knew it would be helpful to have local native speakers to practice conversation and ask questions.

My fellow students at the Korean Language School range in skills from a U.S. Air Force Korean-language linguist who chats with the teacher in long paragraphs to a series of one-time students. Other students were drawn to the class because they have Korean family, or because they’re fans of Korean popular culture. Korea’s entertainment industry has an international reach, most-famously with the 2012 song “Gangnam Style,” which was the first video in Internet history to break the 2 billion view mark on YouTube.

The language school was started to both teach the children of Korean immigrants the Korean language and culture, and to introduce Korean to non-Koreans who had asked for Korean-language instruction, according to Ecsile Chang, the daughter of school founder Song Chang. Even though she grew up speaking Korean, Chang was one of the school’s first students.

“Korean is my first language but growing up I never learned how to read or write, only speak. When my dad opened this class up, I attended a couple classes and learned how to read and write which I am extremely grateful for,” she said by email.

Ecsile Chang now lives in Las Vegas where she’s in dental school. Being able to read and write has been useful with Korean patients, she said. Her husband, Dennis Achman Jr., was also a student at the school. Achman, who isn’t Korean, met Chang when they were students at Lathrop High School. He learned some Korean so he could better communicate with her family and better understand their culture.

Small school

The Korean Language School of Fairbanks consists of an office and a classroom in the basement of the Arctic Bowl building. The building houses Korean businesses Seoul Gate restaurant and the Seoul Market grocery store. I always leave class with a faint smell of pickled kimchee vegetables, a strong smell that, fortunately, I enjoy.

The classroom holds four tables and is decorated with posters that teach the alphabet and basic vocabulary, illustrated with colorful drawings of fruits, vegetables and household items.

In the adult class I take, each Saturday at 1 p.m., the teachers often instruct multiple lessons at once, explaining the Korean hangul alphabet to first-time students on one white-board, while reviewing vocabulary or grammar with more advanced students on another white board. The school’s other classes are also on Saturday. There’s a 10 a.m. children’s class and a 3 p.m. mixed-age class.

The school has two teachers, Gyu Ri Kim and Danny Kim. They’re not related. The Kim surname is the most popular surname in South Korea, where about 20 percent of the population is named Kim. Gyu Ri is from Seoul and has been in Alaska for a little over a year.

Most of my classes have been with Danny Kim, a Fort Wainwright soldier who works as a mechanic on the Army’s eight-wheeled Stryker vehicles. He speaks both Korean and English well after having moved from Daegu, South Korea to Peachtree City, Georgia when he was 11. He fills in cultural details about Korea and about the Army as he works his way through grammar lessons.

For example, on the day we studied family tree words, Danny covered the board with vocabulary. Where in English there’s one word for uncle, in Korean the word depends on whether it’s a maternal or paternal uncle and whether the uncle is one’s father’s older or younger brother. There are more and less formal ways to say mother and father and also different honorific words for common words like “name” and “word” when addressing someone like a family member more formally. The more formal ways of speaking are important to learn, he explained, although in his exceptionally-informal family, they hardly ever use them.

Easy alphabet, hard language

The hangul alphabet is a point of cultural pride in Korea. It’s another factor that drew me to study Korean. When I was in Seoul last year, I visited a museum devoted to the hangul script on the grounds of the National Museum of Korean.

Until the 15th century, Koreans used Chinese characters call hanja to write the Korean language. That changed during the reign of King Sejong the Great, when the new writing system was devised in order to make literacy more accessible. The symbols are simple by design, so that, in the words of the document that introduced the language “a wise man can acquaint himself with them before the morning is over; a stupid man can learn them in the space of ten days.”

At the Fairbanks Korean school, we learned the 24 modern hangul characters in our first afternoon. On subsequent weeks we learned common verb tenses and vocabulary for talking about life in Alaska.

It’s been hard to pin down what part of the Korean language is the most challenging. A few obvious choices are the numerous grammatical constructions for different levels of politeness, the languages’ two independent number systems (one Chinese-based and one Korean), and a sentence word order that is nothing like English.

The school doesn’t promise to make students proficient in Korean, as no language program that meets once per week should.

The point, according to Chang, “is to provide (students) with the basics and foundation of where to start.”

My studies have been part in class and part using smartphone apps. In particular I’ve enjoyed the audio-based learning program Pimsleur, a flashcard app call Memrise, and some free online classes on the website learnkoreanlanguage.com.

These are useful tools, but there’s nothing like having a real, live teacher when you need feedback on pronouncing a tricky vowel.


Information from: Fairbanks (Alaska) Daily News-Miner, https://www.newsminer.com

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