Monday, December 14, 2009

Korean alphabet.

Man, we didn't exactly put our best foot forward in creating the English alphabet, did we? I know firsthand what it's like to try to teach a child the English alphabet.

Korean Alphabet Hangul

"Okay, this little guy is called an "E" and he says a lot of different things. Sometimes he says his name /ee/, sometimes he changes a preceding vowel from short to long so long as the word is relatively small, and his friends "C" and "I" don't get along so he has to stand in between them so they don't fight, but if "C" isn't there, "I" likes to be in front of "E" because "I" is bossy. And please note that when "E" is next to "R", he is controlled by "R" because "R" is even more pushy than "I". Oh, and sometimes "E" says nothing at all. Come to think of it, most of the time "E" likes to sit down; when he does that he looks different but sounds the same. Don't worry, it's only the most frequently used letter in the alphabet so you'll be seeing it quite often. Questions?"

The English alphabet has 26 letters divided into 5 vowels and 21 consonants....wait...not exactly. "Y" is sometimes a vowel. So then 6 vowels....well, actually, "W" sometimes acts like a vowel too......English has 26 letters, 알았지?

The Korean alphabet has 24 letters divided into 10 vowels and 14 consonants. Really, that's it? There must be something wrong. No crazy exceptions? Well there are some, but there are relatively obscure and rare - the few high-frequency words that contain them are easy enough to remember simply because of their colloquial use.

The Korean alphabet (and language for that matter) is the only one in the world to have a (somewhat debated) date of origin - AD 1446. Although bitterly opposed at first and even almost eradicated, 한글 is alive and well today and enjoys even its own day - October 9th.

Well, ummm, English has a really catchy song! What? it has the same melody of "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star"? Copyright infringe much, Mr. Alphabet?

Speaking of which, there has been a strong push by many early childhood educators in America to lengthen a specific portion of the Alphabet song in order to make it more clear for young learners. The part in question is the ♪♪ ...L,M,N,O... ♪♪ part which many times becomes ♪♪ Ellemino ♪♪ - its own new Franken-letter!

I wonder how long did it take my fellow students to learn 한 글? I mean the basics - not including super fast visual recognition but simple, time-constraint-free letter recognition? For me, it took a little longer than most - 3 days (하! try learning the English alphabet in the same amount of time). Most people I've met learned it well enough to sound out all vowels (simple and compound) and consonants with minimal errors in 2 days time.

I can say for me that the most confusing part of learning 한글 was the shear logical nature of it. What I mean is, the names of each 자모 correspond to how they are pronounced at either the beginning or end of the cluster. Has anyone ever seriously sat down and thought about how insanely smart that is? Even moreso, the letters were originally designed to mimic the physical shape that our mouth makes when producing the sound (although ㄹ is a bit questionable).

I don't mean to turn the English Alphabet into the red-headed stepchild of the linguistic world - but it kind of is. It was scraped together from various Latin, Greek, Anglo-Saxon roots. Furthermore, it developed simultaneously in different regions and thus incorporated different ways of spelling and saying the same thing (think 제주도 사투리). And some letters got 86'ed altogether.

Although traditionally Korea boasts a slightly higher countrywide literacy rate when compared to America, currently the difference is negligible - wavering around the 99% range. Not bad Korea. Excellent work America!!! You really put in the hard work!

My father-in-law once answered my question of "Why do young children in Korea learn English?" with "Because after 3rd grade, there's no more Korean to learn!". While I partially agree with him, it does make you wonder just how much more there is to learn for college students who study contemporary English.