I sometimes wonder what it’s going to be like for me, language-wise, when I’m no longer in Korea. It only struck me recently just how many Korean words I naturally throw into my everyday speech these days, to the extent where they come more naturally to me than the equivalent English words. Most of them started out as something I or one of my friends did jokingly, but they gradually caught on and became part of our vocabulary. Want to know how to talk to me next time you see me? Here are some words you can expect to hear!
괜찮아. – Kwen-chan-ah. (It’s OK / Don’t worry about it / No problem.)
This has actually replaced “OK” for most foreigners I know. We don’t say “Don’t worry about it!” if a friend is apologising for something – we say “It’s kwen-chan-ah!”. We don’t say “It’s no problem!” when someone’s thanking us gratefully – we say “It’s kwen-chan-ah!”. We don’t say “I’m fine” if we’ve been upset and are trying to brush it off – we say “It’s kwen-chan-ah!”. What’s that you say? You don’t get why we would do this? Ah well, it’s kwen-chan-ah!
헐! – Hall! (Difficult to translate expression of disbelief)
Most of us learned this one from our students. They would all make this strange noise when we said “…now, for homework…”, or “test time!”, that to the untrained ear sounded a bit like a depressed moan. When you’ve heard it enough, you realise that it’s actually a word – it’s an exclamation of surprise or disbelief according to most sources I can find online. Like “OMG!” or “I can’t believe you just said that!”. However, in the context we teachers most often hear it, it’s definitely more about dismay… “Are you freakin’ kidding me?!”
주세요. – __________ joo-say-yo. (Give me ___________, please.)
This one confuses me, as it’s often translated as “please” but actually means something closer to “give me”. I’m not entirely sure that you’re meant to use it as “please” in any other context. Of course, that doesn’t stop us from doing so anyway. I had one friend tell me to shut up, and then add a polite “joo-say-yo”. It’s also a very useful word in restaurants, because there’s an unlimited supply of most things on the table, and you just have to ask for more if you want the plate refilled. Kimchi joo-say-yo! Bap (rice) joo-say-yo!
진짜?! – Chin-cha?! (Really?! Seriously?!)
This is one of my favourite Korean words. I only realised recently just how often I ask “Really?!” in conversations now, in places where before I would just have nodded or said “right” or “I see”. The Korean response is always much more surprised-sounding, and they manage to work “진짜?!” into just about every verbal exchange. From “I was taken aboard an alien spacecraft last night.” Chin-cha?! to “I’m having rice for dinner.” Chin-cha?! there is no difference in the level of surprise in the question. It’s quite cute, and also fun to say.
없어요. – Ops-aw-yo. (It doesn’t exist / There isn’t any / It’s not here / about a million other similar meanings)
Another of my favourites, but I don’t need to write anything about it here, because I once wrote a whole post about it.
어떻게? Aw-taw-kay? (How? / What? / Why? / What on earth…?!)
This one literally means “how?” and is used as such, but as with many Korean words, it’s often used to convey something slightly different, too. I’ve found it to be something of a surprised, frustrated, or confused exclamation. Examples? Kids will often moan “Awww, aw-taw-kayyyyyy?” when confronted with a confusing topic in their books. The cooking lady at school gasped “Oh, aw-taw-kay?!” when Alex spilled boiling water on me last week and I gave a very loud, very startling scream. The Korean teachers murmur “Aw-taw-kay?” when they’re a bit confused about what the foreign teachers are trying to ask them.
빨리 빨리! – Bally-bally! (Quickly! / Hurry!)
My favourite usage of this was when some of us were coming home from Busan a couple of months ago, and decided to have our own version of The Amazing Race in order to settle an argument about whether it was faster to take a taxi or the subway to the train station. In high spirits and fits of giggles, my team flagged down a taxi and piled in excitedly, determined to win. Yawk! (Station!) we announced in a somewhat chaotic manner to the surprised taxi driver, amidst much chatter. And, um… bally-bally, joo-say-yo! added South African Friend Three with more confidence than the sentence probably deserved. The driver laughed, and obligingly ran several sets of lights for us as we cheered in delight. Result!
The problem with all this is that while it’s fun (and useful) for us to throw these words into our conversations, it does become a bit too natural after a while. We’re not supposed to speak Korean to the children, but sometimes it just slips out, now that it’s natural to respond “Chin-cha?!” or “Kwen-chan-ah!”! And when we do, we instantly regret it, because they are super-excited by the fact that we know one of their words. They shriek and they laugh and they yell. Teacher, Korean speaking? One more time, one more time!! All you can do is pretend not to hear them, bite your tongue, and try to move on before they have you repeating random Korean words like some sort of performing monkey.
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