Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Linguistic Milestones

The other day on my way home from work, I passed by a crazy guy on the street and realized something amazing - I understood what he was saying!

This is a big deal for me, because I have long considered understanding the rants of crazy street people to be a sort of holy grail of achievement in language learning. When I was in Japan, this was one of the very last classes of people that I eventually gained the capacity to understand. Even in the US they can be a challenge for me - they tend to mumble, and what they're saying often doesn't follow a logical sequence. Thus, as a student of foreign languages, I privately consider that when I can comprehend one of these unfortunate people speaking in a certain language, I can consider myself nearly fluent in that language.

There have been many false calls for me here in Korea, due to the growing prevalence of handless cellphones and tiny ear-pieces. Many times I have overheard someone apparently engaged in impassioned conversation with himself, and started to get all self-congratulatory, only to belatedly spot a dangling cord or a tiny device hooked around his ear and realize that he's merely a sane person talking on the phone.

But I got a good look at this guy, and with his neat buzz cut there was no way he could have had any sort of device hidden in his ear. He also displayed the telltale mannerisms, the shifty eyes and slightly sheepish grin. In the few seconds as he passed by I could understand him very clearly: he was saying something about how "In May it's all completely different." I'm not sure what that was about, but the point is, I understood him.

Over the years I studied Japanese, I developed a distinct set of benchmarks for measuring my listening comprehension. The sequence of categories can be listed as follows, from easiest to hardest:

LevelPeople I can understand
BeginnerJapanese teacher
Other foreigners speaking Japanese
Advanced BeginnerSmall children
Simple questions from cashiers and shop clerks
TV news anchors
Look Mom, no hands!Conversations between educated, clear-speaking adults
Commercial jingles
Really getting good nowPop song lyrics
Soap operas
Elderly people from the city
Borderline awesomeElderly people from the countryside
Announcements on loudspeakers
Move on to next languageCrazy people talking to themselves

I expected my Korean comprehension to proceed along a similar sequence. So I was surprised to have understood the gentleman, because I still am far from being able to understand Korean comedians or elderly people from the countryside. I'm not ready to grant myself "fluent" status yet in Korean, and I'm certainly not about to move on to a new language anytime soon, so I'll have to consider this instance an "outlier." It seems likely that this was a particularly clear-spoken individual, or I just happened to catch him in a fairly lucid moment.

After thinking about it for a bit, another explanation occurred to me: Perhaps that guy was actually another foreigner like me, and it was the process of learning Korean that drove him crazy.

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