Thursday, April 14, 2011

English Loan Words in Korean: A Bus Stop Story

One thing I’ve noticed TheFry doing in his language acquisition adventure is categorizing loan words in a very different way than I expected.

Let me explain this further for a minute. The Korean language (as used in South Korea) is full of English loan words. Many everyday objects are words taken straight from English with a Koreanized (or “Konglish”, as many of my students would say) pronunciation. Off the top of my head, I can think of these: bus, heart, truck, pink, pizza, chicken nuggets, cheeseburger, spaghetti, taxi. Yes, many of these items are food or transportation-related nouns, and it certainly doesn’t stop there – this is just the kind of vocabulary that’s infiltrated TheFry’s life right now.

Now, as a monolingual speaker of English, I tend to recognize the loan words as being English words borrowed into the Korean lexicon, and not separate members of the Korean lexicon. As my undergraduate studies in linguistics will refresh my memory, this is not necessarily the way that native speakers of Korean, especially monolingual Korean speakers, will think of such words. Anyhow, I had neglected to remember this when TheFry’s Korean and English lexicons began to form and appear in public. One particular incident brought all of this to the forefront of my mind:

We were standing at the bus stop and waiting, as we generally do on Saturdays, to go into Seoul or grocery shopping – I don’t remember which. We were all alone at the bus stop at first, and TheFry was chirping “Bus! Bus!” as he usually does, because he can’t say a word just once and leave it at that. Soon we were joined by other would-be passengers, and one lady in particular greeted us. TheFry refused to be greeted, protesting “No, thank you! No, thank you!” and hiding his face in my neck. Then, out of the blue, he turned to the lady and shouted “beoseu! beoseu!”

I had to laugh out loud. TheFry had perfectly differentiated the two words in pronunciation and usage. One thing he has managed to do since a very early moment in his acquisition of Korean and English is to distinguish to whom he speaks each language. In general, he uses English with his family members and other people that he knows will understand English, and he uses Korean with everyone else. So, he had distinguished the English word “bus” from the Korean word “beoseu” without any trouble.

This little anecdote reminds me that TheFry, as a native speaker of Korean, has acquired what I would call “loan words” as Korean words, and they appear to fall naturally into his Korean lexicon, separate from the English words from which they are derived. Those English words, in turn, appear to fall into his English lexicon, and are separate in form, but not in meaning, from their Korean equivalents. I will need to do more research to see if this is a common phenomenon, and if it indeed happens as I think it does, so if anyone has any pertinent information, please feel free to share. ^_^

I wonder how he will come to think of such words as he grows older. I can only assume that he will come to think of such words as loan words from English, although not English words – much in the same way Spanish loan words and phrases (i.e., “burrito”, “hasta la vista”) are recognized as being not native to English by many, if not most, English monolinguals. However, there is a chance he could still see them as distinct forms of separate languages (a similar example from Spanish would be “barbecue”, from barbacoa). It will be interesting to see how he thinks about and uses English loan words as he grows up.