A Korean Student Masters Tagalog: Interview with Jinsoo Choi

I dove into the mass of pillows, blankets, rilakkuma plushies that made up my bed and was thinking about the lazy morning I would have that coming Saturday, when my cellphone rang. It was a friend and organizer of very popular KPop events in Manila. “Hey Niaw! The emcee won’t make it until the afternoon tomorrow! Can you take over as host in the morning of KPOP and Culture Fest?” Despite the short notice, I love hosting events, so I agreed.

Arriving at the event the next morning, I met Jinsoo Choi, my co-host for the morning session. After finding out he’s Korean and wasn’t born in the Philippines, I was shocked by the ease with which he used colloquial Manila-flavored Tagalog, with slang expressions like “SABAW” interspersed into the fluid mix of Tagalog and English that is so characteristic of Manila’s inhabitants. Were it not for his name and distinctive appearance, you would not have known that he isn’t your typical native Manila student.

I decided to interview him about his language learning so that we may extract valuable lessons.

Me: Tell us a bit about your background, like where are you from and what do you do now.

Jinsoo: Hi! =)) I’m from South Korea, and I am a regular student with regular student life with freaking amounts of homework and most of them undone thanks to 9gag. I talk a lot when I do, but when I don’t, I don’t. (Captain Obvious)

Me: Lolz. So, how long have you been in the Philippines? Have you been learning Filipino for the same duration of time?

Jinsoo: I came here July of 2002, so it’s been almost a decade less 6 months. I first learned english with tutor at home, for about 3 months I think, then went to “international” school (that is not the I.S. for rich people, just named such) where everyone spoke tagalog and held their noses up in the air with “OMG dumudugo ilong ko sayo”1 whenever I speak in english. [I] had good memory, so repeated what my classmates said to my tutor, who would tell me what they meant so I had to learn Tagalog from tutor for another 3 months before decent conversation started with my classmates in grade school.

Me: It’s not common to see foreigners who are motivated to learn Tagalog. Why did you learn Tagalog when you could have gotten by without it, given that English is very common here?

Jinsoo: I chose to learn Tagalog because honestly I had the desire to speak to people. As 12 years old (when I came to the philippines) I practically left all my best friends and could-have-been-life-long friends. None of them contact with me anymore. Maybe it was either out of natural instinct as a child to learn a new language, or just out of feeling lonely. =)) So you can say I really thought of the Language as a means to reach to the Filipino, until I found out that most Filipinos are very good in English, and some love, or even “revere” English rather than Filipino. But I still enjoy random Manang or what koreans call “Ahjumma” (Dearly nickname for old ladies, kinda like Madam?) at random places (i.e. Canteen, Payment for tuition, Transaction offices) telling me “Iho, Koreano ka ba? ang galing galing mo naman! pure korean ka ba talaga? [My, are you a korean? You’re so good! [at Filipino] Are you a pure korean?]” and that moment, i feel the person’s tense going away, and i feel the person is more friendly and kinder than usual. *head getting bigger. lelz*

Me: How did you learn? From books, classes, friends, TV?

Jinsoo: 3 months of [Tagalog] tutoring, then stopped. from then on, learned thru sleepless nights of YM with classmates, Filipino class in school, and sometimes people teaching me new words from time to time. Also, one big factor was MOST of my filipino class teachers from Grade 5 til High school 4th year, was ALL STRICT with me. They wanted me to value Filipino language, so I did, by memorizing all those hard words and summarizing in my own words all those Obra Maestra.

Me: What was the biggest difference between your native Korean language and Filipino?

Jinsoo: Biggest difference is that Filipinos are so creative with verbs; prolly everything can be a verb with just the MAG and UM. and unlike korean where every situation, every person you’re talking to, different words to be used and different grammar, Filipinos have it simple, but still can show respect through just “PO” added, and a bit of voice change.

Me: What was the most challenging part of learning Filipino?

Jinsoo: Most of the words used in daily language is undocumented, so can’t be found from the dictionary… and the dictionary doesn’t really help, so I really had to ask different people until I “approximated” what a certain word means. And everyone usually has different answer;;;;;;;;;;;

Me: The Korean language does not natively have the sound for ‘F’ and does not distinguish between ‘L’ and ‘R’. Did that become a problem for you?

Jinsoo: While we don’t have “F” sound, we (koreans) are “soft” speakers; F is actually no problem. What really bogged me was the L and R. What my tutor did was I was forced to do “RRRRR” sound (the so called “HARD” R, the one that’s almost funny like the HAM-BUURR-GERR) for 4~7 meetings. then we practiced together words like “Word; World. Blurt. Hurt. Hurdle.” If I remember right, it took me at least 3 months to approximate perfection with the L and R.

Me: What aspects of the language did you find interesting?

Jinsoo: It’s sometimes confusing to learn “Tagalog” at its core because of Taglish that mixes up the grammars. But usage of taglish really helps me understand better, the context of the sentence AND learn new words (i.e., “Alam mo ba, I fell down kanina, as in natapilok talaga ako, sobrang nakakahiya!” —- can tell natapilok is “fell down”), sometimes it’s confusing when the grammar becomes complex.

Me: Do you have any tips for language learners?

Jinsoo: I guess I can say three things (ang dami! woot)

  1. Immerse in the language – ALL languages, even english, usually the native speakers don’t know much of their own language as well. =)) Just like Americans that can’t tell where “you’re” and “your” should be used. So learners have to go beyond a bit to learn it properly, with grammar lessons and hard work. Native speaker spoke the language ALL THEIR life, so even their error would be acceptable to certain degree- you mostly don’t have that, so u have to know MORE than native speaker, or you won’t learn properly.
  2. Immerse in the culture – Language goes hand in hand with the culture, because it was culture that shaped language as well. If you can’t understand the culture, you can’t understand the whole picture of the language.
  3. Immerse in the people – you can learn (1) and (2) from books, sure, but you can’t be “updated” if you don’t talk to the people, see how they think, speak, express. One example of this is when I did not understand the phrase “‘kaw na.” with repeated usage from people, i understood that it’s an expression that praises you for your awesome work, with a little bit of envy in it, or because you are too boastful of your hard work that you’re annoying. another thing that i ONLY understood after YEARS is the awesome “PA” which can mean millions of things. for example, it’s morning, and u ask a friend “nagawa mo na part mo (sa group homework)?” and he replies “gabi pa.” U freaking wouldnt know if it’s last night, or later tonight (nung gabi pa? o mamayang gabi pa?). those things can’t be acquired in the book, i suppose.

There you go, folks! Inspiring stuff, eh? Thanks Jinsoo!