I’m Not Sure You Can Claim to Speak the Language If You Don’t Know “I’m Sorry”

“Do you speak Korean?”

I hate that question.

I have no idea how to quantify it, so I usually say, “I speak enough Korean to get myself in and out of trouble.” Or, “I speak enough Korean to deal with my mother-in-law when my husband’s not around.” Or, “I’m studying, but I’m not very good.”

I qualify things like that so I don’t end up looking like the chick we ran into on the way home from the airport, on the Super Shuttle. I don’t usually pay attention if people claim to speak a language but really don’t. This time, I had to bite my cheek to keep from laughing.

There was some girl that the driver seemed to know. He was chatting with her about her trip (she’d gone to Japan).

He asked if she spoke any Japanese and she said she did when her father was alive, her husband spoke Japanese, and she knew a lot of slangy Japanese from her family in Japan and she could communicate with them.

OK, so I was sort of eavesdropping, of course, because they were the only people speaking, so it was hard not to, and because a white-looking girl speaking any Asian language is unusual.

So the driver asked her how to say “thank you” in Japanese.

And she couldn’t tell him.

He asked her how to say “excuse me” or “I’m sorry,” and she couldn’t tell him.

He said a friend had taught him some phrases. He’d say them and she’d say she wasn’t sure because she didn’t really know how to say it. She kept sort of pronouncing things and then claiming she didn’t know the phonics.

The lyrics “domo arigato, Mr Roboto” kept running through my head and I wondered what she and her family “communicated” about.

Since she was failing at Japanese, she said she spoke French. Apparently she didn’t know the driver’s native language was French. So he started speaking French to her.

“Well, you know, I haven’t studied it in a long time,” she said, “but I know Spanish, too.”

So he switched to Spanish. You can guess the outcome of that.

It was a little embarrassing to witness.

One thought on “I’m Not Sure You Can Claim to Speak the Language If You Don’t Know “I’m Sorry”

  1. Comment from: Diana [Visitor] · http://www.going-places-blog.com/
    You made my day. This kind of conversation happens to me ALL the time. It’s never less funny.
    08/13/10 @ 10:00

    Comment from: jason [Visitor] · http://www.mississippitokorea.com/
    Great story! I use the same line. “I know enough Korean to get me in trouble.” Lately, we have been meeting a lot of new Koreans and one of their first questions is always “How much Korean do you know?” I would much rather downplay my ability than pretend that I know more than I really do. Under promise-over deliver!~

    The question that still throws me for a loop is when I am sitting with a group of Koreans and they ask what percentage of the conversation I understand. By using my limited vocabulary, context clues, and body language I usually have a good clue about the conversation but hate to say I understand 50% or 80%.
    08/13/10 @ 11:34

    Comment from: david [Visitor]
    What is wrong with saying “I don’t know” Some people.
    08/13/10 @ 11:44

    Comment from: ellipsisknits [Visitor]
    Too funny!

    I think I know more Japanese than that from watching subtitled movies. There is *no way* I would say I could speak it.

    I was going to try to give her some credit for being under pressure and out of practice, but you said she just got back. She must have last heard someone say ‘I’m sorry’, what, 24 hours ago? Less?

    My favorite Japanese phrase is ‘sodaska’ (er, forgive spelling/word breaks). A group of us once overheard one end of a friend’s japanese phone conversation that consisted of pretty much nothing but that phrase. By the end, we all had figured out what it meant. (‘I see’, or ‘uh-huh’, or in his case ‘yes mom’)
    08/13/10 @ 12:19

    Comment from: Helena [Visitor] · http://wedoitthehardway.blogspot.com/
    Oh my.
    08/13/10 @ 13:33

    Comment from: admin [Member] Email
    Helena, I left a comment on your site asking about language learning with missionaries. Did you get it?

    EllipsisKnits, Good Man says that all the time. He says it means “is that so?” Yep, I you figured out what it meant!

    David, I know. I would’ve just said, “No, I don’t know any Japanese.”

    Jason, I know exactly what you meant. Eating chicken with Good Man’s high school friends, I understood quite a bit more than when I was in the deep South at the funeral. It was probably a combination of subject matter, nerves, and accent.

    Diana, I don’t usually run into people who claim to speak languages but don’t–at least not in America.

    Everyone, there was a part of the story I left out. Right before we got in the van, I asked Good Man about some vocab in my book. The driver asked me what language I was reading. I told him Korean and that was that.

    We were the first ones dropped off. When he was handing us our bags, we thanked him. He asked me (not Good Man, which was funny) how to say “thank you” in Korean. I know that for people who’ve never spoken Korean, those five syllables are hard. I said it slowly for him just once and he repeated it back perfectly. Accented, but perfectly. That driver was not someone you bragged to about false language skills! (He was also reading Noam Chomsky between pickups, which I found interesting because I don’t often run into people reading Chomsky for fun.)
    08/13/10 @ 17:57

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