Field Notes

For a backyard linguist, every day in a foreign country is field day.

One of my favorite things to talk about with foreigners is language learning, because each language has its own unique quirks, quirks which change depending on the learner's background.

Yesterday, my language partner and I compared notes on the differences in pronunciation between Korean and English. If you take a word like NIMBY ("not in my backyard"), which also exists as the English loanword 님비 in Korean, it's easy to write off the pronunciation as identical in both languages. Unlike other loanwords like 카페 (meaning café, but pronounced "kape" because Korean lacks the F sound), 님비 requires no substitution of consonants or vowels. But even though all the sounds are "the same," the words don't sound the same. If you listen to someone pronounce the word NIMBY, you can easily identify their accent as English or Korean. How? One reason: the Korean N is formed somewhat differently than in English. Rather than flicking the tongue against the roof of the mouth, to pronounce the Korean letter ㄴ, you rasp your tongue against your front teeth. From a physical standpoint, it feels more like a D or L.

My language partner and I also talked about a grammar point that continually frustrates those who study English: definite and indefinite articles. The other day my host dad asked me about this, too: What is the difference between to catch a bus and to catch the bus? I explained that the difference is very small, but that using the definite article the tends to suggest that the specific bus is already known or decided, whereas catching a bus seems to emphasize a choice between the bus and some other mode of transportation. Compare:

"If you want to catch the bus, you'll need to leave early." (Using a here would be unidiomatic.)

"Since it's only two of us, should we take a bus instead of driving?" (In this case the could also work, but the indefinite article softens the suggestion, and emphasizes that the speaker has no strong preference.)

English idioms often exploit the softness of a and the resoluteness of the for effect. Compare the expressions a quiet life and the good life: both refer to desirable lifestyles, but in slightly different tones. A quiet life is a humble life away from the city and the stresses of the workplace. The indefinite article a suggests that the quiet life is just one life among many, unassuming and content to be left undisturbed. The notion of a quiet life holds a high degree of nostalgic appeal—nostalgic because such a life is imagined as taking place inaccessibly away from the speaker, either in the past:

"Sometimes I wonder if those folktale peasants had it best, living a quiet life, day by day."

Or the future:

"All I want to do is retire and live a quiet life, fishing and hiking all by myself."

Sometimes we also refer to it as the quiet life, with no major change in meaning. But the good life and a good life have quite different connotations. The good life is usually a sarcastic remark, used to criticize someone who has surrounded themselves with material extravagance with utter imprudence and disregard for their personal relationships:

"While I'm here putting food on the table and taking Mom to her chemo appointments, my brother's off living the good life in Las Vegas like he doesn't have a care in the world."

By contrast, a good life is simply that—a desirable life, defined in whatever terms the speaker wishes:

"I'm not going to college so I can be extremely rich or anything. I just want to live a good life, meet a good girl—the sorts of things Mom never got the chance to do."

These are the sorts of nuances that native speakers tend to gloss over. I don't need to think about how to speak English because I think in English.

Of course, taking a moment to step back (zoom in?) and look at the elements that make up language is a valuable thing. It can even teach us more about our own native language! As my partner told me at the end of our conversation: 언어 배우기엔 끝이 없다. There's no end in language learning.