WHY? (Beyond Konglish, how some communication between Korean and English flops)

2013-03-27 14.40.28So, I injured my left knee about two weeks ago and after getting my MRI on Monday, but before my surgery on Thursday, I was able to get myself to work for Tuesday and Wednesday. Sporting a pair of crutches for the first time in my life, I hobbled along to my elementary school, leaving extra early for two reasons: I wanted to give myself extra time as I was moving slow and I wanted to avoid as many kids as possible, certain they would all be asking me what had happened?

And that’s what we would say in English, right? “Oh, Brian, you hurt your leg? What happened?” In Korean, this would translate as: “아이고 브라이언! 다리 다쳤어요? 왜 그랬어요?” The phrase 왜 그래요? means “why that way?”

Well, on my way to school on that first morning, I did encounter my first student who stopped in my tracks, wide eyed and slack-jawed–in utter disbelief perhaps that the superhuman Foreign Teacher was susceptible to injury. After a moment, I could almost see his brain untangling sets of learned English patterns, could almost see him searching for the right question to inquire about my injury. But, as is often the case when learning a foreign language, when put on the spot, the best response often just isn’t there. I would have accepted any of the following:

1) “Mr. Van Hise, what happened to your leg?”

2) “Mr. Van Hise, what happened?”

3) “What happened?”

Instead, the 6th grade boy just stood there and said: “Why?”


I was stuck for an answer. How to answer? Why did I hurt my leg? Was he looking for a perverted, malicious reason that I might have willingly and maniacally chosen to injure myself? And if so, did he expect to understand any response that would explain such an intent? “Why did I injure my leg, you ask? Well, you see, I like getting kinky with knitting needles and sometimes, when a man is feeling lonely…”

Ok, so he really meant to say: “What happened?” not “Why?”, so I understood his intended concern, but I only responded: “I just did. Just hurt my knee.” He didn’t seem to care much about my answer, and soon he had run off to rejoin his friends on our schoolyard’s 200 meter track.

So, in Korean, instead of saying the full phrase: 왜 그랬어요? (What happened?), they can sometimes shorten it to simply: 왜?  This word by itself, and out of additional context, simply translates to: “Why?” However in my case, the missing “그랬어요?” makes their question “Why?” in English seem like an awkward, hanging insult: “Why would you hurt your knee? That’s stupid.” is how I took it.

Learning languages and hearing them translated back with various misunderstood nuances can be fun and aggravating at the same time.

I carried on, past the playground that morning and within another few seconds could sense a car sneaking up behind me. I pivoted myself to the side, to let the car pass, probably looking lonely and helpless as my huge foreigner body hung from the thin metal crutches, adjusted earlier to their maximum reach for my apparent giant-like body.

In the driver’s seat was Mrs. Lee, my main English co-teacher from last year. I brightened at seeing her, as I’d been meaning to stop by her new office and catch up with her this new semester.

But, obvious panic struck her face.

She gave me the once over.

“Oh, Brian! Why?”

2013-03-27 13.57.24

This entry was posted in 한국어 Korean language, Korea. Bookmark the permalink.

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