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Hangeul, beautiful and amazing Korean alphabet

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By Yi Woo-won

Hangeul, the writing system of the Korean language, was created by King Sejong the Great and his scholars in 1443. The excellence of Hangeul began to be recognized by many prominent Western linguists belatedly in the 1960s. The Korean alphabet, comprised of 14 basic consonants and 10 vowels, was extolled as perhaps the simplest, most logical and most scientific writing system in the world.

Oct. 9 is a holiday declared as "Hangeul Day." It was the day when the writing system was officially promulgated by King Sejong to promote literacy among the people.

There are popular sayings to convince people how easy it is to learn the written symbols of Hangeul. One of them is, "A wise man can become acquainted with them before the morning is over, so even a stupid man can learn them in the space of 10 days."

I'm proud of myself to be one of those who taught Hangeul to foreign students earlier than others. One afternoon in the fall of 1965, I was absolutely delighted when the director of the Education Center at Camp Carroll in Waegwan, North Gyeongsang Province, asked me if I could teach Korean language to his soldiers. It was one of the undergraduate courses offered by the University of Maryland at its Korea campus. I was in my mid-30s then, teaching English at a college in Daegu.

In order to evaluate my qualifications for teaching fully accredited college courses, I had some interviews and tests lined up at Yonsei University in Seoul, which had affiliations with the university. But I was shamefully unprepared for teaching Korean grammar, although I might have been able to teach some English grammar instead. Hurriedly, I went out to look for grammar books in bookstores, finally buying a few copies, and then gave myself a crash course over the weekend.

On that morning of my interview at Yonsei University, I was interviewed briefly by a female professor and she left me with a test on Korean grammar to complete. I was glad that she didn't mention anything to me about my local dialect from Daegu. Fortunately again, when I glanced at the test, I thought I could answer 5 of the total 6 questions on it. I was lucky so far.

The second person who interviewed me that afternoon was an American professor who I later learned to be Dr. Horace Grant Underwood III, a prominent scholar and educator. Humorously, he said that he had come to Korea before I did, meaning that he was born in Korea earlier than I. He talked about his lifelong efforts to promote education in his adopted country. Then, suddenly as if he had forgotten about it, he motioned me over to the podium in the classroom where we were and asked me to give a little presentation to him instructing the Korean language as if he were one of the American students.

I was embarrassed and a bit annoyed because it was unanticipated. But I didn't have much choice. I took a deep breath, trying to be relaxed and upbeat. Then I proceeded to teach a Korean language class, which I had never done in my life before. I did it confidently and in a lively manner, just like I had been doing with English for many years in college. I thought I had talked no more than 15 minutes and I was just beginning to warm up, when he stopped me with a smile and said that it was just "fabulous." I was flattered by his compliment.

In the fall of that same year, I taught my first Korean language course, Elementary Korean 111, for the University of Maryland at Camp Carroll. I had a total of 20 students enrolled in the class: 2 officers, 1 DA civilian and the rest being enlisted men and women in the U.S. Army. They were taking the course out of curiosity or for their college degrees. By the end of the second class, they were all able to read and write Hangeul.

In the mid-1970s, I started teaching Korean Life and Culture, known as KORN 198 and 398, in addition to Intermediate Korean Language, or KORN 112 and 114, for over two decades. I enjoyed teaching these courses and I never lost my enthusiasm or dedication in teaching them. It was a genuine, honorable and gratifying career to have spent my life doing.

Yi Woo-won (
yiwoowon1988@gmail.com) lives in Waegwan, North Gyeongsang Province, and used to write intermittently for the Thoughts of the Times until about 10 years ago.

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