Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Weekly G-Spot 5: Demystifying your age

Sorry to my 1 or 2 regular readers who missed the G-Spot for the last couple of weeks. Vacation time always makes it harder to come into the office.

This weeks G-spot is not so much a grammar moment, it is a moment to reflect on an aspect of culture that creates great confusion between Koreans and Non-Koreans; the answer to the question: "How old are you?"

I have often said that if I could teach one thing to every Korean who ever learned English it would be this:

When someone asks you your age in English; answer with the English standard. When someone asks you your age in Korean, answer with the Korean standard.

Since I have lived in Korea, the question of age has always plagued me. Rather than being able to ask a simple question, I have to ask at least two questions to find out how old someone really is. Koreans count their age at birth as '1 year' and move up to '2 years' at the next Lunar New Year. So, it is possible that in this year (2008) a child born on 6 February would be 2 years old on 7 February of the same year and would rise to 3 years on the following Lunar New Year's day. For most people the disparity is not this severe but the fact that you age is likely to be 1 to 2 years different can cause several problems.

The issue of age in Western culture is important at certain times of one's life and there are times when knowing a person's exact age is very important. For example, at the age of 18, we are considered adults and, among other things, are allowed to vote in most places. But NOT if election day falls before our 18th birthday. When we turn 21, we are allowed to drink alcohol legally. But not at 11pm on the night before our 21st birthday. Everyone's birthday is a very important day because it signifies the changing of your age. For Koreans, everyone changes their age on the same date; Lunar New Year's Day. So everyone in the same grade is the same age most of the time. A 'Chingu' or friend can only be someone who is the same age. Birthdays, while still celebrated, do not carry the same significance as they do in western culture (they even put the wrong number of candles on the cake!). But age is still very important to everyday life and most Koreans can tell you their age....or can they?

When I ask someone in English, "How old are you?" The normal response would be "I am XX years old." I would know someone's age in years. However, when I ask a Korean the same question, it must be followed by "Is that Korean age or 'western' age?" or "Is that in Korean years or 'real' years ?" (If I want to be a bit of a smart ass). Because you can never really know if a Korean speaker of English will respond with their 'correct' age or not.

So, how do we avoid this problem? We really can't. Probably, we will continue to wrestle with the question of 'age' when speaking with Koreans in Korea. However, what about Koreans living in America? How do they answer the question of age when they speak English?what about when they speak Korean?

What makes sense is to answer according to the culture of the language. If someone ask my daughter in Korean? "Myeot Sal e ay yo?" She would answer, "Yeoseot Sal imnida" but if someone asked her in English the same question. "How old are you?" then you would answer "I'm 5 years old." It works for my 5 year old (6살) daughter and myself, it can work for you to.

But it can be confusing for Koreans to tell their age in English. Many do not think about their age in English and will answer it quickly by translating the number rather than taking the time to think about the month they were born. There is a simple way to calculate your age in English that works for most people (those whose birthdays fall between New Years Day and Lunar New Year's Day may have some calculation troubles for a few days out of a year). You only need to know if your birthday has passed for the current calendar year and assume your 'Korean age' changed on January 1st (many Koreans do this anyway.) Just think:

Did have my birthday this year?
If YES, then subtract 1 year from your Korean age and say that number for your 'age.'
If No, then subtract 2 years from your Korean age and say that number for your 'age.'

As a disclaimer, I mention again. The calculation seems to be a bit more confusing if you are calculating the answer between Jan 1 and Lunar New Year's Day (late Jan-early Feb) for a person who was born around the same time of year. But this method seems to work for most of my students who can easily calculate their true 'age' using this method. Any comments or suggestions are welcome.


EFL Geek said...

Looks like your daughter and mine are similar ages. Mine will turn 6 (7살) next month.

Fencerider said...

something else in common eh:)
One of these days when I'm brave enough to visit seoul....i'll have to look you up.:)

EFL Geek said...

you're in Daegu, right? I have in-laws down that way and the next time I head there will be sure to contact you. Who knows maybe around Lunar New year...

Fencerider said...

Unfortunately, I'll be in Busan...where MY in-laws live during sollal:)
but, i'll probably be in seoul someday soon...i have some business to do up there sometime in the near future.

Kim said...

Hey, it's a small world. My daughter is 6 (American). I always use the excuse for the Korean age thing to really puzzle Americans when they ask me how old I am. Since I'm adopted, the age I was given was the age the Koreans thought I was. It was never changed and so now I tell people I am XX years old, or thereabouts. In all reality, I am about 2 years younger then I really am.

Anonymous said...

I don't think you do Koreans any favors by humoring the "Korean age" concept, which doesn't travel and even sows confusion even in Korea. I always respond to that by saying "there's no such thing as Korean age. When were you born?"

EFL Geek said...

For the record, Korea is not the only country that counts age in this manner. Another blogger I follow talked about this same thing in Greece where many expats have the same comments that we do here in Korea.

Fencerider said...

another matter is that of cultural sensitivity. I'm not trying to 'humor' the concept of Korean age, it is what it is and I cannot change how Korean's choose to count their is an important part of THEIR culture. However, responding to the question of age outside of Korea and when speaking in English needs to be addressed and it would be nice to ask someone their age and not have to follow it up with questions to make sure. Could be important if (and not that i'm in the market, obviously) you were dealing with someone who said they were "18" but they were actually 16 you could be looking at serious problems both legally and morally.

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