Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Who is Sohn Ho-min (손호민)?

Tonight I came across THIS ARTICLE on Professor Sohn Ho-min (손호민), who was one of my professors at the University of Hawaii (UH), where I graduated with Bachelor of Arts degree in the Korean Language and Literature in August 1982. Actually, the major on my diploma reads "Liberal Studies (Korean Language and Literature)" because at the time there was no formal BA degree in Korean Language and Literature at UH, but under the Liberal Studies program, I was allowed to create my own, with the approval of Professor Sohn Ho-min, who was the head of the Korean Language & Literature section/department at the time. The major was so new that I was told that I was the first person to graduate with a Korean Language and Literature degree from UH, which I think was the first university in the United States to offer such a degree, or maybe I am wrong. I just remember that I went to Hawaii because I could not find any other place in the United States that offered a degree in Korean Language and Literature, or maybe I chose it because of the beaches.

Professor Sohn was one of the nicest people I have ever met. He seemed always to be in a good mood, always smiling or laughing, and a very easy-going professor. I remember taking a class in Selective Readings in Korean with him, in which everyone except me were graduate Linguistic majors from Korea. The Koreans spoke English, but not very well, and my Korean was worse than their English, even though I was in my senior year at the time, but Professor Sohn lectured in English, so I had the advantage, though he allowed the Koreans to ask him questions in Korean. There were no strict guidelines for the class, so it was basically a discussion group that covered all kinds of topics centered around Korean linguistics, of which I knew very little. I remember one of the Korean students saying in Korean that Americans could not pronounce the name of the city of Taegu correctly, so Professor Sohn immediately looked at me as say, "Can you pronounce it?" Luckily I understood what had been asked and said, "Taegu," pronouncing it correctly, which caused Professor Sohn to laugh and say, "See! They can pronounce it." The Korean student then sheepishly said, "Well, most of them can't."

Honestly, I did not learn very much Korean at the University of Hawaii, even though I studied very hard. I was only there for about a year and a half because I transferred from the community college in my hometown. I had to take a Korean language placement test, which placed me in the second semester of third-year Korean. I was able to do that because I had studied some Korean in the navy. The problem at the University of Hawaii was that they used Korean graduate students from Korea, who had no teaching experience, to teach the Korean Language classes. The classes were small and filled mainly with Korean-American students whose Korean was as bad or worse than mine, but the Korean graduate student teaching us did not know the techniques for teaching a conversation class, and he was also not very good at explaining the grammar. He basically just had us take turns reading and answering the questions from the book, very boring. He would give us the correct answer, but would not or could not explain why it was the correct answer. Of the three semesters of Korean Language I took at UH, only the first one was good because a native Korean professor from the Japanese Department taught it and knew what she was doing. Unfortunately, she only taught it for that one semester.

Korean graduate students taught the Korean language classes, Professor Sohn taught the Directed and Selective Reading classes, and Professor Peter H. Lee taught the Literature classes. Professor Lee was another very nice man, but he had a very laid-back teaching style, especially since there were only three or four of us in his class. In fact, the classes was so small that he taught them in his office. He would have us take turns reading aloud and then ask if we had any questions. The problem was that none of us really knew enough to ask questions. He would give us the readings in advance so that we could go over them before the next class, giving us a chance to read them and mark the places we didn't understand. That was essentially how he taught his classes.

I got the feeling the Korean Language program at the University of Hawaii in 1981/82 was not ready for non-native, undergraduate Korean language study. Professor Sohn and Professor Lee were obviously very knowledgeable, but their teaching style was more geared to teaching native Korean speakers, not people trying to learn to speak the language. After graduating from the UH, I immediately traveled to Korea and started studying at the Yonsei University Korean Language Institute, where I learned more in three months than I learned in a year and a half at the University of Hawaii.

I suspect that the Korean language program at UH is much better today than it was when I went there, and I suspect that Professor Sohn has had a lot to do with that, but, unfortunately, I was there when the program was not really a program, but rather just a few classes put together with duct tape and safety pins. Nevertheless, Professor Sohn was a pioneer, and I am still grateful for his kindness and what he did for me.

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