How I learned Korean

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

This is a post I've been meaning to write for a long time, to serve as a reference for whenever I am asked how I learned Korean. To begin we will need a bit of linguistic background to show where I was just before I began learning it.

My linguistic background until beginning Korean: only English until the age of 18 with the exception of the few years of French all Canadians take in and quickly forget after school, one semester of Japanese in grade 10. At the age of 18 after beginning to work in offices in downtown Calgary and disliking it I decided to learn Japanese to fluency and thereafter devoted my every waking moment to it while still working full time, temporary office jobs. In 1999 I lived in Japan for the first time for almost a year, took the JLPT level 1, failed it by a few points, later took it again in December 2000 when I was living in Vancouver, passed it, returned to Japan in April 2001 (Kurume, near Fukuoka), and began to learn Korean then. I also learned a bit of Estonian in 1998 and lived there for a month.

In short: English mother tongue, a tiny bit of French, a tiny bit of Estonian, and fluent Japanese before beginning Korean. Learning Japanese took a total of three years, and having this base helped me immensely with Korean, more than knowing any other language could have.

First contact

First contact with Korean: this was actually in Vancouver while studying for the JLPT for the second time: while reading a Japanese book about common vocabulary between Japanese and Korean I picked up a few words, as well as hangul, which does not take a great deal of time to learn.

Second contact with Korean: this is when I first began seriously studying the language. I was in Japan for the second time, teaching English to kindergarten students during the day and adults at night, driving around rural Kyushu in the car provided to me by my company. I study languages fairly intensely and as a rule never use English when living in another country where another language is spoken, and by my second time living in Japan there was continually less and less to learn. I had a great deal of free time between the morning kindergarten classes and the evening adult classes, Korea was just across the bay and KBS radio could even be picked up when the car engine was turned off, and I made the decision to learn Korean. At the time I had only ever seriously devoted myself to one language and had not really thought about starting a whole new one after, so deciding to completely up and learn a new language was quite a big change.

The first few books I bought to learn Korean were those made by Toshin Books (今すぐ話せる韓国語), such as this one (though cover has changed) and this one, as well as this one called 韓国語で歌おう, meaning 'let's sing in Korean'. The regular textbooks were what one would expect, and learning Korean through Japanese was much clearer than learning through English ever would have been. Things like '가 is mostly like が except that it becomes 이 after a batchim and is used a bit differently' were much easier to assimilate than any explanation one finds in an English textbook. Same thing for politeness levels, vocabulary, kanji-based words, and so on. Even the Korean vocabulary that uses different hanja was easier to understand as the hanja shown still gave clues to a word's meaning. The words that I found the hardest time memorizing were long Korean verbs with no hanja to reference like 가라앉히다 or 얹혀살다.

Let's sing in Korean: this book was a nice diversion from simple textbook study. The pop songs in the music were not particularly to my liking, but they were songs I could at least pretend to like while listening to them, and they were catchy enough. Using music is one of my favourite methods to learn languages, not only because listening to music itself is enjoyable, but because songs stay in one's head for hours and hours and can resurface at any time. Simple recordings of a language don't have that staying power. Some of the songs here were by 김건모, another one was called 우린 하나 되어 이겼어 (we became one, and triumphed/won), one of those 'let's get dozens of famous singers together to record a really uplifting music video filmed inside the recording studio itself'. Here it is:

That's the kind of song you'll find in that textbook. Over-produced, uninspiring pop, yet quite good for the beginner. After some time with this textbook I began to wonder what good Korean music would sound like. Sheena Ringo being my favourite Japanese musician, I had something like that in mind.

In the meantime, this first stage was a pleasant discovery of finding out which parts of Korean were the same as Japanese and which were not. Trying to master the difference between 애 and 에 was no fun, 하다 verbs were great because they were just like する verbs, finding 걸리다 to be very similar but slightly different from 掛かる was interesting and a bit tricky, consonant changes like 독립 being pronounced 동닙 were weird, words I liked in particular in the beginning were 날씨, 손, 고양이, 하늘, 구름, 왜, 학생, 사람, 사랑, and more.

NHK also proved to be a great help in the beginning with their TV and radio shows geared towards language learners. The radio programs were 15 (or 30?) minutes in length and one could buy the monthly textbook accompanying them for just 250 yen, and the shows on TV at night were longer and always had a Japanese person accompanying the Korean (and other language) native speakers for a few months as they struggled with the language along with the TV viewers that were also learning the language. NHK's Korean course also had some music, but with a more concentrated focus on small snippets of music from songs such as 아시나요 sung in a set made to look like a local bar.

One weekend I made the trip to a Korean clothing store in Tenjin in Fukuoka where CDs were also sold, and I picked up two CDs, one by a group called 서태지와 아이들 (Seo Taiji and Boys) and another with a few alternative rock bands, including a band called Roller Coaster and another called Jaurim, both seemingly woman rock bands. I liked these bands enough that I made the decision to buy some more of their music later on when I could find it -- more on that in a few paragraphs.

First trip to Korea

After a few months of this it was around fall 2001 and it was time to go to Korea for the first time, not too hard a trip to make for someone living near Fukuoka. I took a week off of work and took the Beetle ferry over to Busan (2 hours or so), then the Mugunghwa (무궁화호) up to Seoul, which took a bit over five hours. This was still three years before Korea had the KTX, and the faster train (Semaeul, 새마을호) was about twice as much and shaved off less than an hour of travel time. Being in a country without knowing the language fluently was an experience I hadn't had for a while, and the pleasant yet mentally exhausting experience of trying understand and make oneself understood was something I hadn't felt in a few years.

The man who sat next to me noticed that I had opted for a Korean newspaper and began talking to me, and I was able to stumblingly say the things I wanted to say. Here was when I had my first experience of knowing a word I had never heard before thanks to Japanese: he mentioned the word 사고 (sago) while pointing to an article in the newspaper. This word I had never heard before but from the context and having seen that Japanese words with ji- often become sa- in Korean I realized that sago was the same as Japanese jiko (事故), or accident. Having that internal dictionary in one's head thanks to knowing a related language helps immensely, and I loved the rush I felt whenever I tried Koreanizing a Japanese word I knew and seeing it work. One time later on I wanted to say higaimousou (被害妄想, paranoia), sounded out how it might work in Korean, said pihae...mangsang? and saw that I had indeed conveyed what I wanted to convey - 피해망상. It doesn't work all the time (八方美人 - palbangmiin is a good thing in Korean, the Japanese equivalent happoubijin is not), but it does most of the time.

First impressions of Seoul: not that good for the first two days, because of the place I had chosen to stay at. I found about a youth hostel called Traveler's A, which was located in a place near the centre of the city called 을지로4가. Location seemed good from what I could tell from a map and I looked forward to a fairly cosmopolitan place in downtown Seoul. Upon arrival, it was unfortunately neither cosmopolitan nor a particularly nice-looking neighborhood. One may ask why not, considering that it's close to a number of subway lines and right next to the Cheonggyecheon:

But this was 2001, and instead of the restored Cheonggyecheon stream nearby we had the bottom of a raised highway and about ten or so lanes of traffic to cross underneath, to get from textile and furniture shops to...a neighborhood with more textile and furniture shops.

Upon arrival I found myself in a place that looked like this:

and this:

These back alleys have a charm of their own, but only when you know that there is an end to them, for the first two days (the first night plus the day after) this was all I saw of Seoul. Street after street with textiles and furniture shops, leading to some larger streets which upon crossing led to more of these streets. My first day in a new city I will usually walk a few blocks one way then back, a few blocks another way and then back, and this was all I could see.

My second night after walking around for a few dismal blocks I noticed a sign on the second floor that said 다방, which I knew meant coffee shop, so I went into that building to check it out. I didn't know at the time that dabangs were not quite the same thing as a classy coffee shop replete with espresso-based drinks, but rather local businesses that serve watery coffee and some toast, a few couches to sit on, and a very local clientele. And sometimes some shady services, depending on the dabang. This one had about four or five people in it and I struck up a conversation with a middle-aged man and what I think was his son, who were a bit intrigued by the sudden appearance of a lone white 20-something guy of 194 cm in height who had decided, of all places, to check out the local dabang.

Day three: after enough walking around 을지로4가, it was time to take the subway and randomly find another place in the city and hope it was nicer than the neighborhood where I was staying. Looking on the subway map, I saw that one of the subway stations on Line 2 (the green line) was 신촌 (新村), which meant new village (looks like atarashii mura in Japanese). The name made it look like an interesting enough place to visit, so I made my way to this subway station called Shinchon, made my way up the stairs, and finally found the place I had wanted to see since my first day: bookstores, coffee shops, universities and students, and the atmosphere that came with it. This is where I came every day for the rest of the 9 or so days I had during my first visit to Korea. There was a bookstore right by the subway entrance that was about five floors in height, and I bought a few literary classics rewritten for children, like Moby Dick (백경), which were only about 100 pages in length with large font and plenty of pictures to keep you from getting lost. Then I would take these to a coffee shop and read them, and bug the people working there or sitting close to me when I found a word I couldn't identify or find in the dictionary. That, of course, resulted in lots of conversations and acquaintance-making, and is one of the best ways to study a language.

Besides that not a great deal happened on my first trip, but I did make sure to buy some extra CDs and audio tapes (my car in Japan at the time just had a tape player) for my return to work, and I bought the following:

- one more 서태지와 아이들 CD (turned out to be not as good as the one I already had)
- one more Roller Coaster CD, turned out to be quite good
- two Jaurim CDs and one tape: their second album (연인), their 2.5th album, and their 3rd, called Wonderland.

Looking inside the albums it turned out that neither Roller Coaster nor Jaurim were all-female bands: each was all men with the exception of the singer. Roller Coaster was a nice chill band to listen to while driving, Jaurim...was phenomenal.


At the time there were a total of four Jaurim albums to be had: their first, their second, their 2.5th (remixes of the first and second plus a few new tracks), and their third. At the time I had all of these except for the first.

Music is extremely helpful when learning languages, but merely listening to an album is not the way to do it. A student that has been studying a language for a few months will be able to decipher most texts in a language with the help of a dictionary, and this time spent alone with the lyrics without listening to the music itself is necessary. Deciphering a song will probably take about an hour, remembering all of the words in the song will require some more rereading of the lyrics while listening to the song. All in all, an album with ten to twelve songs takes a student at this level about 20 hours to completely absorb, so a good number of sessions at the local coffee shop spent in study will be required to do this. After an album is more or less understood and memorized, simply listening to a song will cause it to repeat over and over in one's head for the next few hours.

At this time back in Japan after my first trip to Korea, Roller Coaster was still the easier of the two bands to understand. "내게로와, please come closer" was much, much easier than "지껄여대는 궤변과 내뱉어내는 욕설이 있지". On the other hand, I wanted to understand the Jaurim lyrics more as I could tell that they were more than just fluff, and I spent more time going over them than the Roller Coaster lyrics, even though I still ended up 'absorbing' the Roller Coaster songs first. Jaurim was a much harder nut to crack.

How would one describe their music? The easiest way to describe it in a sentence is that it is reminiscent at times of Smashing Pumpkins, Faith No More and Radiohead, but with a female singer and a different language. For those learning Korean now there is a lot more of it to listen to, about three or times more music in total compared with 2001 when I first heard them.

If you have never heard Jaurim before and are not sure where to start, allow me to recommend a song or two or three from each of their albums.

1: 마론인형, Violent Violet
2: 落花, 그래 제길 나 이렇게 살았어
2.5: V.V., 레테, 안녕 미미
3: 그녀와 단둘이, 마왕
4: 望鄕, 無言歌
5: 거지, 우리에게 내일은 없다
5.5 (청춘예찬): 새, title track, 누구라도 그러하듯이 (cover of an older song), Social Life
6: Seoul Blues, Loving Memory (these two songs should be listened to together), Beautiful Girl, Blue Devils
7: 幸福한 王子, Drops, Poor Tom
7.5 (2009 untitled album): all five songs where Yuna is singing
8: Red Rain, 피터의 노래

Second trip to Korea

Christmas to January 2002 I made my second trip to Korea, for two weeks this time. The months before it were the same as before with continued progress and my average day went something like this:

- music in the morning while driving to the kindergartens I taught at,
- an hour in the car with the ignition turned off in a field somewhere during lunchtime to listen to faint KBS radio,
- study in the afternoon at the Kurume International Center after the 1 pm kindergarten class using either books or the computer there to chat or write emails to people I had met during my first trip,
- more music while driving in the evening to the adult classes,
- an hour or two at the coffee shop near my house at night to study from textbooks, music, or read some of the books I had with the help of a dictionary,
- then about thirty minutes at night with my ear pressed to the radio in the room in my house that faced north and thus had enough clarity to make out KBS radio coming in from across the bay.

Progress was steady but I didn't see fluency coming anytime soon at this rate, and the rest of my life was in Japanese. I hoped the two weeks would make a big difference.

I stayed at the same place as before and went to Shinchon most days, went off to Anyang to see a friend in the hospital who had been hit by a car and had some minor injuries (that was the day I tried using the word 피해망상), hung out on an icy lake with some friends, found out that Korea, like Japan, does not usually bother to heat entire buildings in the winter, got better at Korean, and watched the two weeks go by in the blink of an eye. On my last day before going back I had a kettle full of kiwi soju by myself in a bar in Shinchon, tipsily played the drums in a game room on the way back, and sullenly went back to Japan the next day by the Mugunghwa train and ferry again, feeling fluency to still be very far away.

This point in learning a language can be very fulfilling when one is in the country, but when in another country working a full-time job it is more frustrating than anything else. Some progress can be made in the two or three hours one has to allocate to studying a language, but it is never enough, and it lacks the necessary interaction that helps the muscle memory-like skill to build. Without the need to use a language every day and the constant random interactions that come with it, it is easy to stay at an intermediate plateau for a long time.

I had saved up a certain amount of money and was continuing to do so. The World Cup was coming up, and I would have about 1 million yen in the bank by then. I asked my company a month or two later whether I would be able to have three months away to live in Korea, they replied that they could do up to one month. Thinking about how short and unsatisfying two weeks had been I knew this would not be enough time, and I decided it was time to leave the company behind (regretfully, as it was not a bad place to work) and move to Korea. The next three months were similar to the other three I had spent before my second trip: music, classes, lunchtime KBS radio in the field, class, Kurume International Center study (yoshinoya for lunch), classes, evening study at the coffee shop, radio at night, repeat, spend very little, watch my account balance grow.

In April 2002 I took my 1.1 million yen out of the bank, closed the account and took my things to Seoul.

Third trip to Korea

This time I had found a goshiwon (a small room students live in when preparing for tests) in Shinchon itself called MAX Livingtel, which actually still exists. The building looks like this:

The rooms are on the 4th and 5th floor with access to the roof as well, and I paid 300,000 won a month there. The building looks fairly small but from the roof one could see right across the city at night.

The three months spent living in this area were the most poignant and memorable of my time studying Korean, and also the one where I made the most progress by far. Work was now a thing of the past, I had nobody to speak with in Japanese, no daily schedule, no school to attend, no English-speaking friends, just the desire to finally learn the language to fluency that I had only been allowed to dabble in up to now.

In the goshiwon were some interesting people: the guy who worked there wrote scripts for dramas in his spare time, a girl from Shanghai was there learning Korean and her boyfriend was a Korean that had lived there for a few years before where they met (he didn't live at the goshiwon), a girl that worked at Hyundai Department Store and was unhappily trying to help her mom pay off her debt, a physical therapist, lots of other people that had recently graduated and were working and trying to save up the money for a down payment on a place.

One particularly surreal night was during the first few days there when I was invited to go eat with the girl, her boyfriend and some of his Chinese friends. Not knowing a word of Chinese at the time, the Shanghai girl's boyfriend would explain to me in Korean what they were saying, and having Chinese explained to me in Korean was...well, surreal.

My daily routine went something like this: wake up in room in goshiwon at about 9 or 10, turn on the TV and watch one of the dramas on Arirang in the morning that had English and Chinese subtitles. One I made sure to watch every day was called 내일을 향해 쏴라. After that it was time to shower (there were two showers on each floor) and leave the goshiwon. The small size of the rooms really helped here, because after about an hour watching TV in a room as small as that (4 square metres / 40 square feet or so) the only thing you want to do is quickly shower and leave the place and not come back before nightfall. The communal washrooms and showers made it even less desirable a place to spend one's day, so once I left I had a good eight to twelve hours to kill outside before I went back.

After leaving the goshiwon it was time to go study at a coffee shop, usually the Starbucks by Shinchon Station or Ehwa Station, or the Ediya nearby which was cheaper and on the ground floor. I had found a number of other books that I wanted to get through, such as a children's version of Hermann Hesse's Demian, and a book by Dostoevsky called 악령 (Demons). The latter was huge, over 1000 pages, and I spent a whole month tackling it. This type of study was what absorbed me most during the afternoons: I would take a book and a newspaper or two to Starbucks or Ediya along with a Korean-Japanese-Korean dictionary I had, and just read for hours on end while looking up just about every unknown word in the dictionary, writing them down a few times on paper and repeating. From time to time I would ask someone in the coffee shop who looked friendly about the meaning of a word that I couldn't find in the dictionary, and as before that would often lead to further conversations and invitations to hang out. One time I asked a few people about the meaning of the word 새끼 because it wasn't in the dictionary. It was obvious that it was a bad word, but I wasn't sure how bad. That one came from a story about a Japanese professor visiting Korea who was called Iseki (井関), and his interpreter would introduce him as 이제키 instead of 이새키, but the professor caught on to this and asked him if he would please properly pronounce his name when introducing him. I was told 이새끼라는 단어는...말하자면 영어의 son of a bitch 같은 의미겠죠?

This (unplanned, naturally-occurring) method I used to finally get from intermediate to fluent Korean was basically this:

- Never use English anywhere ever with anyone. For every Korean that wants to use you for language practice there are ten that don't, and there is no reason to spend one's time chatting with the former when you are the one who has made the effort to save up and make your way to the country. The person may be really nice, may want to hang out and buy you dinner, doesn't matter. You can hang out with that type of person after you've become fluent and have been in the country for years and don't particularly need the practice anymore.
- Read about six hours a day, with dictionary, write A LOT.
- Always have Korean TV on at home.
- Meet with friends in the evening as much as possible. If no friends are around to be had, head off to a random bar and make some there or talk with the bartender.

The six or so hours of reading was the most mentally exhausting. When working through the book 악령 I would keep track of the number of pages I got through in a day and compare that to the number of days left in Korea. In order to get through it in a bit over a month I needed to read at least 60 pages, and since reading implied writing down all the words I didn't know in a notebook and giving them a certain amount of time to try to memorize them it was very tiring but also extremely satisfying since I never had enough time during the day in Japan to have myself reach that point.

Reading massive amounts of interesting content in a language is just as necessary to reach fluency as long hours of conversation with native speakers. I would try out some of the new vocabulary I had picked up during the day at night when hanging out with friends or at a bar, and their reaction is what told me whether what I had learned was actually useful in daily life, or just an expression confined to the literary world. Trying out the ending ㄹ 것일세 was particularly fun.

The idea that a language can be learned solely through fun daily conversation 'because that's the way native speakers naturally pick it up' is not true - native speakers do not pick up their native language that way. Much of our ability to communicate comes from this, but then there are the years spent in elementary school with wobbly hands practicing our handwriting, having our spelling corrected, writing book reports and having them handed back with red ink all over them where corrections have been made, years spent being made to read classics from centuries past, getting a bit of an inkling of archaisms such as 'thee' and 'thou' and 'methinks', and everything else we were forced to do. Koreans are made to do the same thing with their language, and they did not just pick it up from conversation either. The seemingly useless literary expressions one encounters in books don't end up as a part of one's active daily vocabulary, but they do remain as a kind of extended realm of understanding that is activated upon passive hearing or reading. Much in the same way that most understand thee and thou without knowing the exact conjugation, Korean speakers have watched enough of their share of 사극 (historical dramas) that shows like Gag Concert (개콘) often use these settings for their skits. Without a bit of understanding of the language used in these shows, there's no way to understand the humour.

A fluent speaker of a language has a vocabulary set up like this: a core vocabulary of a few thousand words that are used daily with a very quick reaction time and perfect understanding. Behind this is a larger, less active field of vocabulary tens of thousands of words in size that is less frequently accessed but still there. Techniques to gain quick (seeming) fluency in a language emphasize the former but don't spend a great deal of time on the latter, since the former is the easiest to demonstrate.

On a related note, the answer to the question: "how long have you learned (language)?" should be given in hours, not days or months or years. During those three months in 2002 I spent on average about ten to twelve hours a day studying the language, and in addition to that the lack of external distractions (work, family, etc.) probably resulted in each day being worth about seven days at the pace I was going in Japan where I would get about two to three hours in, but not in a single study session, and with plenty of distractions.

A great many other things happened during these three months (including the World Cup), but writing too much about these would change the focus of the post from language study to travel diary. But here are some of the things that come to mind in brief: getting taught how to play hwatu / go stop in a local coffee shop (nobody wanted to show me how in Starbucks), sky bars, celebrations on the street until the morning every time the Korean national team won a game, teaching hanja to an American friend of mine once a week or so (the only time I ever used English and even then the focus was on Korean), the back streets of Shinchon and the park on top of the steep hill, walking around 대학로 for about eight hours one day trying to find an address and later finding out that the place I was looking for had moved to 청담동 but getting to drink some unknown liquor in plastic cups with university students in the park in the evening instead, nightly visits to the local PC bang for 750 won an hour, others more memorable but not suitable for public disclosure on a blog.

It may seem anticlimactic that the way I improved my Korean most during those three months was simply lots of reading plus lots of speaking, but once a student has grasped just about all the grammar of a language that's about all there is left to do: hundreds or thousands of hours of practice with interesting, compelling content and interactions. And in fact, it just so happens that this is the most effective way to learn a language:

The role of grammar in a language is more auxiliary, more often something you will reference after encountering something in a language than something that is used outwardly as the core upon which one builds. Grammar generally goes like this:

-- Stage 1: basic grammar, very little active experience. A focus on grammar here is necessary and unavoidable, without which you will not even be able to do much more than parrot stock phrases.
-- Stage 2: grammar begins to get more complex, context is more difficult to imagine. What's the difference between 면, 라면, ㄹ거면, 는다면, 만약 ~ 는다면, 만일 ~ ㄹ거면 and all the other ways of saying "if"? Without a good amount of active experience hearing and seeing these phrases in action it will be impossible to use them naturally.
-- Stage 3: tons of interaction, with the occasional return to the textbook to reference grammar or vocabulary. A native speaker will almost always correctly use a term but it will not always be obvious why, and this time alone to research what you have encountered remains necessary.

So three months passed, and I was finally somewhere near fluency. Though I ended up devoting about ten to twelve hours to the language every day this was basically all my waking time. Even the few remaining hours that were devoted to simple daily tasks (going for walks, hygiene, eating, staring into the darkness from the goshiwon rooftop or whatever else) did nothing to break the Korean study bubble I was in and so even though the actual time spent working on the language was only about half of the 24 hours in a day, the remaining time did nothing to bring me out of this state. I can't recommend this method of study highly enough.

Anyone already living in Korea that has a passable but not yet fluent command of the language should try to find a way to emulate this method at least once. Sever as many contacts as you can, move to a part of the country where your English-speaking friends can't easily visit you, avoid English forums or other communities online, try to keep to pen and paper as much as possible (something about physically writing out vocabulary seems to make it stick, though your mileage may vary), do whatever you can to create an untouched bubble of immersion that you can maintain for as long as possible. This may not be possible for those with families or other responsibilities (or student debt), but the closer you get to an experience like this the more satisfying the outcome will be.

So what happened after July 2002? This is perhaps the most anticlimactic part of all: after a disastrous week and a bit in France (started walking the Santiago de Compostela beginning in Le Puy-en-Velay, bruised my heel and ended up going back to Canada) and a few months in Canada, I simply went back to Korea in 2003 and since then I've been surrounded by the language, and it has become the language I use the most in my daily life.

The final sign of fluency is also just as anticlimactic: once you have more or less absorbed a language, use it daily and find fewer and fewer surprises in it, the language almost seems to fade from consciousness as your mind begins to accept it as a core part of your neural makeup. The more it becomes a part of you the less you notice it, and reaching this stage almost feels like saying goodbye even though it has never been closer. In the beginning of any conquest (study, love, success, fame, etc.) you begin with both the act as well as the imagined success. As time goes on the imagined success is replaced with reality, which is just as good yet also always different than what was originally imagined. So this feeling of saying goodbye is to the original driving force, what was imagined and striven after in the beginning, not to what was actually obtained.


FEEDJIT Live Traffic Feed

  © Blogger templates Newspaper by 2008

Back to TOP