Why not Korean?
For my birthday last year, and as a gift to myself, I decided to learn how to play a new instrument and a new language. To achieve the former, I bought myself the Rogue Dreadnought acoustic guitar in black and for the latter, I decided to learn Korean.
I decided to expand my interest to learn a non-Romance language because I thought I had reached functional tolerance with the Romance languages (especially French). I know a bit of French and spending six years in Texas conferred me with the innate ability to discern Spanish and understand some words relatively.
In this post, I take you through my Korean-learning journey, one I started in February. I also draw a lot of parallels from my personal experiences as well as lived ones. I make some comparisons between Korean and my native language — Yorùbá. I show you the steps I took in less than six months to go from a basic Korean speaker to a middle intermediate one. While this post is about the Korean language and how I went about it, the tips I provided can help you learn other languages as well. My hope is that you too will get to experience the same joy I currently get from learning Korean. Enjoy!
A. History of The Korean Language
Let’s get right into it! A little bit of history here. The Korean alphabet is called 한글 /Hangeul/, and it has some distinct similarities with the Chinese characters and the Japanese katakana. So by learning Korean, you already have the advantage of knowing a bit of Japanese and Mandarin. However, compared to the two, Hangeul is simpler, almost elegant in its simplicity, and a collection of straight lines and circles. Hangeul is also regarded as one of the most simple, scientific, and logical writing systems in the world. A syllable in Hangeul is formed by combining a consonant and a vowel and is written from left to right and top to bottom.
“Numerous linguists have praised Hangul for its featural design, describing it as “remarkable”, “the most perfect phonetic system devised”, and “brilliant, so deliberately does it fit the language like a glove.” The principal reason Hangul has attracted this praise is that the shapes of the letters are related to the features of the sounds they represent: the letters for consonants pronounced in the same place in the mouth are built on the same underlying shape. In addition, vowels are made from vertical or horizontal lines so that they are easily distinguishable from consonants.”
In the 15th Century and during the Joseon Dynasty, Sejong the Great (세종 대왕) created Hangeul and made it publicly available in a document titled Hunmin jeong-eum “The Proper Sounds for the Education of the People.” Before this, the existing language style was based on Chinese characters, and only privileged male aristocrats could read and write it fluently. Thus, Hangeul was created for the people as the vast majority of Koreans then were illiterate.
*“A wise man can acquaint himself with them before the morning is over; a stupid man can learn them in the space of ten days.”
*Turned out that King Sejong was spot-on on his observation as it took me just an hour to learn the jamos (alphabets). So I guess that according to King Sejong’s reference, that should make me super wise? :-D
Below are some of the properties of Hangeul:
B. Origin, Morphology, and Presentation of the Hangeul
- Hangeul started with 28 characters but as time went on, some of the letters became obsolete to the point where there are now 24 basic characters — 14 consonants and 10 vowels. Not wanting to deviate from its initial Chinese influences, the vowels are made up of three characters:
- the flat earth or ground, this is the horizontal line (ㅡ)
- the upright posture of man, this is the vertical line (ㅇ)
- the dot, this symbolizes the sun in the heavens or the universe (ㅣ)
The consonants too are not left out as their sounds and appearance were derived from the five principal elements (tree, fire, soil, water, and metal) from Eastern philosophy. The symbols of the consonants originated from the shape of the mouth and other articulatory organs we use to pronounce them:
- Tree, which represents the consonant ‘ㄱ’ /giyeok/ due to its velar sound and pronounced as /k/ and /g/.
- Fire, which represents the consonant ‘ㄴ’ /nieun/ due to its alveolar sound and pronounced as /n/.
- Soil, which represents the consonant ‘ㅁ’ /mieum/ due to its labial sound and pronounced as /m/.
- Water, which represents the consonant ‘ㅇ’ /ieung/ due to its glottal sound and pronounced as /ng/ or voiceless when used as a vowel bearer.
- Metal, which represents the consonant ‘ㅅ’ /siot/ due to its dental sound and pronounced as /sh/ or /s/ or /t/ depending on the context of use.ㅂㅈ
An addition to these consonants is the ‘ㄹ’ /rieul/ with no exact match in English. You pronounce it like you are about to pronounce /r/ but then decide you need to make it /l/. As a result, its pronunciation is mix between /r/ and /l/.
The remainder of the consonants were created by adding extra lines to the basic shape.
2. Hangeul is agglutinative in morphology, meaning that you can change the meaning of sentence by adding suffices (usually) to the words or sentence. Also, unlike the English language where the syntax order is SVO (subject, verb, and object), the Korean language’s syntax order is SOV. Here’s an example:
In English, we will say: Mo (S) studies (V) Korean (O). In Korean, this will be Mo (S) Korean (O) studies (V). If you are planning to learn Korean, this rule of thumb will help you a great deal in constructing sentences, especially for complex ones. Because the verb is located at the end of the sentence, it is therefore important to listen carefully when someone is talking as whatever verb they use (at the end) can change the whole meaning of the sentence.
3. Hangeul is also very situation-oriented. This is a good attempt to get straight to the point and reduce redundancy. For example, instead of saying “Did you meet your teacher?,” you can say “Met the teacher?”
Here’s another sticky aspect of the Korean language. Like the Japanese, the Korean language uses distinct linguistic aspect to express seniority and social status. So, you have to change your presentation depending on who you are talking to. It is very important to remember that in Korea is a Confucian society and social ranking, as well as age, plays a huge role in language.
“Verbs can be exceptionally difficult, with conjugations including various honorific suffixes: -p- (ᄇ) or -sup- (습 or 읍) is employed when expressing respect towards one’s audience; when expressing respect towards the verb’s grammatical subject, -yo- (요) is used concerning peers and subordinates and -eusi- (으시) or -si- (시) towards social superiors. Some verbs have completely different honorific forms.”
There are also four levels of speech in Korean and if you want to speak like a Native, you need to master them. A good example is presented below using the sentence “I study Korean”:
1. Formal honorific: 한국어를 공부합니다 /hangug-eoleul gongbuhabnida/
2. Formal non-honorific: 한국어를 공부한다 /hangug-eoleul gongbuhanda/
3. Informal honorific: 한국어를 공부해요 /hangug-eoleul gongbuhaeyo/
4. Informal non-honorific: 한국어를 공부해 /hangug-eoleul gongbuhae/
Korean is so steeped in respect that there’s even an honorific way of talking about oneself, using the humble form 저는 /jeonun/ vs the colloquial 나는 /naneun/. In other words, you have to respect yourself too :-D #대박이야
D. Loan Words
South Koreans use loan words from other languages to express themselves. A classic example is Konglish (Korean: 콩글리시 Kong-geullisi or more formally Hangul: 한국어식 영어). Konglish is a portmanteau of the words — Korean and English. Words like ‘hwaiting /화이팅/’ or ‘paiting /파이팅’ are commonly used to cheer someone on, or can mean “I am rooting for you,” “don’t give up.” If you watch Korean TV, you will hear these words often. Other Konglish examples are ‘opiseutel /오피스텔/’ for a studio apartment (office+hotel) and hand phone ‘haendeupon /핸드폰/. Another example of loan words is ‘areubaiteu /아르바이트/’ which is from the German word for job — Arbeit. I think it’s safe to conclude that the Korean language is very adaptive.
WHY I LOVE THE KOREAN LANGUAGE
- Simplicity: There are no specific intonations to learn (like in Japanese or Yorùbá). The only time you change your voice when speaking Korean is when you are changing your sentence to an interrogative one. Korean language is pronounced exactly the way it is written, except in few cases when consonants are combined. Also, while spacing matters in, you don’t have to worry about capitalizing words — isn’t that great?!
- Easy to Learn: It is very easy to learn — trust me. I learnt all the 24 jamos (alphabets) in an hour and could read Hangeul in a day. Think of the alphabets as a cool juxtaposition of straight lines, circles, and boxes. I got frustrated with French because of the gender nouns, so imagine my excitement when I learned that the Korean language had none of those.
- Consistency: The language is consistent. I have learned from many sources and the presentation and rule are the same across board, especially if you account for differences in teaching styles. Stick to the SOV concept of speaking and writing and you are well on your way to mastering the language like a native. As a native English speaker, this was probably the weirdest adjustment I had to make as my brain wanted to retain the SVO order I had been used to all my life. Nonetheless, once you stick to this rule, learning Korean becomes easy.
- Scientific Presentation: I didn’t know this until recently that Korean is one of the most scientific languages in the world. By design, it is very phonetically sound and brilliantly arranged. I think this is why it was so easy for me to adapt quickly to the language as it appeals to my predominantly scientific brain. While there have been some challenges during this process (mostly stemming from my impatience and frustration at not learning fast enough), I seriously love learning this language.
- Conjugation: Unlike the English language where conjugation is based on 1st, 2nd, or 3rd person, Korean language is conjugated just based on the politeness level. In the Korean language, the verb forms remain the same in the singular or plural forms. For some plural subjects, you can just slap the ‘들’/deul/ suffix for differentiation.
- Symbolism: There are certain words in the Korean language that look exactly like the way they are written, or how I remembered them. The first is milk, which is written as 우유 /uyu/ and this looks like two kids standing stand by side or think of it like if you want to grow from small (우) to big (유), drink more milk. Next is 웃 /us/, which means laugh and looks exactly like how my legs get deformed when I laugh real hard at something really funny. Another symbolic example is 옷 /os/ and it looks like a lady putting on a dress. It is also the Korean word for dress. My favorite symbolic representation would be꽃 /koch/ which means flower looks like a bundled bouquet.
- Innovative/Adaptive: Like most non-English languages, Korean has innovative ways of pronouncing English words that contain non-Korean letters. For example, the ‘X’ sound can only be made by combining the ‘K’ and ‘S’ sound. Therefore, words like ‘Taxi’ and ‘Mexico,’ are written as ‘택시’ /taegsi/ and ‘멕시코’ /megsiko,/ respectively. Also, English words with ‘Z’ in them are pronounced with the ‘ㅈ’ /jeu/ sound. For example, ‘Heize’ is pronounced as ‘Hyeijeu’. I wrote a bit more extensively about this adaption here.
- 운명 /unmyeong/: This means fate and I strongly believe that I was fated to learn this language. I have experienced so much grace and ease with this language that most times learning comes so naturally to me. I also sense a strong push towards Korea that I don’t know yet and pending when that happens, I am preparing myself by learning the language and culture. Other symbolic representation for me is how the first two letters of my first name (Mo) is written as /모/ in Korean and looks like a TV box and I do love watching TV/movies/dramas. The first time I learned to write Hangeul and I wrote my name, I laughed so hard at how uncanny the semblance was. Also, Hangeul Day (October 9) which is also my birthday is a public holiday in Korea. It is referred to as Hangeul Proclamation Day or Korean Alphabet Day where a commemoration is held in South Korea to remember the creation of Hangeul as proclaimed by the publication of Hunminjeongeum in 1446 by Sejong the Great (세종 대왕).
- The Words: Everyday, I try to learn five new Korean words,in addition to my other learning efforts. I can confidently say that my word count is in the thousands. Below are the words that either amuse me or confuse me.
Words that amuse me
- 물개 /Mulgae/ ‘Mul’ means ‘water,’ and ‘gae’ means dog. Together, this reads as water dog. The main translation is seal so this makes a lot of sense.
- 물고기 /Mulgogi/ ‘Mul’ means ‘water’ and ‘gogi’ means meat. Translated this means water meat or fish, which it is called.
- 강남 /Gangnam/ ‘Gang’ means ‘river’ and ‘nam’ means south. Gangnam means south of the river.
- 닭살 /Dak-sal/ = goose bumps or 닭살 떨다 [dak-sal tteol-da] = (a couple) to show their affection for each other so much that other people don’t like it. ‘Dak’ means ‘chicken’ and ‘sal’ means ‘flesh.’ In Spanish, they say “se me hizo la piel de gallina’’ which means I got the chicken skin.
- 입술 /Ipsul/ — ‘Ip’ means mouth and ‘sul’ means alcohol. How do you pass alcohol through your mouth? Lips!
- 눈물 /Nunmul/ — ‘Nun’ here means eye and ‘mul’ is water. What kind of water passes through your eyes? Tears!
- 손목 /Sonmog/ — This translates to the neck of your hands, which is the wrist.
- 천천히 /cheoncheonhi/ — Means slowly.
- 파티하다 /patihada/ — ̶P̶a̶r̶t̶y̶ ̶h̶a̶r̶d̶e̶r̶ Party
- ·섹시하다 /segsihada/ — Sexy
Words that confuse me
- Hometown — 고향 /gohyang/ vs. Cat — 고양이 /goyangi/
- I am thirsty — 목말라요 /mogmallayo/ vs. I don’t know — 몰라요 /mollayo/
- Reduce the price — 깎아요 /kkakkayo/ vs. Close by/near — 가까워요 /kakkawoyo/
- 못생겼어 vs. 잘생겼어
- Rest — 쉬어요/swioyo/ vs. Easy — 쉬워요 /swiwoyo/
- 많이 /manhi/ which means many.
- · Confidence — self-learning
- · Assalam wailakum — annyeongigye sibsio
- · Coalescence of the words via drama
- · Frustrating
- · The more I learned, the more I wanted to learn
- Reminiscent of my Mother-tongue — Yorùbá: My mother-tongue is Yorùbá and so is my culture/tribe. The Yorùbá culture is very rich in moral values and big on politeness and greetings. When communicating with someone older than you or of a higher social status, it is expected for one to be polite and greet them in a respectable way. In Yorùbá, we largely express respect in two ways — 1) linguistically; using honorific pronouns like ẹ, ẹ̀yin, wọ́n, àwọn, and 2) non-linguistically by using body gestures and facial expressions. Body gestures include forms of greetings. For example, a younger female is expected to kneel when greeting older ones while a younger male prostrates.
Facial expressions (or more aptly the lack of it) when talking to the elders are also important. In the Yorùbá culture, the younger one is expected to lower their gaze and avoid direct eye contact when talking to the elders. Doing otherwise will most likely be interpreted as impolite.
In the Korean language, politeness and greetings go hand in hand too! For family members, you can use the plain forms (예사말 /yesanmal/) when speaking with them and for close friends and social inferiors, an even plainer version(반말, banmal, lit. “half speech”) may be used. Because these forms may be insulting to those who expect to be respected, Koreans as a general rule, use polite forms polite forms (존댓말, /jondaenmal/) until it is determined who is socially inferior. Alternatively, they can ask permission to converse in basic forms (말을 놓다, /mareul nota/ lit. “release language”) in order to avoid being offensive.
As for greetings, Koreans use gestures too in the form of bowing. There are many angles (literally as it ranges from the casual 30º bow to the uttermost respectful 90º bow) to this and I suggest you read more about it here.
Koreans bow a lot even when giving and receiving handshakes. During the Lunar New Year (설날), Koreans do the big bow called ‘sebae’ (세배). The sebae can also be done to show extreme remorse or gratitude. It is safe to assume that bowing is second nature and comes naturally to Koreans.
Another similarity the Korean language has with Yorùbá is how some words in Korean mean exactly the same as or almost similar in Yorùbá.
a) Eternal/The Unknown After Death/Beyond: The Yorùbá word for this is nọ́mọ̀ and similarly, the Korean is 너머 which translates to /neomo/.
b) 줘 /jwo/ — This literally means “give me” but can be used at the end of a verb to ask politely for something. For example, 사 줘 /sa jwo/ means buy this for me (depending on your tone, it can be like a request) and 사랑해 해줘 /saranghae haejwo/ which translates to please love me. The Yorùbá word for please is jọ̀wọ́ which can be contracted to jọ̀ and sounds similar to jwo.
c) 오다 /o da/ — This is the Korean word for ‘to come.’ When conjugated, it can take the form of 왔 which sounds like wa. Coincidentally, the Yorùbá word for ‘come’ is also ‘wa.’
d) Bravery — In Korea, there is a saying that goes 간이 크다 /kani kuda/ which means to be bold or brave. Its literal interpretation is big liver. We also have the exact interpretation in my country (not only peculiar to my tribe) where we say “your liver is big” when we mean to say someone is bold or brave.
e) Superstition: This is common with other cultures and just like the Yorùbás, Koreans have their superstitions too. One Korean superstition I practice is eating seaweed soup (미역국 /Miyeok-guk/) on my birthdays; I started it last year but skipped it this year because I had an exam the next day. In Korea, seaweed soup is traditionally eaten by pregnant women before and after giving birth as it is rich in iodine and calcium (micro-nutrients important in pregnancy and lactation). Seaweed soup has also been touted to help shrink the body back to its original pre-pregnancy state. It is also traditionally eaten for breakfast on birthdays, as a celebration of one’s mother. The superstition here is that because it is slippery, you shouldn’t eat seaweed soup if you have exams as it may cause all that you have learned to slip out of your head.
In Yoruba tradition, we have a similar soup called ewédú (made from jute) that shares a similar property with the seaweed soup. I also dare say that they taste and look the same way! Like the seaweed soup, ewédú is used during pregnancy and nursing too, to induce labor and increase milk supply, respectively.
f ) Everyone — The Korean word for everyone is 여러분 /yeoreobun/ which sounds somewhat similar to Yorùbá (this is a long stretch, I know). The point I am trying to make is this: who loves the Yorùbás? Well, everyone! So there you go!
All these comparison go to show that despite being on different continents and from different language family, the Korea and Yorùbá languages share a lot in common, especially in some aspects of culture.
I love learning the language every chance I get and I mean every chance I get. During moments of stress, toilet breaks, downtime, I immerse myself into learning the language using apps, broadcasts, games, and YouTube channels. Learning Korean has been a major stress buster for me!
I love the Korean language and I find the Korean history and culture comparable to mine and also as fascinating. I love the food mostly, especially the rice — so sticky, they stick the broken pieces of your heart together. I am yet to visit the country though and thus most of my Korean experience have mostly been through learning, vicariousness, and sensory. But believe me when I say that I can’t wait to make it to Korea — it won’t be just one of my travel trips, it will be like a homecoming because Korea feels just like home to me.
HOW I LEARN
My rule for learning new skills is to immerse myself into it, and come at it from several angles. I began learning Korean in February and I started with a basic, introductory online course from the prestigious Yonsei University. This course lasted five weeks and it covered the basics from the alphabets and its structure and morphology to learning how to tell time and date in Korean as well as introducing oneself and family. I must confess that initially this was a difficult step for me but the way this class was structured, it made me overcome my fear little by little. You also build up on previous weeks and the lessons have different components (speaking, vocabulary, grammar) to reinforce learning. After this 5-week period was over, I went over the class once more before enrolling in the more advanced 6-week course from the same University. This latter course contained more vocabulary, grammar and expressions, conversation practice, video clips showing students’ real-life conversations in Korean, quizzes, workbooks, and vocabulary lists. The teachers were very affable and the mentors/course instructors were always willing to help. I also made good use of the discussion forums to engage with other learners as well as the flash cards to study the vocabulary. If you want to learn Korean through a formalized, well-thought out, organized and fun setting, then this is the place to begin. Plus, it’s free of charge!
2. Learning Apps
- Memrise: This is by far my favorite of them all. I like how it attacks learning on all sides — listening (Pro Version), writing, and memorizing. It also helps reinforces your difficult words by using memorization tools.
I had used Memrise to learn Dutch in the past so it was no-brainer to use it for Korean. Of all the other learning apps, this is by far the most comprehensive. It not only helps you learn the characters but the sentence structure and grammar as well. You can even setup personalized mnemonics for words you find difficulty with. I am currently in Level 12, having mastered more than 1,000 words and garnered more than 1.3 million experience points.
- Duolingo: This app was good for Japanese and French when I began using it way back in 2014 but it was not until August of this year that they added Korean language to the app. There is a gamification aspect to this app which can be alluring to others but I don’t particularly care much for this. However, I do acknowledge how this feature can be helpful for learning. The lessons on this app are quite well structured but I think they have a long way with adding more substance to their Korean lessons. Another drawback is how anal this app can get especially when typing out Korean names for example. I also wished this app was as flexible as Memrise and that the sentences make sense (e.g., riding a cow is tough? In what alternate reality will I ever have to utter this sentence in English let alone Korean?!). It would also Nonetheless, I use both apps to compliment and enrich my learning experience.
I really think the world of Korean dramas (aka K-dramas) and I am afraid that my short paragraph here won’t do it much justice. Though not yet scientifically proven, it has been reported colloquially that watching TV or movies can actually help you learn a language. In my few years of watching K-dramas and before I began learning the language, I picked a few words like 하지마 /hajima/ (don’t do that), 안돼 /andwae/ (it can’t be), 오빠 /oppa/ (older brother, this is used by females to a slightly older male they are close to), 어떡해? /eotteokhae/ (what do I/we do?), 진짜?! /jinjja/ (really?), and my favorite personal one 죽을래? /jugullae/ (do you want to die?), to name a few.
One of the apps I use to watch K-dramas just recently added a new translation tool called “Learn Mode” to help you learn Korean. When activated, you get dual subtitles (one in English and one in Korean) at the bottom of the screen. You can even pause your movie/drama to decode each line of dialogue. This feature is only available for certain dramas/movies and is yet to be enabled on mobile devices. You can read more about it here.
4. Romanization of K-Pop songs (Pause and replay):
Like I stated earlier, I am not a big fan of the mainstream Korean pop(K-pop) music but I make some exceptions for some really good bands like BigBang! “Who are they?,” you might ask. They are only the biggest and most influential boy band that have shaped K-Pop music worldwide; they are even dubbed the Kings of K-pop.
Individually, they are also golden — I, especially, love T.O.P’s mellifluous and distinct voice especially when he raps, Taeyang’s mixture of angst and suave when he sings, and G-dragon’s unique style. I also find their unique presentation of theirs songs easy to follow and understand. These guys write all their songs and are heavily involved in the artistry, especially during production as opposed to many Korean bands/groups. Their songs usually have the recurring themes of love and relationships and the possible spectrum in between. I am not a huge fan of some of their vulgar songs so I stick to the clean ones.
To learn Korean using K-pop, I suggest using YouTube to watch by listening to the lyric versions with the Hangeul, romanization, and English versions displayed on the screen. If the lyric videos are unavailable, just Google them and sing-along the ol’ fashioned way!
Here are some select ones with enough clarity and easy tempo that can help you sing along and hopefully learn some new words. Be warned that some of this songs might just make you fall in love more with Korea or just pull your heartstrings enough to cry.
- Bigbang (빅뱅) — Let’s Not Fall in Love (우리 사랑하지 말아요)
- Bigbang (빅뱅) — Blue
- SG Wannabe — LaLaLa (라라라)
- SE O (임서영) — 다들 그런거야 (That’s The Way It Is). Lyrics here.
- K.A.R.D — Don’t Recall
- Rain (비) — The Best Present(최고의 선물) (Prod. By PSY)
- Rain (비) — LA Song
- Park Boram — Hyehwadong (Reply 1988 OST)
- Lee Jeok (이적) — Don’t worry, dear (걱정말아요 그대) [Reply 1998 OST]
- SE O (임서영) — That’s The Way It Is (다들 그런거야) (Doctors OST Part 5)
- Eric Nam (에릭남) — Can’t Help Myself (못참겠어)
- Heize (헤이즈) — 비도 오고 그래서 (You, Clouds, Rain) (Feat. 신용재 (Shin Yong Jae)
- Bolbbalgan4 + 20 Years Of Age(볼빨간사춘기, 스무살) — We Loved(남이 될 수 있을까)
- Me To You, You To Me (너에게 난 나에게) — (Scenery of Riding Bicycle-자전거 탄 풍경 넌) from The Classic Movie. This movie is a tear-jerker. It is an old movie and I cry every time I watch it and even right now as I am typing about it.
5. Trivia Games:
I use the app called QuizUp to also learn Korean. I have had this app for more than three years and played trivia games on it and it was not until July of this year that I began to use if for Korean games. I began with the Beginner’s Korean and when I reached the peak (top-10 in the world) and completed 100% of the questions, I moved on to the more advanced Korean, Intermediate. I am currently 81% done with this one. The questions are a lot harder and more complicated but I have learned a lot. I am also currently in the top-5 world ranking.
Formal studying is never enough and I always look for ways to engage my brain when I am somewhat idle. Also, for moments when I am a bit tired and don’t want to read or watch anything, podcasts fill these times really well. My favorite podcast is Talk To Me In Korean as it is very comprehensive and they have a lot of fun ways of passing the lessons across. They also infuse a lot of humor and historical contexts in their presentations — two elements I have the utmost regards for. You can tell they really do enjoy what they do and they have been in business for over 10 years. Check them out here. Below are the list of the Korean podcasts I use currently. The last two ones have not been updated in years but the lessons are still helpful.
7. Learning Apps
I use phone apps too. They have different formats so if I am bored with one, I open the other. One of the apps has a pop-up option you can set up to show you questions anytime you are about locking feature. The ‘test mode’ is also very comprehensive as it ranges from word listening and word writing to word speaking. Naver is al
8. Writing Apps:
- Google Translate: I learned about this app from one of my Saudi Arabian ESL friends and we used this during my English lessons with her to switch from Arabic to English translations. Currently, I use Google Translate a lot to search for words and to help check the accuracy of my sentences I construct before sending them out. I love how you can build your own Phrasebook with Google Translate from your favorite words; your Phrasebook is also available offline in case your internet goes the way of the dodo. I also have Google Translate on my homescreen for easy access. I have it set up also that once you copy anything, Google Translate pops up and shows the translation in whatever default language you selected. Google Translate can also translate photos and pictures and it has a microphone feature to translate audio recordings. I sometimes use the microphone feature to practice speaking (mostly by talking to myself in Korean) and having it translate this to English. But there’s a caveat to this, Google Translate is not a great way to help you learn the language as it can help with individual words but lacks the intuition to help with syntax and phrases.
- KakaoTalk: If you are really serious about learning Korean, then you need to download this app ASAP (if you haven’t already). It’s the Whatsapp for Koreans and more than 90% of Koreans with smartphones use this app. The emoticons and themes are also very cute and cool. I use this app in two major ways; first by following the language channel — SNSenglish, where I receive lessons, and by chatting with my Korean friends who help me with Korean as much as I help them with their English. These two efforts really pay off. With the latter, it was awkward at first when I started but I have moved from learning how to introduce myself and talk about my interests to engaging in other relatively more advanced communications.
- Keyboards: You need to learn how to write Hangeul using your devices as this will help you hone your writing skills. For my phone, I had always used the SwiftKey keyboard to type in general and when I began my Korean learning, I just downloaded the Korean language packet application. With a quick slide on my space bar, I can switch from Korean to Yorùbá or English depending on who I am chatting with. SwiftKey also collects stats on your typing.
For my laptops and tablets, I either use the Branah keyboard or the Microsoft Korean language pack that comes with the devices. On one of my laptops, I use Korean computer stickers to help me type faster. These sell for about $5 on Amazon and are quite good.
9. Korean Lessons:
- Formal: Every Wednesday, I make the 5-mile journey from work to attend Korean conversation classes at a Baptist church. The classes begin at 6 and end by 7:30 pm and are taught by my wonderful 쌤, who is a Korean native. The classes have also been very helpful for me to practice speaking as this was one of the areas I was the weakest in, because I first learned Korean through online classes. Our teacher gives us assignments on writing and speaking. Our class is relatively small but we all have on thing in common — we love Korea!
- Informally: When I have my Korean friends over for dinner or so, they always leave me love notes on my fridge. I also send love notes to myself when I travel via postcards.
WHY I REALLY LEARNED KOREAN AND WHY YOU SHOULD?
- To connect and make more friends
My first real experience with the Korean language was in 2011 with some Korean colleagues of mine in grad school. Seeing them write the Hangeul was thrilling for me — it looked like secret codes of communication with its round, rectangular shapes and straight lines. It was also very fascinating. Since then, I have made more Korean friends and some of them are one of the finest people I have met. I would certainly not have met most of these people if I couldn’t speak Korean.
By learning the language, I am confident that I will have a richer travel experience when I go to Korea. Also, there are more than 80 million Korean speakers in the world, chances are you might bump into one of them or better still, speak like one too — by learning.
2. Korean Dramas (K-Dramas) and K-Pop
The Hallyu Wave (or Korean wave) moved strongly all over the world and has been credited with increasing the visibility and global popularity of South Korea. I am a huge fan of K-dramas and have restricted my entertainment diet to just them only. My first encounter with K-dramas was in 2013 when a Caucasian friend (whose opinion I highly regard) recommended the Korean drama — Coffee Prince — to me. I loved this drama and it served as the catalyst to my wanting to watch more Korean dramas. That was back in 2013 and I can’t even count how many K-dramas I have watched since then.
Now that I have learned the basics of the language and am inching my way slowly to the higher intermediate level, it’s a bonus to be able to watch K-dramas without waiting for the subtitles. I can now watch my dramas and multi-task at the same time, and on back-translating, I guess the right words up to eight out of ten times. Also, sometimes, you might have to wait weeks or months to watch your favorite K-dramas with English subtitles. And despite these awesome volunteers doing a good job of subtitling the episodes, it is almost impossible for them to subtitle every contextual meaning behind each sentences. So to really understand the inside jokes and cultural contexts, I wanted to learn the language. You can say that I was driven by trust issues and frustrations.
As for K-pop, I am not really a huge fan of the mainstream boy and girl bands, with the exception of a handful of the solo acts like Park Hyoshin (박효신), 헤이즈 (Heize), Big Bang, Rain, Eric Nam, Taeyang ( 동영배), Sohyang (소향), Lyn (린), Jay Park, LeeSA, SE O (임서영), and Baek Ji Young. I am more of an old soul and connect more with older Korean songs from artists such as Cho Yong-pil ( 조용필), Deli Spice, 015B, Travel Sketches (여행 스케치), SG Wannabe, Han Daeso (한 대소), Kim Yeonja (김연자), Kim Jong Hwan, Lee Juck (이적), Marronnier (마로니에), and Kim Kwang-seok (김광석). I think I like the older songs better because of their simple messages and story-telling style of singing. Because most of their songs are normal-paced and clear, it is easier for a newbie like me to hear them well.
If you consider yourself a fine consumer of K-drama or K-pop (or you plan to be), then you really need to learn the language!
3. Living and Working in Korea
Korean is now the 13th most widely spoken language in the world. South Korea’s economy is now the 11th largest in the world. The country certainly keeps growing. So, if you plan living, working, or conducting business there, learning the language is a priority. I don’t have plans to live in Korea yet but I am very open to doing so if the opportunity comes my way.
4. 그냥 /geuyang/ — Just Because
Learning a new language has helped me improve my memory and increase my curiosity level. Having to stray away from my Romantic roots to the Aleutic (as typified in Hangeul) brings out the inner child in me. Everywhere I see Hangeul, I read them aloud and try to decipher the meaning (if I already don’t). I use Google Translate and Naver Dictionary a lot and try to replicate the words I hear by re-typing them. I also rely heavily on the autocorrect features provided by these apps, in the event that I mess up the words or characters (these happen quite a lot). By learning Korean, I feel more confident in my ability to do other things; it’s almost as if a new pathway just opened up in my brain. I also now have more exciting things to talk to my other friends about as I now see myself as the only Korean ambassador around them. They don’t always get it but I am slowly working my magic on them. I was very happy when I received a special birthday gift from these friends for my last birthday.
Telemarketers are the bane of my existence in America! I have found the Korean language quite useful in thwarting their efforts to get on my nerves. When a strange number calls my phone and I confirm them to be spam, I switch to Korean by beginning with “여보세요” which means “hello,” and if they persist, I go on introducing myself in Korean. This always does the trick for them to disconnect the call and not bother me again for a while.
While this was not one of the reasons I am learning Korean, but it is one of the many perks I have enjoyed so far. I once walked into a Korean restaurant and spoke to the owner in Korean. She was so taken aback and found me delightfully cute (she kept putting her palm over her mouth saying, “오모나,귀여운.” This means, oh my goodness, what a cutie!). She was so impressed with me that she gave me and my friends a free meal of 보쌈 /bossam/; this is a special Korean meal of boiled pork and kimchi. It’s not a common meal you will find on restaurant menus. I also once got the opportunity to dress up in the traditional Hanbok when I met some Koreans at an event.
I have also developed a new level of respect for the English language as learning Korean has drawn my attention to the grammar, sentence structure, order, and conjugations. Further, as I often draw parallels between the languages I already speak and the one I am currently learning, it has helped me more mindful of my own experiences. Nelson Mandela once said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.” I strongly believe that this reason is why I feel so deeply connected to my Korean friends. I can’t wait to visit Korea really and pending then, I will keep working on my Korean and hope to be more competent as time goes by.
If you are learning Korean, I’d like to hear from you, please leave me a comment or check out my new Korean channel — Koreaptured where I have some videos on speaking and other activities with my friends. If you are learning other languages, I will also like to hear about your journey too.
앞으로도 즐겁게 공부합시다! [Let’s study happily in the future!]
Here are resources on additional courses I took and the books I read on Korean:
- Coursera — Understanding Korean Politics
- Coursera — Gender, Family, and Social Change in Contemporary South Korea
- Coursera — Re-imaging God in Korean Context
- The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot: A True Story About the Birth of Tyranny in North Korea
- The Orphan Master’s Son: A Novel (Pulitzer Prize for Fiction)
- A Thousand Miles to Freedom: My Escape from North Korea
- In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom
I also have a monthly subscription to “Inspire Me Korean.” Every month you get a Korean culture box with specially curated Korean products ranging from skincare to snacks.
Ajay, T.M., & Balogun, K.O. (2014). Politeness in the Yoruba and French Languages. International Journal of Language Studies, 8(4).
T–V distinction — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T%E2%80%93V_distinction. Accessed June 12, 2017.
Etiquette in South Korea https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Etiquette_in_South_Korea. Accessed December 6, 2017.