For my birthday last year, and as a gift to myself, I decided to learn how to play a new instrument and speak a new language. To achieve the former, I bought myself the Rogue Dreadnought Acoustic Guitar 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 (mainly 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 Korean basic speaker to a mid-intermediate one. While this post is about the Korean language and how I went about learning it, the tips I provide can help you learn other languages as well. I hope 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! 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 composed of a combination/collection of straight lines and circles is almost elegant in its simplicity. 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 (ㅣ)
- the dot, this symbolizes the sun in the heavens or the universe (ㅇ)
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 the sentence by adding suffixes (usually) to the words or phrase. 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/
As you can see, the suffix is what differentiates the different levels of speech. By switching the ending, you can go from being informal to formal. Also, Korean culture 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.
Koreans, largely, have a Collectivist way of thinking when you consider their social structure and language composition. They are very family-oriented and tend to have a lot of national pride (these are recurring themes in the majority of their dramas). When introducing themselves, they typically say their names first and then talk about their families. To this end, one can subsume that an average Korean’s identity is tied to their family structure. Take for example, when introducing their father, they’d say ‘우리 아버지’ /uri abeoji)/ which directly means ‘our father’ instead of ‘내 아버지’ /nae abeoji/ which means ‘my father.’
Until very recently, one would introduce one’s spouse as ‘우리 남편’ /uri nampyeon/ (our husband) or ‘우리 집사람’ /uri jibsaram/ (our wife), going to show their Collectivist way of thinking (wow, talk about cheerful sharers :-D). Interestingly, this way of thinking is slowing fading away as the younger generation make more use of ‘내/제’ /nae, je/ (my) rather than ‘우리 /uri/ (our).’ This is probably due to the influence of Western thought on individualism.
One thing that probably won’t change is that Koreans still say 우리 나라’ /uri nara/ which means ‘our country’ rather than ‘내 나라’ /nae nara/ (my country). Etymologically, the word ‘우리’ /uri/ which means ‘our’ originated from ‘울’ /ul/ which means ‘fence,’ and symbolizes the family structure that a person belongs to. When Korea was predominantly an agrarian society, fences were put up to demarcate the boundaries of houses in a community setting; thus differentiating the concepts of inside and outside. When it comes to public and private matters regarding personal relationships, Koreans don’t draw a line for those ‘inside’ the fence. However, those ‘outside’ become a bit exclusive. What’s the Korean word for ‘outside,’ you might ask? It’s ‘외’ (pronounced ‘wei’ as in ‘weight’). It’s also a prefix associated with names for in-laws (especially maternal ones) and aliens/foreigners (외국인) /weigugin/.
So for a country that has a Collectivist mindset for personal matters like the husband, wife, daughter, son, grandpa, grandma, and even a public one like country, they draw the line (or more aptly put up an ‘outside’ fence) for ‘in-laws.’ This was a sterling discovery for me and one of the many things I learned from my Coursera Korean language course.
WHY I LOVE THE KOREAN LANGUAGE
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?!
B. 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.
The language is consistent. I have learned from many sources, and the presentation and rule are the same across the 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.
D. 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.
Unlike the English language where conjugation is based on 1st, 2nd, or 3rd person, the 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.
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 side-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. The word for news is written as 뉴스 /nyuseu/ and to me denotes how you have to close open one eye and close the other when reading about/listening to current events, especially nowadays. My favorite symbolic representation would be 꽃 /koch/ which means flower and looks just like a bundled bouquet.
Like people from countries where English is not the lingua franca, Koreans have 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 adaptation here.
H. 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 it 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 as much as I can about the language and culture. Another 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 screen, 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).
I. 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.
- 썸 타다 /Sseomtada/ is portmanteau of the words sseom-dding /썸띵/ (something) + ta-da /타다/ (to ride), get it?!. Sseom tada is used to describe the situation when there is something going on and there is good chemistry with a girl/guy, but s/he is not quite your girlfriend or boyfriend yet!
- 천천히 /Cheoncheonhi/ — Means slowly.
- 파티하다 /Patihada/ — ̶P̶a̶r̶t̶y̶ ̶h̶a̶r̶d̶e̶r̶ Party.
- 섹시하다 /Segsihada/ — Sexy.
- 못생겼어 / mos-saeng-gyeoss-eo / (ugly) and 잘생겼어 /jalsaeng-gyeoss-eo/ (handsome). These two words are expressed in the past tense, which suggests that being ugly or handsome (in the physical sense) is something you are born with. I find this assertion amusing.
- 멋있어 /meosisseo/ (cool) vs. 맛있어 /masisseo/ (delicious). “You’re cool” and “delicious” are dangerously similar in pronunciation.
- 코피 /kopi/ (nose bleed) vs. 커피 /keopi/ (coffee). Be careful to ask for the right one when suffering from a hangover :-D.
- All of the consonant clusters like ㅄ as in 없어 /obseo/ (not to exist); ㄶ as in 많이 /manhi/ (many); ㄼ as in 여덟 /yeodeolb/ (eight); ㄵ as in 앉다 /anjda/ (sit); and ㅀ as in 싫다 /silhda/ (hate).
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/.
- Rest — 쉬어요/swioyo/ vs. Easy — 쉬워요 /swiwoyo/.
- The Dora family as I like to call them — 들어오다 /deuleooda/ (to come into) vs. 돌아오다 /dolaoda/ (to come back) vs. 따라오다 /ttalaoda/ (to follow) vs. 돌다 /dolda/ (to turn).
- Some of the diphthongs like 위 /wi/, 외 /oe/, 웨 /we/, and 얘 /yae/.
K. The Country Itself
It is hard to fall in love with Korean without first falling heads over heels with the country itself. For me, it was a catch-22 situation; I learned (and still keep learning) about the country to understand the language and vice-versa. I did not just start by learning the language, I began by learning everything I could learn about the country. By everything, I mean everything I could devour about the country and how it started, no thanks to my insatiable thirst for knowledge. I started with a 4-week intensive course on Korean politics. This class was an eye-opener for me as it discussed salient outstanding issues ranging from its past history (from the Silla dynasty to the Joseon), dynamics of political culture in Korea, profiles of political leadership, myth and reality of the developmental state, the Korean economic miracle (aka Miracle on the Han River, largely due to generous IMF aids), to debates on Korean unification.
You cannot learn about the history of Korean and not get excited about it — it’s a story of triumph (relatively). They went from being under a heavy Japanese rule from 1910–1945 to a defining war five years later (between 1950–1953) that tore the Korean Peninsula into two diametrical nations after the watershed moment at the 38th Parallel. The First Republic of Korea was founded on August 15, 1948. In the northern part of Korea, Kim Il-Sung, the real leader of North Korea also declared the new government. South Korea was under the American military government and this accomplished two things: first, America implanted the capitalists’ way of running the economy. A lot of funds were infused into South Korea by America to help South Korean adopt capitalism and eschew communism. Meanwhile, North Korea ended up choosing the socialist path to economic development and that made a big difference between North and South Korea. The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 effectively transformed North into the “nothing-to-envy” people’s paradise we are familiar with today.
In the 1960s, North Korean citizens had a higher standard of living then South Koreans and the economy of the former was a lot better than the latter. However, when the USSR collapsed and Russia turned to more profitable Europe market, the North’s economy collapsed and so did its major chemical fertilizer and electricity industry. This collapse led to the great famine that led to the deaths of almost 3.5 million North Koreans between 1993 and 1995. Today, one of the most significant indicators of wealth among the elite in Pyongyang is an electric rice cooker. However, today, South Korea’s economy is light years ahead that of its neighbor: its economy is 38 times larger than the North’s (2011/2014 GDP total estimate of $1.755 trillion vs. $40 billion) and with an international trade volume 224 times larger.
In his book ‘Escape from Camp 14,’ Blaine Harden states that:
“International economists often describe South Korea as the single most impressive example of what free markets, democratic government, and elbow grease can do to transform a small agrarian, backwater into a global powerhouse.”
This ‘sudden’ phoenix rise from ashes into a stable, boisterous economy is one of the reasons I love South Korea. In addition to the ample international aids received (which is not unusual with other countries), the citizens were determined to rebuild their country. This kind of advancement and economic boon are what I really wish for my country, Nigeria. Nigeria boasts of a lot of natural resources but still has a long way to go in translating such abundance to the lives of the people.
South Korea, on the other hand, is fast-growing in many ways. Despite having little to no natural resources (ironically, most of the mineral deposits in the Korean peninsula are located in North Korea), South Korea is one of the world’s leading industrial powerhouse today. For example, its cosmetic industry (especially plastic surgery) is one of the top-10 global brands in the world. The culture is also very wired, with a whopping 83% Internet penetration rate and smartphone penetration of 97.7%, among 18 to 24 year old.
Technology is also advanced in South Korea; it launched the world’s first virtual supermarket in 2011. In the recent State of the Internet report by Akamai Technologies, as of Q4 2016, South Korea had the fastest average internet connection in the world at 26.1 Mbit/s. This is almost four times faster than the world average of 7.0 Mbit/s and twice faster than the US speed (at 12.6 MBit/s). It’s safe to say that the word ‘buffering’ is a word not familiar to your average South Korean.
However, the human cost of sudden affluence, as typified in South Korea, is not without its demerits. First, South Korea is a highly competitive system and even its citizenry struggle greatly to fit into success-obsessed, status-conscious, education-crazed culture.
The nickname Koreans use to refer to their homeland is “Hell-Joseon,” combining the historical name for South Korea with the word “hell.”
Then, suicide rates in South Korea are the highest in the world for any developed country, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. This is important, especially when you consider that this rate is up to 3 times higher than in the US and significantly higher than in Japan, a country where suicide is deeply embedded in the culture (e.g., Seppuku). Loneliness, erosion of culture, family disintegration, are some of the factors attributed to high suicide rates in South Korea.
K. 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 respectably greet. In Yorùbá culture, 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”) 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.
- Eternal/The Unknown After Death/Beyond: The Yorùbá word for this is nọ́mọ̀ and similarly, the Korean is 너머 which translates to /neomeo/.
- 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.
- 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.’
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 here is this: who loves the Yorùbás? Well, everyone! So there you go!
All these comparisons go to show that despite being on different continents and from different language family, the Korean 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 in learning the language using apps, broadcasts, games, and YouTube channels (this here is one of my faves plus she’s hilarious). Learning Korean has been a significant 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 sensory or through learning and vicariously living through others. 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 2017 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 upon 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 flashcards in studying 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!
B. 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 a 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 set up personalized mnemonics for words you have 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 the 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 to go as far as adding more depth to the course. 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 be great if they would include the appropriate punctuation marks with the sentences. Nonetheless, I use both apps to complement 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. These words include 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.
D. Romanization of K-Pop songs (Pause and replay)
I am not really 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 has 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 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 the lyric videos with the Hangeul, romanization, and English translations 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 at your heartstrings enough to cry.
- Bigbang (빅뱅) — Let’s Not Fall in Love (우리 사랑하지 말아요)
- Bigbang (빅뱅) — Blue
- SG Wannabe — LaLaLa (라라라)
- 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). Lyrics here.
- 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.
E. 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 but it was not until July of this year that I began to use it for Korean. 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.
G. 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 your phone screen times out. The ‘test mode’ is also very comprehensive as it ranges from word listening and word writing to word speaking.
H. 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 home screen 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 mostly 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.
I. Korean Lessons
- Formal: Every Wednesday, I make the 5-mile journey from work to attend Korean conversation classes at a Baptist church in my city. The classes begin at 6 and end by 7:30 pm and are taught by my wonderful 쌤, who is Korean. The classes have also been especially beneficial to 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: I also learn Korean whenever I get together with my friends. They are always willing and ready to answer my questions and engage me in Korean conversations. I am still a bit slow in my responses as it takes me a while to process long sentences first before replying to them. When these friends come over, they leave 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?
A. 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 few of the finest people I have met. I would certainly not have met most of these people if I couldn’t speak Korean. I am especially thankful to my Korean sister (현아) who gave me my Korean name — 미영 /Mi-young/ meaning ‘beautiful (미)’ /mi/ + ‘shiny (영)’ /young/. I promise to keep embodying all of its attributes.
Like people from other countries, Koreans have some unique characteristics that I find fascinating. A mind-blowing one is the absence of the ABCC11 gene in most Koreans that confers on them an innate ability to almost never need deodorants as they don’t produce underarm odor. They also produce dry earwax! The first time one of my Korean friends told me this, I laughed so loud as I thought it was ludicrous. Imagine my amusement when a simple Google search proved me wrong! In addition, rice is king in Korean meals. I love a culture where you can eat rice all day and not have to feel guilty about it, hehe.
By learning the language, I am confident that I will have a richer travel experience when I eventually go to Korea. Also, there are more than 80 million Korean speakers in the world, chances are you might bump into one of them so why not learn to speak like one too — by learning?
B. 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 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 an excellent job of subtitling the episodes, it is almost impossible for them to subtitle every contextual meaning behind each sentence. 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 Hyo Shin (박효신), 헤이즈 (Heize), Big Bang, Rain, Eric Nam, 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 such 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!
C. 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 in the future.
D. 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 it 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 my friends and me and a free, generous portion of 수육 /suyug/; this is a special Korean meal of boiled pork and kimchi. It’s not a typical 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 a professional event.
Finally, 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. When all is said and done, I am just a Nigerian gal who is head over heels in love with the Korean culture and if that ain’t something!
P.S: If you are learning Korean, I’d like to hear from you, please leave me a comment, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also check out my new Korean channel — Koreaptured (Korean + enraptured, got it?) where I have some videos on speaking (usually around the dinner table) and other activities with my friends. I plan to upload more videos as time goes by. 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!]
행쇼 (Be Happy),
I’d like to express thanks to the following people for helping me get from there to here:
레이첼 (Rachel) — my first Korean class mentor; 푸지 (Poojee), 병재 (ByungJae), 혜진 (HyeJin), 명진, (MyeongJin), 봉진 (BongJin), 성경 (SeongGyeong), HyeunAh (현아), YuKyoung (유경), and to my inestimable teacher YunKyung (윤경) and my classmates at the Baptist Church in OKC.
For continually enriching my learning experience and/or reading/editing this piece for content relevance and accuracy; I say 대단히 감사합니다!
Here are resources on additional courses I took and the books I read on Korean:
Politics, Social Structure, Religion
- Coursera — Understanding Korean Politics
- Coursera — Gender, Family, and Social Change in Contemporary South Korea
- Coursera — Re-imaging God in Korean Context
North Korean History (You will learn a lot about the Korean Peninsula too)
- The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot: A True Story About the Birth of Tyranny in North Korea
- The Girl with Seven Names
- Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West
- 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.
- North Korean famine — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_Korean_famine#Estimated_number_of_deaths. Accessed December 15, 2017.
- South Korea still has top OECD suicide rate — http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20150830000310
- China and the Soviet Union — http://countrystudies.us/north-korea/66.htm
- Internet in South Korea — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_in_South_Korea
- First Step Korean — https://www.coursera.org/learn/learn-korean/home/welcome
- Learn to Speak Korean 1 — https://www.coursera.org/learn/learn-speak-korean1