Learning Korean

Aargh! I actually wanted to start this posting with a more friendly “안녕하세요”, i.e., “hello” in Korean, but in retrospect, “aargh” captures the situation better. I’ve just come from the final exam of my language class and my head feels like exploding. This post is not intended to be any kind of a tutorial or guide to learning Korean. It’s just me venting to prevent my head from exploding. 🙂

First a disclaimer to say that I’m actually quite happy with the course and have learned a lot. I should have studied harder.

I’ve been learning Korean here during my stay at the SNU Language Education Institute, in their evening classes. This has meant that almost every Monday and Thursday, I’ve gone to class from 18:30 to 21:20, i.e., three hours twice a week (excepting a short holiday in November and mandatory rest after my operation). For someone who recently is more used to inflicting studying upon others, this has been a good experience.

I was not a complete beginner in September, since I had taken my first steps in learning Korean over 10 years ago and had already taken a 3-week course at Ewha University several years ago. Then there’s the huge benefit of being exposed to Korean every day at home (more on this later), which definitely has helped, but since I don’t use Korean at home, I’m limited to trying to follow the kids. With our Daughter, I noticed the my Korean skills were somewhere between a 2-year-old and 3-year-old child, i.e., when she was 2, I could understand pretty much everything she said and when she was 3, I was mostly lost, except for simple expressions. With the Younger One, who’s right now going from 2 to 3, I’ve done better since my exposure to Korean here in Seoul has allowed me to stay at, or even a bit above his level. I might have a chance to keep up with him for maybe another 6 months, but I’m not expecting anything beyond that.

Before I delve into my personal experiences in learning Korean, one thing to note is that the US State Department classifies Korean among the 5 most difficult languages in the world (along with Arabic, Cantonese, Mandarin, and Japanese). Finnish is in the second most difficult category. Obviously this relates to the difficulty for a native English speaker and a large part of the difficult lies in the whole structure of the language being completely different.

But, first some good news. Korean is written with a phonetic alphabet, and even though letters are grouped into syllables, there are only a little bit over 30 letters, meaning that it’s pretty easy to get to a level where you can read things and pronounce them. Not necessarily “pronounce correctly”, since Korean has several sounds which are very similar to each other and at least Finnish doesn’t make enough of a difference between those kinds of sounds, making it somewhere between extremely hard and impossible for me to even hear, much less reproduce the different sounds.

Why does Korean have this kind of an alphabet? Well, King Sejong in the 14th century decided that learning Chinese characters was too difficult for normal people, so he designed a new writing system. That’s how the story goes; I’ve heard that the truth was more along the lines of a group of people designing the writing system, which I guess would make Korean a language designed by a committee… (To use an old joke here: What is a camel? A horse designed by a committee.) Still, I’m very grateful for this kind of a simple writing system since at least it gives you a fair chance to learn the language. (Yes, Chinese characters are still used and you can see them in newspapers and such, but I’m not yet at a level advanced enough to cover those, so as far as I’m concerned, they don’t exist.)

Then the bad news. Our teacher called Korean a lego-language, because most of the grammar revolves around putting different endings to words to express different kinds of things. The nice thing about this is that you can apply different grammatical patterns without understanding the main words (been there, done that), but the nasty thing is that there’s a ton of endings to remember. Then again, western languages achieve the same by using different words and combining them, so what’s the difference?

(You may ask why I’m complaining, after all Finnish works roughly the same way, by adding endings. The answer is simple. I didn’t have to learn Finnish as a foreign language, but picked it up using the natural method. I’ve only learned Indo-European languages and I don’t have a mental model for how to learn this kind of a language as an adult.)

The difference is that Korean seems to have way more gradations than any other language I know. For example, when expressing how certain you are about something, seems like Korean has a different ending for every 10% of added certainty. While the nerdy computer geek inside me appreciates this kind of possibility for precision and conveying an exact meaning, it’s very painful to learn. You need long-term exposure before actually comprehending the faint nuances between different endings (not really feasible in classroom). Also, there is very little pattern to the different endings and their meanings, or at least I haven’t seen enough of a pattern yet to help me learn them. In some situation I have seen logical patterns, but those have not been in the endings.

One nice thing about Korean is that even though you have this multitude of different endings, there is actually very little that you could consider “irregular”. Sure, there are verbs that are called irregular, but there aren’t that many of them and what is called “irregular” in Korean, would be called “group X verb” in, e.g., French. In other words, the “irregular” simply means that if a verb has a given letter as the last letter of its stem, it doesn’t behave as you’d expect, but follows a different pattern (but the pattern is consistent for all similar verbs). Some things are truly irregular, but so far I’ve only seen a few. Beats having to learn N pages of irregular German verbs.

You of course have a whole slew of different levels of politeness, but to a large extent, they follow a logical pattern. With strangers you use one form, with friends and family another, i.e., just like in French or German, but in Korean you need to also consider age, status, meaning that you have more than just informal and formal levels. This is an area where you can burn yourself badly, but so far I’m not aware of having seriously offended anyone (not saying I haven’t done so, just that if it has happened, people have been too polite to let me know about it). We’ve learned the different levels in class, but little effort has been put into enforcing us to be consistent with them.

As I said, the geeky nerd inside me appreciates the possibilities offered by the Korean language and I’m quite certain that once you reach a sufficient level of fluency, all the nuances and tweak will allow you to convey your message very exactly, probably more exactly than in other languages I know (well, you can’t beat programming languages for exactness, though :-)) but I have no clue on how long it would take me to reach such a level. There is the official TOPIK language test for Korean, which has 6 levels. Currently I’m somewhere between levels 1 and 2, so the road is still long.

A few words about the course at SNU. Pretty much every larger Korean university offers a Korean language program and usually they have their own textbooks as well. I took the SNU evening class and our teachers (two per course, one on Mondays, another on Thursdays) have been between very good and excellent. I can’t complain about them. The books have been a bit of a disappointment, but then again I’ve looked through many books for learning Korean and have not yet come across anything that would look very good. Each chapter in the book has a few dialogues or short texts, which use some new grammar pattern (usually once per dialogue and maybe two patterns per dialogue). Then you practice the grammar and there are some listening and reading exercises. This makes the books pretty horrible for self-study, since the explanations about grammar and translations of words are so-so (some are actually wrong, but mostly they are ok).

In classroom use, this is fine, but the one problem I had with the books was that in every class, you get a bunch of new grammar patterns, but these usually do not re-occur in subsequent chapters. In other words, you don’t learn them so well since you only see them effectively once. I understood they are re-vamping the books so hopefully things will get better.

So, one final thing. How much has my constant exposure to Korean at home helped me in my studies? Well, in almost every class I get one of two revelations, either “so that’s how you spell that word!” or “so that’s the grammar pattern and meaning behind that expression!”. Sometimes I get the opposite revelation at home or when listening to people outside, i.e., “so that grammar pattern is actually actively used!”. I don’t plan on abandoning my efforts in learning Korean, but I need to figure out a good way to continue. Speaking it at home might work, but I get funny reactions from Kids when I try that. The Younger One in particular is quite funny. Whenever I say something in Korean, he lifts his hand, palm towards me and says: “Shhhh! Don’t speak!”. How’s that for encouragement? 🙂

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3 Responses to Learning Korean

  1. Aaron says:

    “I should have studied harder.”
    Had exactly the same thought almost every time after the exams 😛

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