What six months of Korean looks like

안녕하세요 여러분! 저는 너무 바쁜데요…

Hi, everybody! I have been very busy… so I haven’t been able to write about work or life recently. I’m now just over six months into studying Korean. As you can see in the photo, we have covered a lot of information. The photo does not include 5 e-textbooks that I have gone through or the 3,000 vocab cards I have made on Anki.

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So are you fluent yet or what?

When we found out that we were going to Korea, I was excited that I would learn a foreign language, especially one as interesting as Korean. What I didn’t expect was how much work it takes to just speak some Korean. I don’t feel like I can “speak” Korean at all, most of the time. I’m certainly not fluent. It is really hard work. After about 6 weeks, I started having really bad anxiety because I felt like there was too much for me to learn. All I thought about was Korean, and the more you think about it, the more you realize that you hardly know anything. It felt like being in the middle of the ocean with no landmark to orient myself. It took a lot of hard work just to get over the anxiety of language learning.

The thing with language learning for your full-time job is that you show up to work every day and just really fail spectacularly, repeatedly. I hardly string together three or four sentences without an error. But when I step back and look at the mistakes I made in week 2 (calling my brother-in-law a chair instead of a doctor) and the mistakes I make now (I gave a 5 minute talk on the pros and cons of criminal plea deals, but forgot the verb for ‘to indict’), there is little comparison. Luckily, I am in a great class with three other guys who are all comfortable laughing at our mistakes. I estimate that I know about 1,600-1,800 words, or 70-80 new words per week since I started studying vocab lists (although it feels like I forget half of them by the end of the week). But more importantly, my understanding of Korean grammar has really exploded lately.

The Hardest Part

The hardest part for me is vocabulary. I don’t have the time or the discipline to memorize long lists of vocabulary words, especially ones that I am not interested in. It also can feel really disjointed. I might have a flash card for denuclearization followed by the word for business card. I’ve noticed that students tend to be stronger in either grammar or vocabulary words. I’d gladly switch to being good at vocab.

The Easiest Part

I expected the easiest part to be “Konglish” or English words that are used in Korean. This has not been the case. Sometimes I read a word in Korean and have no idea what it is. I’ve never heard this word in my life. But turns out, it is English. Some examples:

  • 파이팅: Pronounced like “fighting” but with a P. This is used like “let’s go” or “you can do it.” Many native Koreans are apparently under the impression that we walk around yelling FIGHTING at each other to get pumped up before a test.
  • 패션: Pronounced as “passion.” It means fashion.
  • 핸드폰: Hand-uh-pone. Cell phone.
  • 오토바이: auto-bah-ee. Motorcycle. Because of course that’s what it means. Obviously.

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The easiest part has actually been the alphabet. Unlike Chinese, Korean has a phonetic alphabet that is easy to learn. I learned it on my own over summer in a couple of days. When Korean training started, we spent 6 weeks on it to perfect our pronunciation and reading. Korean pronunciation rules are easier than English by far. Letters, more or less, make the same sounds every time.

That doesn’t mean it doesn’t get confusing. Example: 소비자. 소 [so] means cow. 비자 [bee-jah] means visa. Together, it is not a cow visa. It is “consumer.” 소식. 소 [so] again means cow on its own. 식 [shik] can be used for a ceremony or a style/way of doing something. But this word means news, unfortunately, not a cow party.

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This happens because many Korean words come from Chinese and the syllable blocks come from Chinese characters that have similar sounds differentiated by tones, but very different meanings. Korean stripped out the tones but kept the root words. Once you learn Hanja (the Korean way of writing Korean spoken language using Chinese characters), you can figure out unknown words easily because you now the root (like Latin and English). I’m not there and I probably won’t study Hanja at all in the next 2 years.

I still have two months left in training. This seems like an eternity and nothing at all. When I compare my ability to where I was two months ago, it is almost unrecognizable in many ways. I hope that is true two months from now too.

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