Learning Korean

There is no quick or easy way for a native speaker of English to learn Korean, no secret shortcuts to the end result. It is a complex and challenging language that has no relationship to English, apart from a growing catalogue of loanwords. And like any language, it takes slow, steady, humble, careful work. Many KADs haven't learned to speak a second language proficiently before starting Korean, making it all the more challenging. I myself am still in the language-learning process. That said, there are more resources out there for learning Korean now than there ever have been in history. And while I might be new at Korean, I've been around the language-learning block enough to have some advice to pass on.

General Advice

My experience in my elementary Korean class suggests that most people vastly underestimate the amount of effort that learning a new language—any new language—requires, and certainly a language as legitimately challenging for the average English-speaker as Korean. Learning enough Korean to be able to have basic conversations and read simple material slowly probably takes, by my estimate, at least two years of serious and continuous work.

By "serious and continuous," I mean that you should realistically plan to study an average of an hour per day every day. That's not to say that you can't miss a day or two here or there—or that some days you might manage 15 minutes, while on others you might work for 2 hours. But it does mean that, especially when you're starting off, failing to study for an entire week is a huge stumbling block.

Alphabet

Learn to read the Korean alphabet, hangeul, as soon as you can—and once you've learned the basics, don't read or write in transliteration. There is no good transliteration system for the Korean language, and the sooner you're free of the Roman alphabet, the better. As one of my friends once pointed out about Polish orthography as compared to Ukrainian, it is always easier to learn a language in an alphabet that was built for its sounds.

There is learning how the alphabet works, which you can do in an afternoon; and then there is learning to sound out text reliably and quickly, which takes much longer. You have to practice this skill the way that little kids learn to read: find text—any text—written in hangeul, and pronounce it out loud. Do this on a regular basis. Korean, like English, often doesn't actually sound the way it looks, but you will learn the rules of pronunciation as you go along (again, like English). This is really necessary in order to build reading fluency, and it's also good practice for developing a tongue that can accommodate pronouncing Korean properly.

It takes a while for an English speaker to get used to distinguishing the sounds of the Korean language, particularly the consonant sets ㄱ/ㅋ/ㄲ, ㄷ/ㅌ/ㄸ, ㅂ/ㅍ/ㅃ, and ㅈ/ㅊ/ㅉ. (It might be quite fast if you know Hindi/Urdu; but that's a different story.) Correctly identifying the consonants at the beginning of words, which often get "hardened," also takes some work. The key is to keep working at it long after you think you have the basics. Most textbooks come with a CD, the first tracks of which are basic Korean phonetics; give this a listen regularly, well after you've left the alphabet behind. (If you're a serious language nerd and you know some basic IPA and/or phonology, you should look up the precise description of the sounds you're making and learn the difference between aspirated and unaspirated consonants by ear.)

Flashcards and Memorization

There are a number of flashcard sites and apps out there right now, like Quizlet. These are helpful, and it's great to be able to pull out your phone anywhere and study. But in my experience, there is nothing that works quite as well for learning vocabulary as pen-and-paper flashcards. The act of writing the flashcard is itself a part of the process, and typing doesn't work as well—and copy-and-pasting certainly doesn't. Paper flashcards are much more easily manipulable into groups, as well: let's say you want to study all the adjectives, or all the verbs. I use a three-step process. First, you memorize all the vocabulary going from Korean to English. Second, you memorize the vocabulary from English to Korean. (I've found that in every language I've learned, the former is always easier than the latter.) Third, you review them all periodically in both directions.

I'm finding that Korean, much more than European languages, rewards a mix of learning single words alongside longer phrases, including some complete sentences. For example, it's worth it to learn not just the verb 초대하다 (chodaehada, "invite"), but also the noun it's built upon, 초대 (chodae, "invitation") and a short phrase like 다과회에 손님을 초대하다 (dagwa'hwe-e sonnimeul chodaehada, "invite company to tea"). Most decent Korean curricula are built this way in any case. Obviously, you have to remember the short words, but—far more than in the case of French or German—it's difficult to get them to trip off the tongue, or sometimes to get the grammatical construction quite right, without having some short set pieces memorized.

Numbers

Practice them all the time, whenever you see a number, as often as you can, in both the Sino-Korean (일, 이, 삼...) and native Korean (하나, 둘, 샛...) series. If you need more practice (I did), go to random.org, set the range from 0 to 10 (or 99, or 99,999, or 99,999,999, depending on the numbers you're studying—large numbers are vital in Korean because of the currency system) and keep generating numbers. It's never easy—even professional interpreters hate large numbers—but it will get easier.

Resources

There are more resources for learning Korean now than there ever have been. Many are online. That said, the best way to learn Korean—like any language—is with a living human being, whether that's in a tutorial or a class. Practice time with a person—especially a native speaker—is gold.

I haven't had the chance to explore sites that pair you up with a native speaker through Skype yet, though I know they exist. (If you've done this, and you have an opinion, let me know!)

No single resource can be perfect. They all have strengths and weaknesses. Here are my assessments of the resources I know best:


Sogang Korean (textbook series)

My beginning class at the Korean Cultural Center in Washington, D.C. uses the Sogang Korean series, developed at Sogang University in Seoul. While it is conceivable that you could use it independent from a class, it is very much meant to be used in a classroom. The materials use English as sparingly as possible. This is good—it seems to be guided by a naturalistic pedagogy, albeit one that's very heavy on text in hangeul. It breaks down grammatical concepts into the least intimidating chunks possible. But first-time language learners might find themselves floundering a bit without a teacher to tell them what's going on. The book does throw new words at the student without warning on the presumption that she will look them up in the vocabulary guide. However, sometimes they aren't there, either, which means that a dictionary is important. (I've used a mix of the Naver app and English Wiktionary, which together are fine.)


Korean Made Easy (textbook series)

This textbook series has much more English explanatory text than the Sogang series—so much that one could conceivably use it outside the context of a class (though that's not advisable for all the reasons that I've already mentioned). It covers the same basic ground, in the same gentle steps, as the Sogang books; and, to be honest, the production value of the materials is higher. KME also covers a somewhat broader range of vocabulary than Sogang—potentially more challenging, but also more expressively liberating. While I think that Sogang's natural-method approach may ultimately be more successful, KME would feel far less intimidating to the first-time language learner, especially if left to his/her own devices.


Talk to Me in Korean

TTMIK is a popular website, complete with lessons from square one and podcasts, videos, and other material for the upper levels—almost entirely free (their workbooks cost money), and produced by a phenomenally productive, thoughtful team of Korean native speakers. The lessons proceed very slowly, with each lesson covering a single basic idea in detail over 10-15 minutes. It's a great resource for first-time language learners, though more experienced students might find the pace a little stifling. But it's very genial, and the production quality is high. You should not do this alone: your Korean will progress much more quickly if you have a conversation partner. But it's a very user-friendly tool, and also great for reviewing material if you're in a class that you feel is moving too quickly.


How to Study Korean

HSK is the opposite of TTMIK (see above): very grammar-heavy, fast-paced, and most likely to be helpful to someone who has already acquired at least one language after childhood. But for such people, it can be, in its own way, invaluable. HSK cuts straight to the chase and explains the guts of the language, and given that so few resources on Korean do that, it can make a range of expression available early on that would be hard to achieve otherwise. It also has recordings of its vocabulary items and many example sentences, which are great. That said, it suffers from a lack of practice materials: the workbooks for the course do not provide enough exercises to internalize either the grammar or the vocabulary thoroughly, and it's easy to feel like you're drowning in new words without having an occasion to use them. I would not recommend using HSK on its own, but as a supplement to a class for an advanced learner, it can be very helpful.


Korean Wiki Project

I have yet to really explore this one. More to come.


Naver Mobile Dictionary App

My experience has been that this is quirky and not always reliable: sometimes, words from my textbook that turn out to be quite basic have no entry in Naver (probably because they're so basic). You have to be willing to navigate the interface in Korean a little, too. But once you've flipped it into Korean-English dictionary mode, it runs in English as a two-way dictionary. And it is quite good at this. It provides good example sentences, and explains ranges of meaning in a lucid way. A nice bonus for those who have a little Chinese or Japanese, are very serious about learning Korean at a high level, or are just serious language nerds, is that the full entries on Korean words show the hanja for the concept—so it's good if you want a basic acquaintance with those.


Wiktionary (English)

Don't rely on it for everything, but en.wiktionary.org has good entries for a number of Korean words. They often include IPA, hanja, and etymologies—helpful again for the language nerd. And the basic information is there for the basic learner, as well. You do have to know how to type in Korean, which I will address in another post.


Wiktionary page on Korean Suffixes

This could be bewildering for the first-time language learner, but for someone who wants to acquire a greater sense of how the language is working early on, browsing this list is a good idea. It's also good for reviewing the range of uses of various affixes. If you can hold these in your head as an early-stage learner, they'll make a good deal of things like K-Pop songs and K-dramas a little more comprehensible. (For the language nerds: Korean is, after all, an agglutinative language, so it makes sense to clutch its beating heart by the ventricles.)

For Adoptees

There is a helpful index of some major terms relating to adoption at this website.
See also my list of useful words for a first-time visitor.


Miscellaneous
Some of the notes at this blog are surprisingly helpful: http://korean.david-hutchinson.ca/

2 comments:

  1. Hi Spencer! I'm so happy to see your new blog. Just a note on Korean/English online dictionary resources: when my Korean was not yet good enough to be able to navigate Naver's online dictionary comfortably, I depended heavily on the Korean/English portion of www.wordreference.com (http://www.wordreference.com/enko/). It isn't as extensive as Naver, but it does at least provide some context sentences, which is crucial, as I'm sure you know. The key is that it's entirely in English, so it's navigable for beginners.

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    1. Thanks! I'll poke around a little bit and add it to the list.

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