I’m so happy that a lot of you guys are commenting on my blog posts and sending me emails. I’ve received a lot of questions over the past few months, so I thought it was time to do a Q&A post since many of these questions are of more general interest.
When and why did you start learning Korean?
I first started learning Korean in July 2014. My husband, who is a Korean adoptee, and I had just booked our tickets to Seoul and being innately curious about other languages, I set out to learn basic Korean. I began studying a little everyday, and it gradually became a habit. Now it has become an integral part of my life, and I can’t imagine not spending some time every day studying Korean.
How (often) do you study?
I study every single day for at least 3 hours combined. I always dedicate the first hour of my day (6am-7am) to Korean. Most often I will read in a Korean book but it also happens that I review grammar or, on particularly lazy mornings, watch an episode of a Korean drama. I then listen to podcasts in Korean on my way to and from work (30 minutes in total), and I sometimes listen passively while I work (not included in hours spent). I also speak in Korean at approximately every other day for at least an hour at a time, and I read several Korean news articles per week. At least once a week I write an essay in Korean and send it to my LP for feedback and corrections. I usually watch an episode of a Korean drama with Korean subtitles (almost counts as reading time) every evening, and during the day I’m in frequent contact with my Korean friends by sending text messages in Korean. As you can see this is an eclectic mix of various disciplines, but the key point is that I allow myself to become as immersed as possible by surrounding myself with Korean material everyday.
What’s the hardest part when learning Korean?
This question is probably the one I get the most. There is no doubt that Korean is a hard language to learn but it’s definitely not impossible. To me, the perception of what has been the hardest part has changed a few times as my Korean skills have improved. In the beginning I was puzzled by the Korean sentence structure, which is so different from anything I had ever known before. The whole concept of adding suffixes like 면, 니까, or 아/어서 to verb stems instead of just having separate words like “if” or “because” as we do in English seemed very hard to grasp in the beginning.
As I progressed and got a hold of the grammar, the hardest part by far was actually speaking in Korean. Even though I could understand simple written and spoken Korean I was unsure about my pronunciation, and it would take me forever to construct a sentence in my head, then agree with myself that it was grammatically correct, before I clumsily uttered the words ever so slowly.
Now that I’m able to speak freely about almost anything, the hardest part is without comparison the Korean concept of 앞존법 – the intricate Korean system of honorifics. I understand it perfectly, but it’s just so unnatural to me that I still have to be very conscious about when and how to use it, and to whom! I have practiced this with my LP on numerous occasions, but I always make so many mistakes that he usually just ends up saying 몰라도 돼요 (it’s okay if you don’t know this), but I want to master this concept and I want for it to feel natural. I sense some degree of improvement but there’s still a long way to go.
What do you recommend to a beginner?
Before you do anything, by all means learn the Korean script Hangeul! Without that learning Korean is close to impossible. Also, use all the wonderful resources that are readily available through TTMIK. Supplement this with a good set of textbooks. Find a language partner to practice speaking with either online or face-to-face. Ask yourself, why you are learning Korean. Then set realistic goals and reward yourself whenever you reach them. Make studying Korean a habit but also make sure that it never becomes boring by using various resources and shifting between practicing grammar, speaking, listening, and writing. Make a habit of learning short sentences instead of just isolated words, and practice speaking these sentences as early on as possible. Always carry a notebook with you, and never give up. For more personalized advice, always feel free to contact me.
How do you stay motivated?
I know that I will need my Korean skills when I go and live in Korea, so that definitely adds some motivation. I also feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment whenever I reach one of my learning goals. I always make sure that I vary the way I study and on the few days where I don’t really feel in the mood for studying Korean, I at least make sure to listen to some K-pop or watch a drama episode. Although, I must say that over the 18 months that have passed this has maybe happended on three occasions tops. I basically make sure that it’s always 100% fun. On days where I can’t really feel any progress I remind myself how far I’ve come and usually read a chapter from one of my earlier textbooks. Realizing that what used to be difficult now seems easy always gives me a great sense of satisfaction.
What’s your biggest mistake when speaking/learning Korean?
Oh! I’ve made sooo many! I don’t think I’ve ever really offended anyone, but man I’ve made so many people laugh! The biggest mistake I make these days is when I say things in Korean exactly as I would in English. One example occured when my husband and I was having a business dinner with an older CEO of a publishing company. This person spoke no English, so our conversation was limited to the level of my Korean skills. Making small talk, I wanted to ask this 대표님 if he was originally from Seoul. Since I would say “Do you come from Seoul?” in English, I inadvertently said in Korean “대표님은 서울에서 오셨어요?” which is an, albeit polite, simple direct translation. He looked quite confused and then asked me what I meant. Then I remembered that Koreans take verbs like “come” and “go” quite literally. There was no way that I could ask this question since both of us where sitting in Seoul at that moment. If we were in Busan, if would have made sense to ask if he had come to Busan from Seoul. I then rephrased the question asking if Seoul was his hometown, which effectively cleared all misunderstandings.
My biggest mistake when learning Korean in the beginning was focusing blindly on building useless vocabulary. I think tools like Memrise or Anki are amazing for reviewing learned vocabulary, but I’ve wasted hours on just using it to build vocabulary, which will essentially be useless since you can’t necessarily use the word in a context. Therefore, use these tools by all means, but use them wisely.