Memorization (암기) does not have the best of reputations in Western education. Teachers and lawmakers worship at the altar of creativity (창의성) and critical thinking (비판적 사고) instead. This is all well and good, but where is the creativity if you have nothing to be creative from? And how can you be critical of anything if you know nothing? A true pianist or composer, for example, has tons of material memorized over which he may make endless creative variations. My grandmother also didn’t prepare Christmas dinner nose-deep in cooking books and handwritten recipes. She had done it for so many years that she had everything in her head, and it always came out perfect. To this day I still use her recipe for pancakes using exactly four eggs as she always did. I don’t think she ever wrote it down for me, she just showed me how to make pancakes in her tiny kitchen, and by watching and helping her on countless occasions, I learned how to make the world’s best pancakes.
Like things we know how to do well, we have also all memorized the meaning of several thousands of words in our native language. It’s not like we suddenly encounter the word “apple” and turn to a dictionary to find its meaning. It’s been stored in our brain for as long as we can remember. In the same way, no one gets away with mastering a foreign language without at least to some degree memorizing words and phrases. When I entered the Korean speech contest in October last year, I had my whole 4-minute long speech memorized word by word (actually, I still do to this day). At some point during my preparation for the speech, my Korean language partner even pointed out that I was very good at memorizing. Wow, hear this from a Korean and you’ve got yourself a compliment! Just the other day he sent me a picture of a page from his super technical engineering textbook over KakaoTalk with the the caption “이거 다 외워야 돼요 ㅠㅠㅠ” (I have to memorize all of this 😦 😦 😦 ) There is no doubt that particularly Koreans have a tradition for practicing cramming and memorization, which can often may make their foreign language skills sound slightly mechanical, even though their comprehension is just fine. In conclusion, there are good and less good ways to memorize words when learning a new language, or anything really . However, memorization is a necessity if you want to become fluent, or if you want to master a certain skill.
Rather than using the often negatively loaded word, think of is as internalization if you prefer. When a word is internalized in your brain you have full command over it. There are roughly three groups of words: Words you don’t know, words you recognize, and words you have command over; that is words that you know and are able to use actively. Internalization of new vocabulary is therefore simply the process of making a word transition from being unknown to becoming internalized.
So, what should you memorize? Anything that is of use to you, and absolutely nothing that is useless. The more Korean I know, the harder I actually find it to figure out what to memorize. For a while I studied with Yonsei’s Vocabulary for Foreigners, but it got boring quite quickly. Now, I instead prefer to use this book as a supplement to the Naver dictionary. After having had a long break from my Integrated Korean textbook series, since I finished Advanced 1, I decided to start reading the Advanced 2 volume. This seems much more interesting and I enjoy reading it much more, now that I’ve allowed myself to skip boring chapters covering for instance classical Korean instruments or the engineering behind Korean floor heating systems. I’m reading to learn, and I only learn if I enjoy what I’m reading. I will read the skipped chapters at some point, but right now it suits my study motivation to “eat my dessert before my dinner”.
Here’s how I go about memorizing vocabulary. When reading a chapter, I circle all new the words I encounter. Then, I look at the end-of-chapter glossary and mark the circled words with an x. I then count all the x’s. There are usually 30-40 new words per chapter. I then re-read the chapter once or twice. The following day I then write down the sentences in which the new words occur and highlight the words in red. This helps me learn the word through context. Without making a real effort to memorize, I then wait a few hours, or until I get home from work, and then I take out my notebook and try to write down as many of the new words as I can remember. It’s astonishing how many actually resurface even though I didn’t think I could recall them. This exercise is also great before falling asleep. Simply close your eyes and see how many of the new words you can think of. Trust me, it beats counting sheep and soon you’ll be drifting off, maybe dreaming in Korean.