Updated: Feb 18, 2021
와~ 한국말 잘 하시네요! Let's talk about my Korean language learning journey and why I always hear the previous phrase: "Wow! You're so good at Korean!" The gag is, I'm not.
You may already know a part of this story if you have read my very first blog post "Why I'm Living in South Korea." If not please check it out! But in the meantime I will fill you in on how I started learning Korean in the first place.
I knew that I wanted to travel to East Asia, so why not prepare by learning an East Asian language. I knew that attemping to learn Chinese would be too optimistic. So I narrowed my options down to Japanese and Korean. Intially, the shape of the Korean alphabet seemed to be too difficult to grasp; without trying I pushed the Korean language aside. Instead I began trying to learn Japanese. I started with the basics: hello, goodbye, thank you, and my name is...nice yo meet you. And my Japanese language journey quickly came to an end. Once I learned that there were two writing systems I lost confidence and gave up.
I was left to learn Korean. But I was so amazed and grateful for the amount of free online resources available to help me learn Korean. My favorite and most popular resource is Talk To Me In Korean. At that time (2012), Talk To Me In Korean provided audio lessons along with pdf lesson notes. Today the they offer the same along with video lessons on YouTube, paid content, and a bookstore.
During the time that I was out of school, I set aside time to listen to audio lessons, take notes and make flashcards to help me study. I was also watching Korean dramas and films which rapidly improved my Korean listening skills.
The great thing about the Korean language is that its phonetic just like English. So each character has a specific sound. I recall, being so proud of myself when I could first read Korean. I started by reading short words with only one or two syllables. Hyunwoo Sun, the head teacher and CEO at Talk To Me In Korean says that it only takes one hour to be able to read hangeul (korean alphabet). The ease of learning to read explains why South Korea has one of the lowest illiteracy rates in the world. Everybody in Korean can read!
After three years of listening to audio lessons and music, and watching dramas, I was finally able to take a Korean class in the Summer of 2015. I studied intermediate Korean at Hanyang International Summer School in Seoul. The course was a month long intensive course that last two hours, Monday through Thursday. I was nervous because I knew the teacher would be speaking mostly in Korean, but I was too advanced for the beginner level class. One of my classmates enourged me by saying that I was in a good place, because I could soak up so much knowledge from the more advanced students. He was right. Although I was nervous and lacked confidence, I did learn a lot.
Being in Korea and being forced to use the language, helped me gain the confidence I needed. I became comfortable with making mistakes and in turn, I learned so much in a small span of time.
I was also able to use Korean at my on-campus job as an assistant for Korean Programs in the International Affairs Ofice. I often met Korean students and practiced speaking Korean with them. However, most of the time they wanted to practice English with me, which is understandable. I practiced a great deal of Korean with a Summer Program student whom I became good friends with. Read more about him in my first book, Q&A: Selected Poems & Short Stories.
Living in South Korea, actively using the language in my daily life, I have learned the most this time around. I hear Korean on a daily basis and I find myself able to understand a large portion of what is being said around me. I can visit the doctor, order food, call a taxi, all quite well on my own.
In October I began seeing a private tutor once a week to study Korean. My tutor teaches me grammar points as well as vocabulary, and reading and speaking practice. I have a few pages of homework that she grades and corrects for too. Overall, I enjoy my tutoring sessions. I only wish that I had more Korean friends to practice the language with.
However, that is changing. I recently began attending church in my city and the pastors' and members have welcomed my friends and I with open arms. The church offers a biligual service in which the worship and the sermon are done in English and Korean. Specifically, worship songs are sung in Korean and English alternately. And the pastor preaches in both langauges traslating the message himself. This helps me to practice my listening and comprehension skills quickly.
I am optimistic that I will continue to build supportive relationships with the Koreans in my circles, so that I can increase my confidence and speaking ability.
I encourage you to set your sights on whatever goals you have, language learning or otherwise, and continue to surround yourself with individuals who are willing to help you acheive them. You can do everything you set your heart to do, starting is the hardest part!