The Superpower You Can Cultivate: Foreign Language

This morning is a Saturday, and Saturdays are always a tough day to write a blog post. I dug through my purse to find my external hard drive, hoping that going over some old pictures would spark something that I could use. I quickly realized that I’d accidentally left my external hard drive at work and there would be no access to photographs until Monday. Shucks.

So, I headed over to the Daily Post, who has been posting different prompts for NaBloPoMo writers everyday. Most of these have been much more geared towards personal blogs, and I haven’t had a chance to use a single one yet. But the most recent prompt was a strike of luck. It read:

You get to choose one superpower. Pick one of these, and explain your choice:

– the ability to speak and understand any language
– the ability to travel through time
– the ability to make any two people agree with each other

Now, as a travel/expat blogger, I’m sure you can guess which one of these superpowers I would choose. Time travel, obviously! Jokes. No, I’m convinced that being able to speak and understand any language would be the ultimate superpower, for a myriad of reasons. I’m going to tell you about each and every one of them

Easier & Carefree Travel

This is a pretty obvious benefit. You could literally go anywhere in the world and find a place to sleep, eat and sightsee with minimal effort. Your safety automatically doubles, because if you’re lost you can ask for help, you can get warnings ahead of time about unsafe areas of the region and you are more likely to talk yourself out of any potentially bad situations. You can ask about bigger towels at some tiny, cheap motel and you can read the street signs in the area. Learning the language in a country you’ll be traveling in just makes everything, all around, way better.

A good Spanish word to learn is "Peligro", which means danger. Which is also not something you'd expect on a hill filled with bright yellow flowers.
A good Spanish word to learn is “Peligro”, which means danger. Which is also not something you’d expect on a hill filled with bright yellow flowers.

Hear People’s Stories

Sit down with your hostel owner and a cup of coffee and learn about his family, how he came to open a hostel, what makes him happy in life. Ask the person next to you on the plane where they’re going and what they do for a living. See an elderly Jewish grandmother in Germany and be able to listen to, understand and learn from her experiences in World War II. Ask a little girl what her favorite color is, her favorite book is and whether she has any younger siblings. People are fascinating and they have incredible stories to tell, especially those that live a different life than you. And from people like that, there are endless amounts to learn.

Always Find A Job

This reason is a bit superficial, but you instantly have job security. If you’re ever, and I mean ever, unemployed, speaking rare, difficult languages will solve your problem and quickly. Where there isn’t a translation position (which there always is), there are other corporate positions that just need someone to relay information between two global units of the same company. Talk about breathing easy!

Secret Eavesdropping

Oh, the things people say to each other when they’re alone… or think that no one can understand them. This one is especially lucrative, because you can always pretend you don’t speak a native language and hear both sides of a negotiation. Of course, this also comes with a downside: people say stupid, annoying things all the time. You’ll never again have the illusion that people abroad are less obsessed with the superficial than people in your country.

This line full of Korean people wanting to buy Prada is one example of conversations I'm happy not to eavesdrop on.
This line full of Korean people wanting to buy Prada is one example of conversations I’m happy not to eavesdrop on.

Insane Dreams

Have you ever had one of those bilingual dreams, where one person is speaking English and then in your dream you’re trying to come up with the German words for your response? And then French or Korean or Spanish comes out of nowhere and you wake up super confused? No? Just me? Well, if you can fluently speak and understand every language, everywhere, then you’re going to have some absolutely crazy dreams. That’s pretty cool.

Better Informed

You know when the news only reports one side of an international story? You know when all the newspapers all say the same thing, because there was only one person who was able to translate the Cantonese and that exact translation is the same source for every TV station? Speaking every language would put an end to these limited information scenerios. You could tune into foreign broadcasts, read the newspaper in Spain and even shoot out an email to a contact in Ghana. You would be the best-informed person around.

LEARN spanish travel informed
Learning Spanish means you can read about news in all of South America, from South American sources. That’s pretty valuable.

I’m going to let out a little of my teacher side, now. While it’s probably impossible to learn all of the 6,000 or 7,000 languages in the entire world, it’s totally possible to cultivate a little slice of this superpower. Just by virtue of being able to read this, you’re already able to communicate with nearly 10% of the entire world (a little over half of those people speak English as a second language). If you learn Mandarin, just one second language, you’ve just upped your percentage to 20-25%, depending on that ESL overlap. If you learn Spanish, with 406 million native speakers, you’ve just racked up another 5% of the world with whom you can have a conversation, not adding in second language learners.

You see what I’m saying here? You can actually have 1/4th of a superpower, if you want. Yeah, it’ll take a few years of hard work and looking like a fool (with your pants on the ground! Sorry. Couldn’t resist.) And true, it’s not something you can mindlessly do, you’ll have to put in the time and effort. But you could have one fourth of a superpower! Isn’t that awesome?

That’s why I’ve written a language resource page for Korean and shared other updates on my life, while studying other languages. If other people are inspired to study a foreign language, then they are actively making their own lives better. I’ve experienced these benefits firsthand and they are real. They are significant.

And for me, all of those reasons are what keep me going in my own language studies, be it German, Spanish or now Korean. It’s always, always been worth it. And I can promise it would be for you, too.

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Tips and Resources for Learning Korean

Before I arrived in Korea, I spent about a month studying Hangul (the Korean letter system) and was thrilled with my ability to read words out loud. Shortly after I arrived, I realized that I’ll probably also need to understand the words, not just read them. It was going to be a long, tough road to conversational in Korean. After going down that road for some time, I realized it was actually going to be more of a mountain climb than long walk, and perhaps I needed some better equipment.

That’s what this list is. This is your mountain climbing equipment for learning Korean. If you’re in Korea, you’ve already got a nice jacket of language immersion to help you out. If you’re not, that’s okay: you’ll need to bring more effort to the game, however. If you want to learn Korean, be able to converse and understand people in a variety of contexts, you need to work really hard. So hard. This shit ain’t easy, but if you can communicate to someone that you really love rice cakes in Korean, you’re infinitely more likely to get a surprise bag full of freshly made rice cakes the next day. What I’m trying to say is that it’s worth it.

Before I get carried away, let’s just get to the point. Here’s what you can use to get to the top of that giant mountain and eat your rice cakes, too.

Internet Resources

Talk To Me in Korean

Hands down one of the best resources I’ve ever encountered. If the audio lessons aren’t your thing, you can head straight to the PDF for explanations and example sentences. One of my favorite features is just the website search bar; if I encounter a word I don’t know how to use, I just search for the lesson on that topic and enlighten myself. Bam. They also have lots of cool video lessons to mix it up when you’re feeling bored with that same old grind.

Sogang Korean Program

Heads up, this resource is best in Internet Explorer. A bunch of people swear by this website, and I’ve looked through a few times and learned a thing or two. I personally prefer the TTMIK (above) but definitely check this out before deciding where to study. Or study all of the Internet resources. Whatever you want. This site combines audio, reading comprehension and all that good stuff you’ll need to become a Korean conversation master.

UC Berkeley Online Intermediate College Korean

Like the title says, this is available in the intermediate level only. It’s a lot of Korean words in your face which can be scary (more like terrifying), but the explanations are clear and there are listening and other exercises to help you practice. There’s also lots and lot of vocabulary for you to remember!

Naver Dictionary

Naver is the biggest Korean search engine and it’s no surprise that their English to Korean dictionary is fabulous. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can look at their endless example sentences (most are not low level by any means). The dictionary gives several definitions so you can get a better feel for the meaning.

Helpful Korean vocabulary for navigating the website: 사전 = dictionary, 영어 = English, 단어/숙어 = word translation, 예문 = example sentences, 더보기 = see more.

iTalki

This is a great site for a couple reasons. First, you can video chat with a native speaker who will help you with pronunciation and conversational errors. Fo’ free! Second, you can also set up scheduled language tutoring sessions or more intense, actual lessons with a teacher via Skype. This is great for those without a convenient classroom setting to jump in on. And at the bare minimum, you can also write notebook entries/practice sentences and receive corrections from other users.

TOPIK Guide

This website is designed to prep people for the TOPIK test, a Korean as a foreign language test that certifies you at different levels of ability. However, even if you’re not planning to take the test, there is a treasure trove of vocabulary and grammar for you to study, with definitions. You can also download old versions of the test and try out the practice questions, or actually simulate a test as intended. Your call!

Quizlet

Now, flashcard fiends, welcome to your new best friend. Stop killing so many trees, install the app on your phone and practice using virtual flash cards. The games are pretty basic, but they help more than you’d think and you’re also able to generate quizzes and tests for yourself. The phone app is nice for a passive commute or whenever you’re just too lazy to turn on your laptop.

The Paper Products

Talk To Me in Korean Textbook/Workbook

I haven’t personally used either of these, but judging from their audio lessons and other resources, these books are probably the shit. I’m waiting for a workbook to come out that’s at my level, but for those starting out, there’s wonderful news. The level 1 textbook and workbook have already been completed and are available for purchase!

Korean Made Easy For Beginners

This textbook is clear, straightforward and even comes with an audio CD! (As any language learning book worth it’s salt should. For real.) I have it, I used it and I would recommend it! Also, it’s bright pink… can’t go wrong there.

Korean 1 by the Language Education Institute of Seoul National University

For beginners, this book is kind of a rough ride, because it’s so Korean intensive and prefers to explain through numerous examples and as few English words as possible. It also concentrates on learning the formal tenses of Korean, which drives me nuts, since that’s not as useful. I’d recommend switching between this textbook and one of the online resources, because dang does it get boring. But the content is useful, rigorous and helpful if you can get past the eye-stabbingly-bland design and give it some brain work. It’s also a nice place to dig up new vocabulary words, if you’re into that flashcard kind of thing.

Children’s Books

Wait, really? Yes. Revert to childhood, crack open a story for two-year-olds and bask in the simple, decipherable sentences that you actually have a chance of understanding. This is wonderful for noticing typical sentence patterns and learning words like, “once upon a time”, “magic”, and “dedication”. Don’t worry, no one is forcing you to take those books out in public, it’s okay to keep that at home.

In-Person

A Native-Speaking Language Exchange Partner

This is one of the aspects of learning Korean that I’m lacking and I’m constantly wishing I knew someone in this tiny, 40-year-old-man infested country town! But really: work your hardest to find a native Korean who’s willing to meet you somewhat regularly for conversation practice. (Or meet them virtually, using iTalki, above!) I met someone for the first couple months of my studies and it really helped me start off with correct Korean pronunciation. I once paid my Korean tutor in alcohol to make sure I could read the alphabet correctly, before I arrived in Korea. Whatever you have to do, do it. It doesn’t matter what stage of learning you’re at, you can figure out something for them to help you with on a weekly basis, even if that’s just listening to you repeat the same 25 nouns for half an hour.

A Traditional Korean Class

If you live anywhere near a University that offers Korean language classes, you should probably get in on that. If the pace is too slow for you, you can always supplement your curiosity with the above Internet resources. I know that some classes are expensive, and sometimes people in your class are so stupid you want to bash them over the head. (Pro tip: don’t do that.) But if you have the money or can even bribe the professor with brownies into letting you audit, it’ll be worth it to have the regular motivation and not have to search out material to study. You can’t take a month “brain absorption period”, aka slack for a month when you’re enrolled in a class!

Tip: If you’re in Seoul, I’ve heard awesome things about the Seoul National University courses, and Visit Korea’s website has an entire list of the Universities that offer classes for foreigners in all of Korea. I’ve also heard of people taking classes at their city’s YMCA and occasionally some education offices will arrange free classes for English Teachers in the area.

Even More Resources

These are some massive lists of way too many resources, all in one place. I don’t have time to go through all two million of these and evaluate them, so I’ll leave that up to you. If nothing above helps, then you’ll definitely find something here, though you have a thorough search ahead of you!

So You Wanna Learn Korean?

Matthew’s Korean Study and Reference Guide

Reddit: The Ultimate Beginners Resource Thread

My best tip is this: don’t just use one of these resources, use as many of them as you can handle regularly. Schedule a day for vocabulary building with Quizlet, an hour with a conversation partner and some lessons every day with Talk to Me in Korean. The next week see what that Sogang website it all about and do a virtual lesson on iTalki. Spreading yourself out on all of these isn’t what I’m suggesting, because you will need to commit to some kind of schedule to keep yourself going. But don’t block in 3 hours a day with TTMIK, 5 days a week and nothing else. Variety is the spice of life… Korean food is spicy, and your study routine should be too.

Anyways, it’s time for me to get going. I’ve got a Korean mountain to continue climbing, but I won’t be needing my hiking boots today.

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