An Honest Review of 16 Months Studying Korean

I came to Korea for a variety of reasons; money, foreign-ness, a new language and a high potential of personal growth were all factors that pushed me to buy my plane ticket. I didn’t choose Korea specifically for Korean, rather I wanted to learn a new language in general, so I choose Korea and therefore Korean. So while I never had any special interest in the Korean language, per say, I did come to Korea preparing to learn the language and hopefully end up conversational. It’s been one of my big ongoing goals throughout my life in Korea and early on in the year, I was also writing about my progress with Korean language updates on the blog.

[Previous Updates: My Initial Plan, My Brain Exploding, Tortoise-ing, Writing A Story About a Tomato, Improvements]

Recently I’ve been quiet on the subject. I never stopped learning Korean, but the structured studying ebbed and flowed, ended, started, slowed, disappeared and was often put aside for more pressing matters. I poured a lot of energy into getting this blog officially up and running, I started practicing my photography, I ended up with a rescue puppy and significant time commitments to make sure she wouldn’t eat my house while I was at work, everyday. But while I haven’t been cracking open a textbook everyday (or even on a weekly basis), I have been learning Korean in less direct ways, through conversation, random research on a word I’d seen, and sometimes Korean music/media.

So now that I’ve got less than two months left in Korea (eek!), I thought it would be a good time to take an honest look at my methods, my progress and what I could have done better. While I can have basic conversations with a Korean, or text message conversations (where I can take a minute to look up any unknown words), more in depth in-person conversations are still impossible for me. I can ask for anything I need in a restaurant, store, or from a co-worker, but their responses remain a mystery to me 50% of the time. I have room for improvement. But to say I haven’t gotten anywhere would be a gross misstatement of the truth. I’ve gone far, but Korean requires more of me.

[Related Post: Tips and Resources for Learning Korean]

What I Did Right

I started off on the right pronunciation foot. Before arriving in Korea, I got private help from a Korean-American in town who taught me the alphabet and the correct pronunciation for words. When I arrived in Korea, I started meeting a Korean weekly and practicing vocabulary and verbs. By spending time with native speakers in the very beginning, I was able to get the right sounds off my tongue from the get-go. (To this day, I’m complimented on my pronunciation by Korean speakers.)

I collected a variety of resources. Studying can be boring, really, really boring. But I collected a bunch of different resources, from internet to books to flash cards to conversation partners and used them all. It was this variety that made it possible to study so often in my first couple months. It’s hard to get bored when you’ve got resources that engage all of your senses!

I met a Korean weekly. This ended for tragic, unforeseeable circumstances, but the two/three months that it continued was extremely helpful. Sadly, once it came to a stop, there was no way to begin again and I never found a replacement partner. But I learned a lot while this was in session and I think it’s one of the best ways to up your Korean game.

What I Did Okay

I spoke Korean with Korean people, sometimes. You’d think that by working with Koreans, I’d have taken that opportunity to practice my Korean with them everyday. Sadly, those opportunities arose fewer times than you’d think. When my co-teacher spoke to me, it was understandably to communicate some kind of important information. Which meant she spoke in English to make sure I understood. As for meeting Korean friends, I ended up adopting a kind of half Korean, half English conversation style. While I did use some Korean, it would have been better if I’d really pushed myself harder and tried to say more complicated sentences.

I got a Korean boyfriend. You shouldn’t get a Korean boyfriend unless you like your Korean boyfriend; the foreign language practice should be a bonus. But I can’t exclude this, because it’s played a big part in my language development. It’s been invaluable to have a living dictionary, kind of, whom I can text a question and get a quick response, or ask to clarify some grammar point I don’t understand. However, we don’t speak exclusively in Korean which would have really upped my level over time.

What I Did Badly

I invested time in language projects that I didn’t use. I spent a lot of time making flashcards, which was helpful at least to make them. Sadly, though, I made them, used them one time and they’ve been collecting dust in a pile ever since. Instead of spending hours finding the right card stock, drawing the pictures, writing the words and organizing the cards, I should have just studied more from the book. Or used Quizlet. Or anything really. I’ve never been a huge flashcard person, so I’m not sure why I thought this time would be different.

I never replaced my Korean conversation partner. While it wasn’t my fault that I couldn’t meet my first conversation partner anymore, it was definitely my fault that I never found another virtual one. My town is a third elderly, a third single middle aged men who work as laborers, and a third young children and their parents. It’s extremely difficult to find people my age in the neighborhood, so it’s understandable that another in-person conversation partner wasn’t in the cards. But I could have easily turned to iTalki, or any of the other Skype conversation exchanges available online. I didn’t.

I didn’t stick to a self-study schedule. Granted, once Mary came into my life, all schedules were thrown off. But I never had a consistent one to begin with, just a vague goal of “everyday” and some free time. If I had set aside certain times every week, then I think I’d have gotten a bit farther. My sporadic study sessions should have been regular. If I could go back in time, this would be the first thing I’d change.

At The End Of The Day

It’s funny how hindsight is 20/20 and looking back, I can see everything that I could have done better. But when it comes down to it, I’ve still learned a lot of Korean. No, we can’t discuss the intricacies of the USA political system in Korean (and a shame, because I’ve got a lot to say about that!). But I can tell you how to cook a classic American breakfast correctly. Still, I could be better at Korean by now, and it’s my own fault that I’m not. But while I can’t go back in time, I can apply these lessons to the next language on my plate. Like not to bother with flash cards, ever.

And when I get to my next foreign language (which based on history, is inevitable), I’m grateful that I’ll know, at least a little better, what to do.

[Related Post: A Critique: Benny the Irish Polyglot’s Language Learning Method]

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You can also find me on the ABOFA Facebook page, Instagram and Twitter. There’s also an email list, if you’d like to subscribe.

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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Confession: I’m No Vagabond

There are so many travel blogs on the internet and so many people who make their living heading from one place to the next and writing about it. It’s an exciting life, full of novelty and fresh faces, beautiful scenery and the percentage of the world that they’ve seen is constantly creeping up a little bit higher. It’s an important rite of passage into the well-traveled community to do a year long RTW trip, or something along those lines. But I have a confession to make: I don’t want to perpetually travel. I don’t want to wander without limits, forever. I don’t even want to dedicate a year of my life solely to seeing things in different countries. I’m not a vagabond.

I don’t feel compelled to walk down the untraveled path, just because I’ve never been down it.

So, why do I write a travel blog? Why did I go to Istanbul or Germany or Argentina and why the hell do I live in South Korea of all places? It’s not that I didn’t enjoy going to all of the places I’ve been privileged enough to see, on the contrary, I’ve had the time of my life and hope to continue the trend. But I don’t want to simply travel the world. I want to be a part of it. I don’t want to see all of the UNESCO Heritage sites. I don’t want to color in all the countries of the world on a map, one day. I want to do something in each of them.

How vague, Sally. Let me elaborate.

I want to spend time with the people in each region and make their lives better in whatever way I can. I’m talking about volunteering or meaningful employment, sharing, discussion. I really believe that every single person in the world has something to offer someone else that can improve life for both of them. It could be simply getting a cup of coffee and filling an hour with mutual laughter, or spending the time to braid someone’s hair or just sitting on the ground and creating sidewalk chalk art with a neighborhood kid. I’m not talking about monetary resources or marketable skills, although those certainly can be used to create happiness in someone else’s life. But those aren’t necessary: I believe that everyone has something to give, regardless of wealth of experience. It’s one of my priorities to use what I have, wealth, experience and otherwise, to add value to lives around me. It’s not enough to see the world for me, I want to create something positive in it.

My favorite lady monk did nothing but tell stories, but my life (and Korean!) was better for it.
My favorite lady monk did nothing but tell stories, but my life (and Korean!) was better for it.

One of the ways that I believe I can add happiness to the world around me forms the second and maybe the biggest motivator for my travels: I want to learn. The more you know about the people around you, the better you can make decisions that are considerate and kind. The entire world would be vastly different if each and every one of us took the time to understand and appreciate the strange cultures on the other side of the ocean. I think national politicians from every country should probably be reeducated in that regard. But that knowledge, that understanding and appreciation is why I want to see the world. It’s because I want to learn about it… all of it.

So while I’d be thrilled to spend a year traveling the world, I would hate spending that year only traveling the world. I want to volunteer with the world, I want to talk to the world, I want to learn about the world. The Taj Mahal is breathtaking, but the story behind it is infinitely more valuable and fascinating. Just like Croatia: the scenery is spectacular and it’s a beautiful place to vacation, but the history of Yugoslavia and each individual city in Croatia makes my eyes light up. I want to see the evidence of a different life in older times, or perhaps evidence that life was the same. I want to see how today’s economy is influenced by that history. When the history is sad, I want to cry with it and remind myself that there are things that we can prevent as moral human beings and it’s ultimately our responsibility to do so: the monkeys and camels of the world aren’t likely to intervene in an ethnic cleansing.

So while I don’t have itchy feet, longing to see something new and discontent with where I am, I certainly have a curiosity that has me by the neck. My insatiable thirst for knowledge and history and understanding cultures has the reins and is pushing me to ask questions. It pushes me to read books and talk to people and investigate the lives already lived and those that are still living. I’m a student and the world is teaching me every step of the way: division, reunification, love, hate, war, peace, destruction, restoration, cries and laughter. The how and the why of the past and their connections to everything going on today are what drive me forward, onward to new lands and people.

Germany isn't the only country that's faced division.
Germany isn’t the only country that’s faced division.

Traveling for the sake of travel has benefits and there are countless articles on that topic. Self confidence, understanding of your own culture, empathy and the release of materialism are all wonderful reasons to leave your hometown and set out for a bit to see something new. I’m not knocking the good in this, it’s real and it’s valuable. But, for me, travel has pushed me into all of this and then into a new arena: passion and a sense of justice. Everyone should have the chance to worry about “first world problems.” The entire world should be able to complain about their significant other buying the wrong kind of jelly at the grocery store. I’m not saying it’s a good thing to forget perspective, but it’s an evil thing to have perspective forced upon you by poverty, war, dying family or dysfunctional government. I want to contribute to eliminating circumstances like this, because I can and therefore I feel a responsibility to do so. I can’t simply sit back and watch, traveling country to country, buying the souvenirs and checking off the list. I need more.

So this is my confession: I’m not a perpetual wanderer of the world. I’m not a vagabond. I’m not pulled by adventure to see new horizons or complete a list of things to do before I die. At heart, I’m really just a slave to my curiosity, my need to know more about someone else, my desire to understand better and contribute where I can and add something positive to another’s life. At the end of the day, I’m nothing more than a naive, compassionate and curious nerd with no limits. I will go anywhere, give everything and talk to anyone in pursuit of knowledge and then follow that up with my time and dedication to making life better for all of us. That’s my big secret. My full, written and signed confession that I’m not a gypsy soul and I never will be.

And with that, I’m completely happy.

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the end of a job

after some shaky attendance and a few classes for which nobody showed up (causing me to lose three hours of my life), my teaching gig after-school has come to a close a little earlier than expected. while I’m sad that the class had to be prematurely canceled, I’m also relieved. not knowing whether no students or two students would show up to a class registered with over fifteen people was quite an annoyance. that’s what happens, though, when you offer free classes, after hours, with no repercussions for signing up and not attending… during one of the most stressful (and important!) months for the interns, who comprise over half of those registered. Continue reading the end of a job

how to become exhausted

work a full-time job, which means rush through dinner four days a week to catch the bus and proceed to your part-time job.

teach an extra five classes on top of your normal class load, without warning or time to prepare. (at least those extra five were lessons from the book?)

continue to drill Korean words into your skull… over and over and over. Continue reading how to become exhausted

A Critique: Benny the Irish Polyglot’s Language Learning Method

[Note: this critique was spurred when I re-read this article from Benny about how studying doesn’t help when learning a language.]

I’ve dedicated a lot of time and effort to language learning and the pursuit of fluency. When I was twelve, I began taking German classes in middle school. At 17, I stepped into a life in Austria and soon learned the difference between “learning” and “speaking” German. At 21, I decided to learn Spanish via complete immersion, and left after a semester both conversational and a little wiser as to how I learn languages in general. Now, I’m working on my third foreign language, Korean, and testing out the learning theories that I’ve formulated. I don’t speak a hundred languages and I don’t have a PhD, but I’ve learned a thing or two through these experiences. Continue reading A Critique: Benny the Irish Polyglot’s Language Learning Method

korean language update

one of my most important goals while living in Korea is the oh-so-obvious one: learn Korean. so much easier typed than said in Korean. or done. whatever that phrase is. my friends and family are under the impression that I’m some sort of language-goddess, and while I aspire to one day evolve into such a deity, for now I remain mere mortal. I do admit to having some skills, but those skills are also known as practice and experience. no magic in there, yet.

as for my actual level right now, a good friend of mine asked me the other day, “are you getting conversational yet?” and my answer was this: helllllll no. I’m still trying to remember how to say, “my name is Sally.” Continue reading korean language update

travel diary down South: Cheonan, Daegu, Tong Yeong and Busan (Korea)

vacation time: it’s glorious. but it ends before you know it. I’m back in my little apartment already, although I have until tomorrow (Sunday) to be away… but when it’s time to go home and you know it, then it’s best to go home. and according to my bank account, it was definitely time.

(it’s weird how vacations just eat money, kind of like my cousins’ dogs eat the food we “accidentally” throw on the floor during dinner.)

anyhow, short as my trip was, I managed to cover a decent amount of ground and still enjoy myself at the same time. revision: I had a blast. here’s the lowdown: Continue reading travel diary down South: Cheonan, Daegu, Tong Yeong and Busan (Korea)

two questions I wish I could pose to my students

if you speak up and make a mistake (in English), what will happen?

a) the world will suddenly and without warning tear to pieces and everyone will die

b) Sally will be angry with me

c) everyone will make fun of my mistake (do they speak English perfectly? will they even notice you made one?)

d) nothing bad and I might learn something

if you don’t speak up (in English) and remain silent at all times, what will happen?

a) I will magically and instantly absorb all English knowledge and become fluent

b) I am guaranteed to learn nothing

Lessons Learned About Myself in Argentina

book coffee happiness

When you travel, especially when you travel by yourself (as I am currently doing), you learn a whole lot about yourself. You also learn small things, such as how to get around on public transportation, how to use and find maps, how to pack your backpack more efficiently. As helpful as these lessons are, though, they aren’t the real ones. The real lessons are about who you are and what you’re like, separate from home and perhaps despite home. These are the lessons that I am talking about.

Five personal lessons that I’m willing to admit to:

I am Cheap

I am really, really, really cheap. I buy the same three things when I go grocery shopping for a few days of food: bread, bananas, and sandwich meat. This usually costs about 20 pesos, or 5 US dollars. When I have the choice between reloading my card to take the bus or not, I won’t, and then I’ll end up walking 35 minutes uphill because I just couldn’t bring myself to spend the extra pesos. I also get uncomfortable when someone talks about going out to dinner; that’s for rich people.

I am Physically Lazy

When given the choice of two activities, one that involves physical activity but is worth it and one that doesn’t, I will generally choose to be lazy. If asked, I will claim that I like the former.

I Always Get Lost

I will, inevitably, without a single doubt or exception: get lost. No I am not joking. It always happens. Need to get to my hostel? Lost. Need to find the grocery store? Lost. Trying to find that one museum? Lost. This wouldn’t be nearly so bad, except for the next point…

I am Stubborn

One of these days I am going to wake up half transformed into a mule, like Shrek. This point plays into all of the other ones: I am stubborn and won’t spend money (hence being cheap) and if I get lost, I won’t ask for directions more than once. Even if I don’t understand the answer. If someone invites me to do something that I’m clearly not physically fit for, I’ll accept their invitation and then push myself to do the whole thing. You know, since I already claimed I would. My family can attest to this and now that this is on the internet, I really can’t argue when they say, “I told you so!”

I Only Need Two Things: Coffee and a Book

I could spend a whole day reading and writing in any cafe and I would be content and caffeinated. This may or may not be the first thing I do when I visit a city. Does this make me a bad traveler? Maybe, but I don’t care and I’m vividly aware of my lameness. Thankfully, that also means extra good posts for you guys to read!

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What has traveling, backpacking, studying abroad or just visiting a foreign country taught you about yourself?

You can also find me on the ABOFA Facebook page, Instagram and Twitter. There’s also an email list, if you’d like to subscribe.