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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My Really Vague, Noncommital Future Plans

The speed at which I am committing to my future plans.
The speed at which I am committing to my future plans.

I’ve still got a solid four months left in South Korea, and that’s nothing to balk at. But as the summer winds down and flights home are booked, stray thoughts pester me with more and more frequency. What’s next? What’s next? What’s next? When I sit down for a moment on my laptop, I find myself searching for information about strange destinations, apartment rental prices, the best library system and volunteer opportunities. Leaving Korea, I’ll have a tiny bit of financial padding, but no impending bills to pay. I’ll essentially be very, very free. (Until 2015, when loan payments will be due again…) What’s next? What’s next? What’s next?

I have nailed down nothing, but I’ve come up with some vague plans that may come to fruition. Some more vague than others. Some fairly certain, yet without a timeline. First things first, I’ll celebrate Christmas with my family and visit friends and relatives whom I haven’t seen in ages. That should take me through about a month, I’m guessing, and hopefully doesn’t burn through too much of my baby nest egg, either.

Then, I’m headed to Mexico.

Awww yeah. I’m currently researching volunteer projects in the area that are free/in exchange for accommodation and food when possible. (And if you know of any, you’ve got to let me know!) I’m hoping to find something more along the lines of an internship, where I can really invest myself for 3 or so months and learn about the organization (or organizations). I’d love to see some parts of Mexico while I’m there, too, but I’m not sure that really in depth travel through the country is possible at the moment. Either some Mexican Cartels will chop me up or my parents will for risking anything in the first place. So I’ll be sticking to major cities, the districts without travel warnings and anywhere recommended to me by someone who’s gone and enjoyed the place. I’m sure they’ll still be no shortage of experiences, regardless.

As for the timeline, I’m giving myself anywhere between three and eight months to be in Mexico. I have a non negotiable wedding to attend in June, which I may fly back for or be home already, but other than that, I’m free. My plans are wide open. I’m going to travel until my time or money runs out. (I’m rooting for time. Go time! Run out first! Time, yeahhh!) I’ll also get that Spanish practice in, since my language skills have seriously lapsed since my semester in Argentina. But it’s in my brain somewhere and I intend to dig it out, dust it off, and make it shiny again. And then?

I’m applying to graduate school in South Korea.

While technically I’m applying this January/February, I’ll hear back in April/May and the program I want to do begins in September. This plan is definitely in limbo and is walking the edge of a cliff at the moment. First, I have to get into the program, which is competitive. Second, I have to see if I’ll receive enough scholarship to actually attend. This is very competitive. Third, I have to decide that this is really what I want to do for the next two years. I’ve been in Korea for a while and I’d like to see some new sights, but perhaps a Mexico-breather and moving to Seoul will be enough.

Maybe not, though. My mind yo-yos.

Where's the Eingang (entrance) to see what the future holds?
Where’s the Eingang (entrance) to see what the future holds?

There are also some other thoughts that bounce around my head.

I’d really, really love to catch up on my to-read list. I’ve always wanted to do a kind of book hermitage, where I hang out alone in some city and solely read books and feed myself for two months. The USA would be the best place to do that, obviously: public libraries are the only way I could afford it. This upcoming year may be the perfect time to do that.

I do want to “finish” Korean, or learn it to a level that would get me into the professional world (would I so choose). Doing graduate school for two years in Seoul would certainly put me on that level, but so would taking some hardcore, 4-hours-a-day Korean lessons at the same university in Seoul, 3 months at a time, for less than 2 years. The downside of that would be $$$ and not being able to work for the initial 6 months because of visa regulations. I could also find a new job teaching English in Korea, save up and “finish” Korean, but I feel like I really need a break. Classroom EFL is not my cup of tea; I cringe at having to do another year so quickly after finishing this contract.

I also desperately want to see more of the world. I can’t help but see pictures of Prague and feel as though I should be there. Or Vietnam. Or London. Or Morocco. One day I’d like to work in a career that involves the world (vague, once again, Sally!), but I can’t imagine doing so without getting to know it. I can’t read about places and pretend that I understand the culture; it just doesn’t work that way. But money. Because the way I want to see the world involves a month or two with a local roommate, several books for context and a lot of delicious food… per country. And then volunteer work. So this idea, fully implemented, could take a really, really long time and cost a lot. I don’t have the start up funds for such a venture, yet.

Then there are the random ideas of interning with a political campaign (one of my future fields of interest), finding a job in the USA that allows me to travel sometimes (HAH!), writing a book, visiting Denmark, moving to France to learn French and all matters of nonsensical craziness that is coursing through my thoughts. My brain feels like a two year old’s piece of crayon “art”.

This is significantly more orderly than the inside of my head at the moment.
This is significantly more orderly than the inside of my head at the moment.

So the point of this convoluted word purge is that my brain is swimming, and I have no idea what the future holds.

Really, no one should know or we’d all be bored out of our minds. I’ve made some tentative plans and I’m excited to see what happens. But I can’t shake this strange feeling that all of my planning is soon going to go to crap. Like my whole life is going to implode. Like I’m going to end up in some country, somewhere completely different than anything I’ve planned and it’s going to be weird and unexpected and impulsive.

I’m just trusting that whatever happens, it’s also going to be good.

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Opposite Travel Styles, Claudia, and Berlin

Not everyone has the same travel style. In fact, even people in love may not necessarily travel well together. When I told Claudia that I’d be in Berlin and we worked out that she’d join me for about a week in Berlin, this wasn’t on my mind. I didn’t think about it. I was just excited to see Claudia after five years and a week with her sounded wonderful, no matter what the circumstances.

And it was. We met at the hostel and exchanged hugs right away. We shared a lot of delicious cocktails outside, took some long walks and generally had a great time in Berlin together. But it wasn’t all cake and champagne, because as we found out within 24 hours, we are complete opposites when it comes to planning. It had me worrying at first. We were supposed to have an amazing week as old friends. How were we going to do this?

Back in the day.
Back in the day.

I’m the kind of traveler that may or may not purchase the Lonely Planet guide ahead of time. I don’t have a list of things I’d like to see ahead of time. My research is kept to a bare minimum and involves mentally adding to a list things people ask if I’ve seen. I’ll sometimes put one thing on my to-see list and spend the better part of the remaining day just wandering the area and finding things to do on my way. I’ll go out of my way to find a highly recommended restaurant. The method to my madness is simply to feel the pulse of a city for a moment. If I feel hungry, I’ll eat, if I’m tired, I’ll go sleep, no matter how much of my mental to-see list was completed. Sometimes this works out really well and I see everything I should, other times I completely miss a huge, iconic part of the city. (Although regardless, I always have a nice time.)

Claudia plans. She had her guidebook, she had read and highlighted things she’d like to visit. She will not stop for the evening until everything is completed and she’ll hurry through one place to make sure that she gets to the next before it closes. She thinks about travel times and knows which bus to take before she gets to the bus stop. She’s prepared and ready for each day before it begins, treating it as a series of things to be conquered. And she does it well, very well. Better yet, I can tell she enjoys it. In the time that we were in Berlin, she managed to fit in a crazy amount of sightseeing. I was impressed.

But we are completely, 200%, 180 degrees different when it comes to planning our time while traveling. Both styles are fine, nice ways to vacation in a new city, but are they compatible?

Our first couple days were a trial. She’d ask me what I want to do and I’d give a noncommittal shrug and say “whatever you want!” This probably drove her crazy, since it was her second time in Berlin and she wanted to make sure I was having a nice vacation; I wouldn’t be back in Berlin anytime soon. Then it would be dinner time, I would get hungry and point out an obscure restaurant some friend on Tumblr told me about with not very exact directions. We’d be on our way to the S-Bahn stop and she would want to sit and figure out our public transportation before boarding the street car, I’d prefer to jump on, head downtown and figure out the exact route while on our way. Claudia loves pizza, I like meaty burritos. Claudia is a vegetarian.

Talk about opposites.

Claudia, planning things.
Claudia, planning things.

But slowly, as the afternoons passed, we somehow figured out how to accommodate each other. She started making her plans and telling me about them, I decided whether I would join or not, or for how long. I let her figure out all of the public transportation ahead of time. She came along when there was something delicious nearby, and I tried to find places in the area from other places she might be more interested in. I quickly learned that Claudia probably wasn’t going to eat the same thing that I wanted, but I should just eat it anyways and then sit through her meal, later. By the end, we were splitting up entirely, but agreed to meet for dinner or drinks at a certain time. When we went to Potsdam, she elected to do a group bus tour and I did an audio guided solo bike tour, instead. We met up afterwards and talked about the things each of us saw (or missed), each of us having enjoyed the tour and also happy to be able to discuss it afterwards.

By giving and taking, doing some things together and plenty of things separate, being clear about what each of us undoubtedly wanted to see or do (or in my case, eat!), we smoothed over the rough patches that inevitably come while traveling with your complete travel planning opposite. The benefit for me of seeing Berlin with Claudia was that she forced me to be a bit more organized than I might have been otherwise, which meant that I saw more of the city. I may have never made it to Potsdam if it weren’t for Claudia, but Potsdam was one of my favorite areas of Berlin. She pushed me to be more efficient, even if I did want to knock her over while she made us run for the subway. I really hate running to catch any kind of train.

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This would have been the perfect moment to knock her over, but instead I just took some pictures.

And I’m sure that she wanted to toss me into oncoming traffic more than a few times as I said, “Eh, it won’t take 30 minutes, probably just 25. We don’t have to leave right now,” or “It doesn’t really matter to me, you can decide,” and “Yeah, I don’t know what my plans are for the morning yet,” ten minutes before bed.

But somehow we did it and still had a great time. We shared cocktails galore, lots of bakery stops in the morning, museum after museum after museum and the joys (terrors) of staying in a party hostel with an actual club outside the window. My last evening in Berlin I spent alone, she’d already flown out, and it was a little quiet and strange. I had a glass of wine outside and endured an hour of a sudden, huge thunderstorm underneath the restaurant umbrella. As the rain came down hard and the wind whipped drops all over my table, I thought to myself that it was a moment I would have liked to have shared. With Claudia.

The final cocktail before she flew home.
The final cocktail before she flew home. Sad day.

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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.

Upcoming: 2 Weeks in Germany

Here's a picture of me at 17, in Austria, falling in love with the German language. (No, really, I'm pretty sure that's exactly what I was doing in this picture. Trust me.)
Here’s a picture of me at 17, in Austria, falling in love with the German language. (No, really, I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what I was doing in this picture. Trust me.)

Wonderful things are on the horizon! Yes, I’m talking about my upcoming vacation time, the majority of which will be spent in Deutschland.

Why Germany? To explain it properly, I’ll have to tell you a little secret.

Continue reading Upcoming: 2 Weeks in Germany