Elwood 5566

Am I Really That Dumb?

Posted in bathhouse Ballads, Diary notes, Korean language by 노강호 on March 11, 2010

Korean alaphabet

I think I must be pretty dumb when it comes to learning foreign languages though the skills I do have are clearly above average. I claim this because recently, European Union research highlighted only 5% of British people can count to 20 in a foreign language. Apparently, Americans fair worse! As I can count to 20 in 4 languages, though in two that’s all I can do, I can designate myself a polyglot.

Anyone who has lived in Korea long enough and is battling to learn the language will have met those ‘linguists’ who seem to have picked the language up in a few weeks. Don’t they depress you! I met a chap last summer who told me he’d learned the Korean alphabet in ‘a couple of hours!’ My God! I’ve been struggling with it for years. When I tried to clarify whether he meant he was familiar with it or could actually read it, he insisted his abilities were sufficient to read text though not understand it.  I remember another passing acquaintance, a very colourful character, who insisted the language was ‘easy’ and all you had to do was add ‘yo’ onto the end of everything – which also  included English words. And then there are those who tell you their level even though they don’t go to classes and have never been assessed. Of course, they’re never a beginner like you are and usually pitch themselves at ‘intermediate’ or if a little humbler, ‘lower intermediate.’ This always reminds me of the cartoon character Peggy, from King of the Hill, who says she has:  ” an IQ of 180, give or take a few points because she assessed herself.”

No language is easy and Korean, with a totally different alphabet, three  speech levels, honorifics, dialects,  the numerous pronunciation exceptions created by certain sound combinations and then the fact that many sounds, ㄷ ㅌ ㄸ ㄱ ㅋ ㄲ ㅓ, to name a few, cannot be rendered by an English equivalent. Or at least this is my humble understanding. So it is neither ‘Daegu’ or ‘Taegu’ and indeed the only way to write the city’s name free of ambiguity is as  대구. Of course, if you want to be really flash you can write it in hanja, 大邱. Recognising sounds is another skill and one I find my weakest. The way Koreans cut short particular final consonants often causes me great confusion so I end up muddling ‘ginger’ with ‘thinking’ and ‘acorn curd’ with ‘eagles.’  Asking the market stall owner how much the ‘eagle curd’ is or, if they have any ‘thinking?’ raises eyebrows.  And ‘persimmons’ I am always confusing with ‘liver.’  Talking of 감 and 간, I still find it difficult to hear 홍시 and 혼시.   The thought I am a slow learner suddenly intensifies as I remember a two-hour session trying to hear and replicate ㄲ as in ‘꿀” (honey). And if you really want to test your ability to use the Korean alphabet try spelling the most difficult words of the lot – English loan words. I find  broccoli, coat, shirt and yogurt especially awkward. Yogurt! Now is that 요구르트 or 요그르트 or even 요구르터?


No matter how hard you study Korean you will constantly meet those who can speak it better than you. I don’t mean the pretentious linguist types who master the basics in five minutes – you rarely hear them speaking unless it’s in English and  telling you how easy Korean is, but those with a genuine talent for languages and who have also made an effort. You read about those who study every moment they can, running on the treadmill listening to dialogues or reciting conversations as they walk to work. It takes me all my effort not to fall off the treadmill and on the pavement, at least in the city, one needs all mental faculties to avoid being smashed to pieces by one of the numerous meals on mopeds maniacs. However, if you really want to impress people, Hanja has few foreign followers. You will have to learn Korean for a few years to truly impress other westerners but with Hanja you can do it with a handful of characters. I’ve met westerners who could speak fairly good Korean but didn’t know any Hanja and I know Korean adults whose Hanja skills are rudimentary. I currently know around 600 characters but at anyone time will have forgotten around a third of them and many of the characters comprising this third will change on a daily basis. The educated Korean should know approximately 1,800 characters; 900 learned in middle school and another 900 in high school. I’ve spent ten years, on and off, studying Hanja – all  a total waste of time especially as with every 5 new characters I learn I tend to forget three or four  old ones.  If I can study Hanja for another 30 years I ‘ll be ‘averagely educated.’   Some of my Koreans friends try to suggest that it is not how many characters I know that is important but that  fact I  study them.  Personally,  learning Hanja is a little like learning Latin or Greek, an exercise of the mind but with attractive squiggly little patterns. At the end of the day, Hanja provides few benefits to my spoken Korean but it certainly impresses both westerners and Koreans and to be honest I do get a little thrill when I see some characters and actually recognise them.

I take my hat off to those individuals who can communicate in Korean at any level especially as there are plenty of foreigners living in Korea who see no point at all in learning the language.  I even know one teacher, with post-graduate qualifications, who  insisted he came to Korea to better understand Korean culture and not to learn Korean. But those who warrant my greatest respect are those individuals who have  mastered the intricacies of  Korean from a  Speak Korean in Five Minutes, (paper back, 50 pages, no cassette), read on the flight to Korea.

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3 Responses

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  1. Chris Backe (AKA Chris in South Korea) said, on March 29, 2010 at 4:10 am

    Maybe I’m simplifying here, but I’ve always found it easier to go with the basic sounds. For example:

    Broccoli = 브라코리
    Coat = 콧 or 코트, depending on how you say the final ‘t’
    Shirt = 쌸트
    Yogurt = 요거트

    Unless you plan on living here for a significant length of time (e.g. at least 3 years), there isn’t a huge need to learn much of the local language. Survival phrases, sure, and being able to count and identify things are required, but holding deep conversations in Korean are a different thing. If you want a second / third language that will help you across the world, try Chinese or Spanish.

    • Nick Elwood said, on March 30, 2010 at 3:43 am

      Ha, ha! You’re totally correct. Why I study such stuff, and even more to the point, why I study Hanja, is beyond me. If I made significant progress it might make more sense but even yesterday I asked a store assistant the most simplest of questions and they hadn’t a clue what I was talking about. And your point about learning a useful language is valid but I’ve always been drawn to the off-beat. However, in my defence, I am smitten by Korean culture.

  2. thesupplanter said, on April 21, 2010 at 2:48 pm

    Thanks for this post, it’s very much what I’ve been feeling after a couple of years living here. I find it very strange that the same people who make these wild and unfounded generalisations about Korean being ‘easy’ are also English language teachers. Surely the first thing to know as a teacher is that every person works at a different ability level and has a different means of absorbing new information?

    Language learning is to great degree about confidence as much as it is ability; it really doesn’t help when you have some smug twat telling you that you should be able to learn the Korean alphabet in 4 hours.

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