How I Plan to Learn Korean Differently than Chinese

Sometimes I question my sanity. After all, what kind of person agrees to learn four languages in a year, including two linguistically unrelated Asian languages back-to-back in six months?

Learning Chinese was a blast, but it was also an incredible amount of work. My stated goal from the beginning was to learn as much Chinese as possible in three months. I wanted to see what my upper limits were, and starting from a beginner level is the only way to make those efforts broadly comparable. If I started an intense Chinese mission after a few years of study, it’s very hard to compare the effectiveness of the method used.

I don’t want to tackle Korean under the same conditions. Instead, I’d rather set clear, reasonable boundaries for my studying time and see how far I can go, under those constraints. This method is certainly slower than the approach I used for Chinese, but I’m hoping it more replicable strategy for the average person trying to learn an Asian language while living abroad.

Can You Learn Korean, Part-Time over Three Months?

My plan is this: 20 hours per week, working out to 4 hours per weekday of study. Outside of that, I’m free to use as much immersion time as I want. So if I want to listen to music, movies or (hopefully) stick to the no-English rule with Vat, that’s fine. But I’m limiting the studying to a very specific chunk.

Vat and I will, once again, try our best to implement the no-English rule. I’m also hoping to make Korean-language friends and enjoy Korean-language entertainment. I’m not limiting these immersion activities to my scheduling restriction because I feel they’re an important part of the experience and I want to enjoy Korean culture as much as possible.

Instead, I’m putting a hard limit on the kinds of heavy, active studying I did in China. Paid tutoring sessions, textbook reading, listening exercises, Anki and other deliberate studying techniques will all have to fit into that time.

My goal with this restriction is not to make any particular claim about studying in less time. After all, 20 hours per week is still a part-time job, more time than most people could devote to learnirninng a language. Secondly, because I’m not restricting immersion activities, it isn’t fair to say my total leag time will be 240 hours, since the actual amount of practice will be higher.

But I do hope that implementing this restriction I’ll be more efficient with my learning time, and that will help me weed out lower efficiency tasks. I’m hoping that I can then use that knowledge to pass onto many of you, who want to learn languages but can’t do it full time.

Which Methods Do I Plan to Use?

As Korean is language number six for me, I feel I’ve come a long way in mapping out the exact learning strategy that works best. I’m going to wait until this entire project is finished to do a complete summary of that method, but I’ll share some of the methods I found very helpful in China and plan to transfer to learning Korean.

Method One: Pimsleur

Pimsleur has been, so far, my favorite starting point for a new language. It’s really good for learning a set of core functional words to use as a basis point for the language. Very few other beginner resources I’ve seen really drill that basic phrasal patterns and vocabulary in from the first day.

Pimsleur’s main weakness, however, is that it quickly experiences diminishing returns. After about the first 15 hours I didn’t find it very helpful. It also suffers from a problem most language courses do: that of offering somewhat formal and stilted example sentences.

Method Two: Bulk Listening Drills

Input proved far more important for me in Chinese than with Spanish. I think this is because Spanish, and other European languages, often have shared root words for many concepts, making gathering the meaning from even diverse sentences more clear. Chinese, in contrast, has almost no common root words with English, so listening ability becomes much harder than speaking by possibly an order of magnitude.

The best way I found around that in Chinese was to use an Anki deck that had thousands of example sentences with audio and using ChinesePod’s dialog-only files to practice on vocabulary-restricted subsets of the language.

I haven’t found the best analog for those resources in Korean yet. But worst case, I plan to get a television show with English and Korean subtitles and use Subs2SRS to strip them into an Anki deck for practice.

Method Three: Textbook Study

I actually do like studying from a textbook for languages. I think this can be overdone if you’re not actually using the language, or if you’re using it as a substitute for bulk listening/vocabulary building exercises. However grammatical and structural features of the language often require a more deliberate effort that textbooks are good for.

Method Four: Pronunciation Drills

This was a small, but significant, part of my Chinese learning experience. Tones and a difficult phonology meant that pronunciation wasn’t just something I could learn once and then ignore. Korean will likely be easier phonetically, but my very brief amount of study shows there might be a few problems between ㄱ, ㄲ and ㅋ (which all roughly map to the “g” or “k” sound in English) or ㄷ, ㄸ and ㅌ (which all map roughly to the “d” or “t” sound).

Chinese also taught me the importance of drilling pronunciation early, even when it feels unnecessary, to reduce some of the future fossilization errors that can arise.

Method Five: Conversational Tutoring

Tutoring sessions which consist of just trying to have conversations blur the line between immersion and studying. Indeed, in all of the countries we’ve traveled to, we became friends with our tutors and often did things outside of class, spending time discussing things outside the classroom that we previously discussed inside of it.

However, I’m arbitrarily deciding paid tutoring counts in the “studying” category and unpaid, informal conversations count as “immersion”. Mostly this is because, in the beginning stages of language learning, having conversations with tutors really is studying. Later it requires little effort and can be a fun activity instead of a drain on your energy.

My Goals for Learning Korean

My goal for Korean in three months is still an ambitious one: be able to read simple writing and hold conversations about most everyday topics. This is a slightly lower bar than my Chinese, and because I believe I surpassed the bar for Chinese in being able to have a greater conversational range than I had previously imagined, I think it is possible to do the same with Korean.

As always, I see this initial period, not as an end to my learning, but as a beginning. I still believe that, even with these time restrictions, I’ll get to a level of Korean where continued study and immersion in Canada is enjoyable, and therefore I can steadily improve my Korean over time without strain.

Finally, I hope that this experience might give me more information for how to translate the methods I used in Chinese to a language learner who is under more significant time constraints than I have worked under. I know that my obsessive learning quests can paint unrealistic standards for a typical learner, so I always try to be aware of what methods are feasible for learners in more typical situations.

Side Note: When I wrote this piece, Vat and I were still in Taiwan, editing the upcoming Chinese mini-documentary and relaxing a bit before this final leg of the journey. We’re now both in Seoul. My first impressions are limited, but positive. Since we opted to speak in English for the first night in order to get to our apartment, we saw that the level of English spoken by Koreans is considerably higher than the Chinese or Taiwanese.

Given my on-arrival Korean is much less than my Chinese, that will probably mean some slip ups early on before I can force the conversations back into Korean. However, I’ll try my best and give you an update when I have more to share.

  • Taemin

    안녕하세요?

    님의 블로그와 이메일을 한 2년 가까이 읽어왔습니다. 저는 북경에서 살지만 요새 수시로 서울에 가게 됩니다. 시간 나시면 점심이나 저녁을 같이 먹는 것이 재미 있을 것 같습니다. 관심 있으시면 메일을 보내주세요…

    태민 배상

  • Jonah

    I’ve heard about anki before but I always have used Quizlet. Any special reason why you prefer it

  • Andela

    I just think that the non-English rule was always a bit ambitious to implement when travelling with an English speaker..
    Why did you not travel alone? You would have got a better immersion for sure.

    Besides, don’t forget that learning is now your profession. You live off your advising people on how to learn better.
    VAt doesn’t have the same motivation at all.
    So it’s a lot harder for him to work at the same pace as you!

  • koko

    Great to see you progressing to your final language!

    I hope you’ll still write about the methods you’d recommend for someone who wants to replicate exactly what you’ve done i.e. spend 3 months in a country with the sole purpose of acquiring the language. I’m inspired to do just this after reading your progress.

    I’ll be freeing 3 months early next year to study Mandarin in either Taiwan or Beijing, so please continue to share your findings for those of us who want to do exactly what you did.

  • simattu

    I’ve been using Assimil Chinese with Ease to learn all the learn grammar explanations and I find the conversation lessons use pretty common and colloquial expressions. I’ve also heard Assimil Korean with Ease is really good from peeople trying to learn Korean. Maybe something to check out.

  • Scott Young

    Jonah,

    Never used Quizlet. Anki is nice because of its flexibility. There’s really almost nothing you can’t change or modify, which helps individualize what you want to study.

    Andela,

    Interestingly, I felt going with a friend to be a significant advantage in Spain and Brazil. Even in China, where our studying plans diverged somewhat, I didn’t see it as an incredibly liability, we just ended up living mostly separate lives while in the country.

    -Scott

  • Ryan Biddulph

    Kudos to you Scott! I’m thinking of learning Thai, and know some of these languages are challenging to pick up. Thanks!

  • Eun

    Hi I am a native Korean speaker who studied in Canada for 8 years. You might already know this but just in case. When you are learning pronunciation, learning from someone who can explain the exact sound mechanics in relation to the anatomy of vocal organs would be immensely helpful. I have been pronouncing the G sound in English the way I would pronounce ㄱ throughout much of my life not knowing the difference. It’s only recently that I learned about the exact mechanics of how sounds are produced differently in English and Korean. In short, there is no matching sound at all, in both consonants and vowels. But the difference was so slight, only when I understood the sound mechanics my ears would adjust to notice the difference. Just repeating after the native speaker can be quite limiting.

  • Scott Young

    Eun,

    Completely agree. Looking at phonetic diagrams and reading over multiple explanations from linguists on the proper pronunciations really helped me in Chinese. Particularly with separating the j/q/x and zh/ch/sh sounds which, since they have mutually exclusive subsequent vowel sounds, could easily be done the same way.

    However, I do think that massive listening exposure is key to improving your pronunciation and it’s very difficult to get it perfect on a first attempt, even with such diagrams. My Chinese zh/ch/sh sounds started with a tongue position quite far back, which might be a more northern accent, but I almost never heard anyone speak that way in person. By practice my position softened somewhat to be closer to the English pronunciation and I feel my overall accent improved.

    -Scott

  • Mara

    Hi Scott,

    A quick question; how are you funding all of these travels? It’s been nagging at me every time I’ve read your reports on your language progress…

  • Scott Young

    Mara,

    I’ve been a full-time blogger here since 2012, so that has remained the same. Doing a project like this takes time away from some of the business work that needs to be done, meaning it’s not costless doing a big project like this (or the MIT Challenge) but I still earn an income while traveling.

    I’ve been paying Vat to edit the videos of the trip and he also saved up from his previous job.

    -Scott

  • jolanda

    do you know this blog? julia is also learning Korean.
    http://jreidy17.wordpress.com/

  • Jimmy

    Hi Scott:

    Just wondering if you’ve found or made some good anki decks in Korean, I’ve been meaning to try Subs2SRS myself but there seems no Korean subtitles online whatsoever.

    Thanks.

  • Scott Young

    Jimmy,

    Look for the TTMIK and IYAGI decks on Anki’s shared deck page (there in the top 20 results for Korean)

    -Scott

  • jesus

    Hi Scott,

    I’m from spain, working in hong kong and learning Cantonese. I’m following your blog (specially when you talk about learning languages), and it’s crazy good. Now I’m using anki everyday, have an italki teacher, and thanks to you just discovered subs2srs (I was wondering how it was not invented).

    Keep the good work!

  • dannyR

    What I don’t see in Anki is:

    built-in text-to-speech (the quality of tts is such these days that the departures from normal pronunciation are trivial in comparison to the beginner’s pronunciation. Thus it makes a good first approximation, certainly for the listening component of acquiring the L2 phonology.) We are far past the point where TTS shouldn’t be standard.

    fully configurable spaced repetition. If there’s a way that I can review within seconds the previous word on a fixed, semi-random, random, basis I haven’t figured it out from Anki’s convoluted directions. When confronted with new vocab, I like to quickly see a previous word within 3-4 seconds of its novel appearance with, say, 8… 16… 24… 36… 60… 120… etc. seconds thereafter.

    Anki: “When learning new cards, or when relearning cards that you have forgotten, Anki will show you the cards one or more times to help you memorize them. Each time is called a learning step. By default there are two steps: 1 minute and 10 minutes”
    I’m like ‘WUT’. 1… minute?! How is this not configurable down to the second? On quizlet or cram, if it’s not automated, I can at least manually use the arrow keys to run back and forth through a subset of 3-4 cards at lightning speed, a bit slower if tts is implemented. With the latter I don’t have to even open my eyes; the right/left and up keys do all the heavy lifting. If quizlet would at last implement automated leitner methodology, the whole business of vocab learning would become a virtual no-brainer.

    The memory-curve of short-term to long-term storage is not rocket science, and yet it should be front and center in the practical outworking of Anki’s methodology. I can only conclude that its developer’s design, being based on the language (Japanese) he already knew a considerable amount of already, was practically spaced-repetition for his own purposes, and not those of a flat-out L2 beginner.

  • dannyR

    What I don’t see in Anki is:

    built-in text-to-speech (the quality of tts is such these days that the departures from normal pronunciation are trivial in comparison to the beginner’s pronunciation. Thus it makes a good first approximation, certainly for the listening component of acquiring the L2 phonology.) We are far past the point where TTS shouldn’t be standard.

    fully configurable spaced repetition. If there’s a way that I can review within seconds the previous word on a fixed, semi-random, random, basis I haven’t figured it out from Anki’s convoluted directions. When confronted with new vocab, I like to quickly see a previous word within 3-4 seconds of its novel appearance with, say, 8… 16… 24… 36… 60… 120… etc. seconds thereafter.

    Anki: “When learning new cards, or when relearning cards that you have forgotten, Anki will show you the cards one or more times to help you memorize them. Each time is called a learning step. By default there are two steps: 1 minute and 10 minutes”
    I’m like ‘WUT’. 1… minute?! How is this not configurable down to the second? On quizlet or cram, if it’s not automated, I can at least manually use the < — —> arrow keys to run back and forth through a subset of 3-4 cards at lightning speed, a bit slower if tts is implemented. With the latter I don’t have to even open my eyes; the right/left and up keys do all the heavy lifting. If quizlet would at last implement automated leitner methodology, the whole business of vocab learning would become a virtual no-brainer.

    The memory-curve of short-term to long-term storage is not rocket science, and yet it should be front and center in the practical outworking of Anki’s methodology. I can only conclude that its developer’s design, being based on the language (Japanese) he already knew a considerable amount of already, was practically spaced-repetition for his own purposes, and not those of a flat-out L2 beginner.

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