- Scott H Young - https://www.scotthyoung.com/blog -

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 [1], 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 [2]. 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 [3], 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 [4] 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 [5] deck that had thousands of example sentences with audio [6] and using ChinesePod [7]’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 [8] 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.