Korean Halfway Update

Vat and I have reached the halfway point here in Korea, the final leg of our language-learning project. I’ve already written so much about language learning this year, and so most of it applies to Korean as well. Therefore, I’ll just share a few of the differences we’ve noted here and save a fuller analysis for later.

Learning Korean vs Learning Chinese

Korean is arguably easier than Chinese, but it’s still in the same ballpark (as opposed to clearly-much-easier languages like Spanish or French). The grammar is harder, but the vocabulary has more loanwords from English and the pronunciation is straightforward.

However, my Korean after three months will definitely be weaker than my Chinese, because I’ve been studying less.

One major difference between Korea and China is the level of English fluency amongst locals. A good proportion of Koreans speak English quite well. Combining that with our weak Korean and slow improvement, this has been the only country where the level of English has made not speaking English more difficult.

Standards for Language Learning

One factor that can make learning a language easier or harder is the standards people have for acquiring it. In southern Europe, I’ve generally felt that being able to speak the language is considered a requirement for people living in the country. If you live in France but don’t speak French, there will certainly be some negative social pressure on you to change that.

Asian countries have lower standards for Western foreigners learning languages. Part of that is a racial difference. People see a white face and the otherness of it automatically lowers their standards for linguistic ability. Part of it is simply that Asian languages are harder, so fewer foreigners acquire decent ability and therefore locals reduce their expectations.

Korea (I’m told Seoul, particularly) also suffers from the problem of the glut of English teachers who come to Korea with little intention of learning Korean. In China, the majority of my foreign friends were either studying Chinese or working in a company that uses Chinese. Fewer were full-time English teachers, but that appears to be the rule here in Korea, not the exception.

I don’t feel the issue of lower standards makes it more difficult for Vat or I to learn Korean. We came here with the resolved intention of learning the language, so social pressure isn’t going to change that. But I do think it makes it harder for other foreigners, particularly those without clear expectations to learn the language. If nobody else seems to learn the language, why seriously try?

Difficulty and Expectations

In China, I disagreed with my friend Benny’s admonishment that focusing on difficulty doesn’t matter. Of course it does—Chinese is much harder than Spanish and pretending they’re the same is foolhardy.

In Korea, I’m beginning to change my mind. People see that the language is harder, so the rational response should be that it requires more time and patience (which is true). But instead, the response is that it is too difficult so it’s impossible to succeed in a reasonable timeframe (which isn’t true).

Vat and I, in contrast, have had extremely high expectations for every country. Spanish-like expectations for Chinese were too optimistic. But, three months into China, I could still hold a conversation in Chinese about nearly any topic and with only a minimal amount of fumbling for words.

I’ll be harsh: if it’s taken you several years with an Asian language and you can’t hold a brief conversation entirely in the language, you either haven’t really been working at it, or your method is faulty.

Progress in Korean

Arriving in Korea was the hardest country for the no-English rule thus far. Korean, from the beginning, is probably somewhat harder than Chinese, and neither Vat nor I did significant preparation. Much of the quoted 50 hours of preparation I did do, had been forgotten in the intervening year plus three unrelated languages.

We didn’t handle the no-English rule perfectly, but we did mostly achieve it. Unfortunately, we “mostly achieved it” simply by not speaking much in the first month. That hardly seems like a fair victory, since the point of the rule was to encourage communication not adopt vows of silence.

Honestly, had I not had the experiences of success in the past, the first month certainly would have broken me. Learning Asian languages is slower than European ones, so you can do four weeks of conversations with a tutor and still feel like you can’t say anything. That combined with our enforced isolation and silence definitely made learning Korean the least pleasant part of the trip so far.

The beginning is always the hardest. Now, halfway through, Vat and I have resumed semi-normal communication, eating together and making friends. I’d put our current ability at the pre-intermediate level, since having a real conversation with a native at native-speed is at least a few weeks more work.

My expectation is to reach a somewhat low conversational level after three months. That would put it as the worst of all of the languages on this trip for me, but still at a level where I could hold a conversation with someone in the language and not have it be too arduous.

Why Learn all These Languages?

That’s certainly a question best saved for a bigger post, but it deserves attention to the case of Korean, which has been a more tiring process with less clear results than the other languages. 

However, even with Korean, where Vat and I are working under the fatigue of spending a year learning new languages, the painful part is short and the gain is (potentially) lifelong.

As long as I maintain a minimal amount of practice once this trip is done, all of these languages will be permanent abilities. I can return to any of these countries later, whenever I want, and the work is finished. I can make friends in Canada who speak those languages. If my practice is a little more, I may even improve so that reasonably watching movies without subtitles will be an eventual possibility.

As with the MIT Challenge, I believe the length of time it takes to learn something defines its viability for many people. Getting a computer science education with no degree probably wasn’t worth a four-year, full-time investment for me. But one year? Definitely.

Spending a handful of years to reach intermediate Chinese or Korean probably isn’t worth it for me, since I don’t plan on living in either of those countries. But a couple months of intense work and weekly maintenance practice? Even if it took Vat and I three times as long to reach the levels we did, I’d still say the lifetime payoff was worth the effort.

  • Patrick

    Well said, well written. Based off what you wrote about Korea, Thailand is similar in some ways. Very very few foreigners learn to speak much Thai, and probably even less learn to read or write. As a result, pretty much every Thai you meet doesn’t expect you to speak Thai, so they will speak a little bit of English that they know. In some parts of Bangkok, many Thais know enough English to get by. Outside of that, you pretty much have to point at everything or learn Thai if you want to communicate.

    I wouldn’t say there is a societal pressure here to learn as a foreigner, but what I will say is that because most Thais don’t speak English and understand very little, it is a must to learn the language if you want to get into the culture. If you don’t speak the language, there will always be a massive barrier. There are countless foreigners retired here (who have lived here 20+ years) who speak practically no Thai. Interesting to say the least.

  • Stavros

    Congratulations for sticking with Korean, and your entire language learning journey at that. One person who may find your efforts of great interest is Aaron Myers of The Everyday Language Learner.

    I don’t think it matters how deep you get into a language. What matters the most is a sincere attempt. However, I hope you stick with at least one of these languages and get deeply into it to the point where you can touch on almost subject in depth.

    The toughest thing in learning Asian languages is the social resistance which you touched on. It is far more socially acceptable for Asians to learn English as a foreign language as opposed to Western foreigners learning an Asian language. We carry our social and cultural conditioning with us and we can’t shrug it off as much as we try. Most English native speakers do not come from a country with a language learning culture. But the irony is, most of these countries, ie Canada and the USA are migrant countries with a multicultural population. English is indeed a wild card – it can help in time of urgent need, but often deflects dedicated learners.

    Some cultures prefer to use their foreign language when dealing with Western foreigners, and China and Korea happen to be two of those cultures. You can’t be too hard on either of these cultures for having these preferences: for some, learning English offers the chance of advancement (ie. in order for a Korean national to work for Samsung they must have professional level English). Also, both these cultures have an unflinching belief in globalization, as this phenomenon has transformed both these countries.

    I’ll certainly be interested in a follow up article that details your results with Korean.

  • David

    This month I found your blog, and would casually read through your articles as study breaks. I absolutely loved Vat’s videos, and had a lot of fun reading your perspectives on the different places you’ve been, and your experiences and progress learning the languages. I myself became addicted to language learning, a hobby is directly connected with an interest in getting to know/meet new people, and with travel.

    I’m curious on knowing how your French is now, how well you’ve maintained your previous languages, how you maintain them after this year, and if this is a temporary goal with different life-long plans, or if you’ve caught the language bug and plan to continue with language learning.

    Best of luck with the rest of your Korean stay.

  • Tessa Gazi

    I first heard about you when you took the MIT challenge, and although I haven’t seriously thought about doing such a thing myself, there’s something to it that fascinates me. Determining to soak up so much information/knowledge in such a short time frame seems like a multi-level challenge.
    Keep it up, I’m looking forward to the post where you’ll tell us more about ‘why learn all these languages’. 🙂

  • Julia

    Glossika has 3000 Mass Sentences for Korean with Audio.
    Mindpasta.com is a global community of people learning Korean.
    Talk To Me In Korean – the website for learning grammar.

    Learning to pronounce will be easy. When there are exceptions, they are logical and consistent exceptions that make saying the word easier. Assuming you are already familiar with linguistic terms, then Integrated Korean’s introduction has all you need to know in a few pages. http://jreidy17.wordpress.com/

    I complained as a new user who had no idea about linguistics, IPA, and such when I read the Integrated Korean first time, but it has proved to be a foundation that helped me a lot.

    Rob Julian, a Canadian married to a Korean woman living in Korea, teached Korean Digital Academy. I take their online class. You could probably breeze through all the 1 hour videos in a week.

    Have fun. I am jealous.

  • Iliya

    Hi Scott, great article 🙂 i just came to encourage you to try to live in Bulgaria for example and see how you deal with the Cyriliic 🙂 You are a great guy and this is one of the most interesting blogs i have read in a while 🙂

    Good luck and take care !

  • Deborah Michigan

    Scott just tell every Korean: 영어를 못 해요 (yeongeoreul mot haeyo)
    I can’t speak English.

    It helps.
    Good luck
    Let me know if you want me to introduce you Korean people who prefer to communicate in Korean

  • Mike

    I am an American living in Korea and married to a Korean and I hate to admit it, but I can’t speak the language and understand almost nothing that is being said except for some words that my wife uses around me. I have studied some, but I will be the first to admit, not very hard and I haven’t put in the effort required to learn. Every Korean I know and most that I meet speak English to me and that doesn’t help motivate me to learn. I think my biggest problem is I know a lot of words and phrases in Korean, but when someone starts to speak, I can’t understand hardly anything they say and then I just clam up. I listen to Korea radio almost every day and watch some TV shows, and it doesn’t seem to help. Maybe my method is wrong, but I try different things and my 61 year old ears just is not picking it up. I am not giving up, just need to try harder I guess.

  • Jay

    as a korean american who’s not very good at korean (but has gotten a lot better at the age of 30) i believe i have some expertise in this matter

    i grew up around 2 fluent korean speakers (my parents) and have generally been around a lot of korean shit my entire life

    however, i did not really improve my korean until i started studying it. no amount of tv shows, radio shows, and even hearing other conversations can replace actively studying the language. i totally agree with your observations scott that even if you move to korea, if you don’t put in real effort you will never learn it

    even though you were not as successful at learning korean as you initially hoped for, i think the big take away is your attitude

    you have a really fantastic attitude when it comes to tough challenges, and you’re honest with yourself when you have set backs. that attitude is a good example for me and everyone to follow