Korean Final Update

Last week, Vat and I left Korea and ended this year without English. I’ve already written an article summarizing the entire trip. I had hoped to put up the Korean final update first, but we had some delays processing the interviews (unfortunately only one is ready now, so the other will have to wait until Vat finishes the final video as well).

In this article, I’ll talk about defining the level Vat and I reached in Korean as well as the experience of the last country on our trip.

How Good is Our Korean?

Korea was definitely the hardest country for me of the four. I pushed myself hard on Chinese, so I didn’t have the energy to put in 50+ hours per week on a completely new language. Second, some of the random misfortunes of travel hit while traveling: bedbugs, spotty internet, our storage company back in Canada going out of business and being days away from selling all our stuff.

I hadn’t expected to reach the same level with Korean as I did in Chinese, but I still set a high bar: conversational fluency in three months.

Conversational fluency isn’t an exam, so its always going to be a little hard to define exactly. My feeling is that I should be able to regularly have conversations of over an hour without strain for either myself or the other party to count. That doesn’t mean I’ll understand everything perfectly or will forget a word, just that they’ll happen infrequently enough that neither of us feels strained by the conversation.

I’m confident that I have this level in Spanish, Portuguese and Chinese. None of these are perfectly fluent, but using the benchmark established above, I can confidently meet them in each of those languages. (Chinese I also passed the HSK 4, which is a more precise benchmark.)

My Korean doesn’t currently meet that mark. I can definitely have conversations in Korean, but I usually have to ask people to repeat things or explain words and terms I don’t understand with some frequency.

This video is perhaps slightly too favorable to my Korean, as I had no trouble conversing with Will. We have another interview with a native Korean speaker I plan to upload soon which has a couple moments where I’m not able to understand the flow of conversation, the first time for this series of short interviews we did at the end of each country.

My Korean is still enough for traveling in Korea and having shorter conversations with strangers without difficulty. But I’d say, at my current pace, I’m probably another month or so of practice away from being able to consistently reduce the conversational friction down to a level where neither party feels it is holding back our communication.

I should note that Vat’s Korean is better than mine. He was more eager to learn Korean and he wasn’t as aggressive in learning Chinese, so he pushed himself hard on learning Korean. While I wouldn’t be confident in asserting my Korean is conversational, I feel Vat has likely reached that bar.

Did I Fail in Korea?

I believe in setting firm standards and evaluating yourself against them. So in that sense, I didn’t meet my goal for Korean. I failed to get to the level I had planned to.

But, that benchmark is also somewhat arbitrary. It’s not as if, in failing to reach that predetermined goal, I can’t use my Korean at all. As I continue to do weekly classes in each of these languages, meet friends and use them all regularly in Canada, I imagine the only long-term impact is that I have to do a bit more work in Canada before my Korean could be on par with my Chinese.

What Went Wrong, What Went Well

Evaluating my Korean, the deficit in comparison to my Chinese was less listening practice and a smaller vocabulary.

With my Chinese MCC Anki decks, I learned roughly 8000 cards. Since I’m doing full-sentence decks, that doesn’t translate exactly to a vocabulary size (not to mention likely half my vocabulary being learned outside of Anki). However, my Korean decks were only 3000 cards learned, and many of those were teaching grammar patterns rather than new words. It wouldn’t be unfair to say my Korean vocabulary is only a third of the size of my Chinese vocabulary.

What that means is that I tend to stumble with the lower-frequency intermediate words in Korean a lot more than Chinese. Recalling from recent conversations I had in Korean, some words I tripped on were “slippery”, “airport” and “personality” all of which I know in Chinese.

This problem is really only one that can be fixed with greater exposure. I had less exposure to Korean than Chinese before arriving in Asia, and while in the country I spent more hours listening and conversing in China than in Korea.

One area I was pleased with was Korean grammar. Korean has a complicated system of grammar that is almost entirely different from anything in European languages. Most students of Korean I’ve met tell me that understanding the grammar is what gives them the most pain. However, I found a good method for learning the grammar that I was pleased with.

Early on in Korea, I stumbled across this Anki deck which provides full-sentence audio examples. The advantage is that this deck is set up to show and contrast the various ways a sentence can be constructed and the different nuances of each. Doing these decks exposed me to hundreds of grammatical patterns so that I rarely encounter a situation where a Korean person is using a sentence pattern unfamiliar to me.

Grammar is hardly the only part of the language, but I was pleased that seemingly just by doing this deck alone, without any textbook study, I never felt the grammar was really holding me back from understanding natives speak. My spoken grammar still requires a lot of work, but that’s quite common. It’s much easier to correctly parse grammatically correct sentences than to generate your own.

Going Forward with Korean

My goal for all of the languages I’ve learned is to practice them at least once a week. Although there are plenty of ways of doing this, I’ve opted for continuing Skype tutoring/language exchanges through iTalki. This makes it easier to schedule and is more consistent than, let’s say, hoping to bump into people who speak these languages at parties.

With the other languages, having conversations is pretty easy, so it shouldn’t take too much energy to keep improving them. Korean, in contrast, will probably require a bit more effort until it is up to a level comparable with the other three.

It’s also important to give knowledge and skills time to sink in. Yes—giving up practice entirely is almost always matched with a corresponding loss of ability. But if you keep some minimal amount of practice, it allows some of the skills and information which were crammed to be remembered better. My hope is that by maintaining this minimum once-per-week investment, I may see my skills decline in the near term of the next few months, but will likely see them improve over the long-term of the next few years.

  • Korean

    As a Korean, it’s really nice to see you spending time in my home country and learning our language. I must say I am still very impressed with your level of proficiency despite the fact that so many foreigners now speak Korean quite well.

    The reason I am impressed is that Korean, I think by nature, is a difficult language to learn… especially for English speakers. You probably have more insights than me as to why this is. But one of the reasons is that it’s such a flexible language. There is a lot of room for bending and twisting the structure depending on the context and situation. What would surely work to take your proficiency to the next level is immerse yourself in as many of these “contexts” as possible in Korea. The Korean language can be very culture-specific. For example, there is a word called 회식 and you could probably never understand this unless you experience such occasion. More you experience such cultural contexts, your Korean will improve drastically. This requires a lot of courage. Making friends in all facets of life in Korea… but I think it’s worth it. Korea is a beautiful and amazing country with many little idiosyncracies and emotions that once you are exposed to, will enrich your life immensely.

    But then you probably already know this. What really amazes me goes beyond your quest to become an effective autodidact, it’s your curiosity and persistence in learning. I can feel that it’s really genuine and really shines through. Good luck Scott.

  • Nafis

    Wow! being honest I really envy you. 4 language in a year! well done.

  • Steve

    Wish to heck I’d had anki decks an eternity ago when I spent a couple of years in Korea myself.

    I was too far from my screen to read the smaller subtitles, but I was able to understand the conversation.

  • Jh


  • Darwin

    Forgive me if I missed this discussion in previous posts, but did you learned Hangul (the Korean alphabet)? What about Chinese characters? Or did you specifically concentrate on conversation?

    Your Korean sounded great.

  • Nate Glenn

    It’s neat to see the difference in this video from some of the early Spanish ones. I think you have become much more comfortable making foreign sounds, which is something often prevented by a certain self-consciousness. Thanks for sharing your experiences!

  • Brian

    I’ve been looking forward to this video since you started this journey. Your Korean is quite good (I’m Korean). Both of you! Props for learning 4 languages to conversational level in 1 year.

  • John O’Donnel

    Congratulations, Scott and Vat!

    It was an exciting project. You guys really rock. Your level of spanish and portuguese are good enough. I can’t judge chinese and korean, but I’m really impressed when I compare with other experts in the field. For example, I think you guys are far more better than the irish Beny Lewis. Your project was greatly more intense and it showed that it’s worth and possible to achieve conversational skills in chinese at reading, writing and speaking in a couple of months. Thank you very much!


  • Scott Young


    Definitely. This is just the beginning. I have some Korean friends in Canada and I hope to continue learning and practicing (albeit at a more leisurely pace!)




    Of course! Hangul is pretty much Day 1 Korean, so it’s essential to learn. My knowledge of Hanja is less (although there’s considerable transfer from Chinese characters–just pronunciation and usage differs).


    Funny you mention that. I had dinner where there was a Swede and another Canadian recently. The Swedish person named something in Swedish and both myself and the other Canadian repeated it and the Swede was taken aback by my pronunciation. I think learning five languages now changes how you think about pronunciation and you get used to hearing a wider variety of sounds.

    (Although the effect isn’t universal, I still really struggle(d) with the ㄲ, ㅃ, ㅆ, ㄸ sounds in Korean)


    Thanks, both of us appreciate that.

    I don’t think it’s entirely fair to compare our project to Benny’s though. Benny was the pioneer in this sense, so I had the advantage at looking at many of his language learning projects and seeing how I could improve upon them. I don’t doubt if someone were to take a stab at the MIT Challenge they’d make my effort look rough, simply because it’s easier to follow than to pioneer.

    (Not to mention Benny has been at this for years and has collectively tackled more languages and speaks most of them far better than any of mine)


  • James

    Hello Scott!

    I have an AMAZING recent article that you are going to love. As I was reading this I kept thinking to myself, if Scott had his own university this is EXACTLY how he would teach his students.

    Here is a brief summary:

    Ben Nelson founder of Snapfish (photo sharing website that sold for 300 million) started a brand-new university that completely does away with the traditional model of the university. He has hired the smartest cognitive scientists in the world from Harvard and Stanford to build the curriculum and teach classes. He has completely restructured the classroom so that it is in alignment with the latest insights from the science of learning.


  • Richard Phinneas

    This is really refreshing to see, knowing that someone cares enough to learn multiple languages instead of standing on the soapbox shouting that English is the universal language that everyone should speak. So much culture would be utterly lost in favor of a language that has no right to be “the best”. The fact that Korean is more difficult and yet you persevere to do it justice speaks volumes. Best to you and your hurdles, I’m sure you will overcome them all.

  • David

    Geez! You guys did fantastic! In no way would I consider that you failed. 4 languages in one year. Wow. I don’t speak Korean but from where I am sitting, you guys sound and look like you got this.

    Congratulations. This project is inspiring to say the least.

  • Jessie

    Eventhough I am learning Japanese, that’s great that you are learning a difficult language like Korean and thanks for suggesting about italki.

  • Daniel

    I really like these video interviews showing your results, but I was wondering why are they all incomplete? They all seem to stop in the middle of the conversation after about 10 minutes. Am I missing something or are they meant to be that way?

  • Scott Young


    Our camera stopped recording, and it seemed like a good moment to cut it off. I could have done a cut and added in another 20 minutes, but I’m not sure it would have added much and it would have been a lot more work doing the subtitles. So, I guess the answer is laziness on my part?


  • Anthony

    Hi Scott,

    Will you have a documentary video for South Korea like the other three countries you visited?

  • David

    Hi Scott,

    I’ve been looking forward to Vat’s video for Korea. I know he’s probably busy with his studies, but any idea when that may be released? Cheers.

  • Stan

    Hi Scott,

    Maybe you’ve mentioned this before somewhere but I couldn’t find it.

    I’ve been wondering how much paid tutoring you did while learning these languages in the country, (specifically Korean). You see, I’m currently in Korea and have decided to get serious about the language. I’m what I would call a middling beginner (having completed the first unit on howtostudykorean.com.)

    I’m just unsure of how much paid tutoring I need to do and for how long. Obviously it would be ideal if I could just make Korean friends who only speak Korean and not have to pay at all for any tutoring. But honestly right now my listening comprehension is horrible and so I don’t really know how to approach people and just practice speaking.

    Sorry for rambling. I guess what I’m really asking about is when (if ever) did you stop using paid tutoring? Do you think it’s still helpful after you’ve developed the ability to maintain relationships in the language? For some reason I’m pretty averse to spending money on improving my Korean when I live in Korea. But really it comes down to cost vs. benefit. If by spending a few won I can vastly improve the rate at which I improve my Korean then it would be worth it, especially at first.