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.