I still remember Totya (тетя or Auntie) Rosa, my neighbor in Hallandale, Florida, where I first lived after immigrating to the U.S. from Estonia. Totya Rosa was from Colombia and didn’t speak great English, but I always greeted her cheerfully from our balcony, saying “¡Hola! and doing my best to use the little Spanish I knew. Her welcoming acceptance of my attempts encouraged me as I was not only learning English as a child, but was also exposed to plenty of Spanish growing up in South Florida. In fact, when I first started kindergarten, I signed my name in Russian, as настя, because I wasn’t yet comfortable with my name in English . The ESOL class I was in had other students, from places like Peru and Haiti, who couldn’t speak it either.
That melting pot of immersion would influence the way I approached languages for many years to come, less as a foreign student and more as an adaptive chameleon, absorbing the culture, the flavor and feel of the languages I encountered. My goal was always not only to understand, but to be able to blend in as much as possible and sound like a native. This was no less true when I started studying Korean the summer after my freshman year of college.
Here I’ll describe the way I went about learning, and it may not apply to everyone. There are many methods of language study and I don’t purport one to be any better than another. This is simply the sequence I went through and if you find one of my practices worthy of reciprocation, then I will be glad to have been of service. If not, I thank you for reading and being open to others’ experiences nonetheless!
How I went about it:
Alphabet & Pronunciation
When learning any language, one of the first steps you go through is learning that language’s writing system or alphabet. Because I had learned the Korean writing system was far more intuitive and easier to learn than memorizing countless Chinese characters (King Sejong designed it that way), I turned to YouTube to learn how to recognize, write, and pronounce each character of Hangul. The video series I watched back then was super simple and involved a man writing and pronouncing each character on a black screen (still haven’t been able to find the link) but there is no shortage of such videos on YouTube now especially as the language has grown in popularity.
One YouTuber who I found both helpful and entertaining when I first struggled with double consonants and sounding more natural is Professor Oh from sweetandtastyTV. Her humorous videos made lessons stick and also introduced me to certain aspects of Korean culture. I noticed her newer videos are more like travel vlogs but they highlight interesting spots to visit and experiences you might like to try in Korea.
Expats in Korea
Continuing on the topic of YouTube, it served as a tremendous resource for exposing me to what life in Korea might be like as well as, of course, showing all things hallyu that are an inevitable part of Korea’s identity and perception to the outside world. This first step in cultural immersion helped provide a framework upon which I would hang my expectations and language learning. As you’ll learn in a bit, kpop and kdrama and the culture popular among foreign fangirls is not the main reason why I embarked upon learning Korean, but it’s definitely something I enjoyed sampling from time to time. As such, I loved watching Simon and Martina from Eat Your Kimchi while they were covering Korea (they’re now in Japan). From Kpop Music Mondays to the Korean Indie Playlist to all sorts of videos spotlighting the weird and the amazing in Seoul, these guys played a big role in creating my first thoughts of expat life in Korea.
Though a lot more crass in his humor, 데이브 (Dave) is another YouTuber whose great Korean I wished to emulate and whose relationship with his hyungs and noonas I took an interest in. His current videos are pretty much all in Korean, with Korean and English subtitles, and are a great resource for not only learning Korean but also learning all kinds of slang and insults. After all, aren’t some of the first words anyone learns in their mother tongue curse words? Gotta know how to play the game of teasing endearment.
Korean Politics and History
North-South Korean relations and the Korean refugee crisis are actually what first got me interested in learning Korean. Before I even learned what hallyu was or heard my first kpop song, my heartstrings were pulled by an issue of National Geographic from February 2009 with the story “Escaping North Korea.” Though the numerous documentaries I watched would not prepare me for how complicated the issue felt in reality when I went to volunteer at Durihana International School in Seoul, they kickstarted a deeper passion for learning the language to somehow do what I can to help.
The irony of my savior mentality was that that very same school hosted me in Bangbae-dong for two months when I didn’t have a place to stay. I shared a bedroom with an unnie from North Korea who I came to help somehow. The reality was that, aside from helping teach English, the organization seemed to be doing very well in their mission and quite frankly, didn’t need me. Though I was pretty accepted by most Korean-Americans and some international Korean students I met at Emory University, I felt my first walls within the formal office culture of the organization. And partly, rightly so. I tried to find a role there without too much to offer, with broken Korean, and a bleeding heart glowing with perhaps a slightly misguided passion – as a foreigner. In reality, I was just one of countless summer volunteers who came to offer time and should’ve humbly realized that sooner, also understanding the sensitive nature of the work being done and virtually insurmountable trust barriers.
Even so, such lessons were oh so welcome and played a key role in understanding my place in Korean society, or at least the local societies I stepped into. When it comes to learning any language, I think this is critical if you’re seeking to be more than that foreigner who can speak really well. It’s important to know your place within and the context of the communities whose space you will inhabit.
One course at Emory that helped accomplish this was The Making of Modern Korea, taught by Dr. Sun-Chul Kim. Though I took the course before going to Korea, and there were still many misunderstandings to be had, in it I learned about South Korea’s history as the homogeneous Hermit Kingdom, its occupation by Japan (and how that fueled modern-day Korea-Japan relations), and the various political leaders and movements that shaped the country to what it is today. Such knowledge also helped form a formal framework, a less naive foundation, upon which to pursue language studies and plan my career.
As expected, I also took Korean classes at Emory, specifically Elementary Korean I and II, and additional classes at the Korean Language Institute at Yonsei University while studying abroad. Those courses were invaluable in providing a grammar and vocabulary skeleton upon which I would add flesh through immersion and speaking with native Seoulites. If of any interest at all, here are a few links to the books I used:
Integrated Korean textbooks from Klear Textbook
I only got to the end of level 3 formally, but the textbook circuit is available up to level 6.
Business Korean is another textbook I bought at Yonsei’s language institute bookstore, but I haven’t gone through it all (yet!) Further down I’ll mention a resource I used for self-study after returning to the U.S. and graduating from Emory.
Korean Friends and Studying Abroad
There is no way my Korean would have improved without making friends with native speakers. When I studied abroad in Seoul, as you’ll recall in my other post, I spent my time mostly around locals and avoided foreigners as much as I could. While there were some drawbacks to my reverse discrimination, my language skills certainly improved and sounded more natural. Messaging on Kakaotalk with people from my jobs, church, or other places was golden since it both caused me to gain confidence in texting in Korean and also allowed me to ask about unfamiliar vocabulary that might be used. I definitely thank my patient friends who have answered many a question on how a certain word is used or what an obscure proverb means.
Though there are many Korean-speaking communities in the U.S., there’s really nothing like traveling or studying abroad in the original country when it comes to cultural immersion and obtaining the language through osmosis.
Though my penchant for seemingly all things Korean may have been a bit odd to some, I managed to participate in a lot of Korean cultural events at Emory and squeezed my way in (joking..I was actually pretty welcome) to a few big Korean groups on campus.
I genuinely tried to fit in and wasn’t always successful, but my hope had been that my peers would see my efforts as genuine and realize that I wanted to make sincere friends. Especially after returning from Korea, I was in a bit of reverse culture shock and really missed Seoul and the place I came to call my temporary home. I also didn’t want to lose the language at all so I really hung out with mostly Koreans during my last semester. My mom found it weird, maybe others found it weird, but I was taking 7 classes and felt overwhelmed with studying and finals anyway. Who else was with me in the library until the wee hours of the morning studying? My international Korean friends…
I honestly don’t feel like I have to clarify that I’m not racist or exclusionist, or have yellow fever. At least it’s a lot easier now that my boyfriend isn’t Korean and I no longer have plans for being a Korean lawyer (you can ask me about that unrealistically ambitious dream later). The truth is, I feel that Korea is a part of me, a skin that I occasionally turn to as a chameleon. Learning Korean, living in Seoul, and sharing so many experiences with Koreans has made it a part of my identity. Just as Russian and Spanish have inevitably shaped my identity as well. I think those who have spent their lives in many countries can understand what I mean.
Focused Self-Study + Whatever other exposure I can find
Finally, following graduation and breaking up with my Korean ex-boyfriend (and, as a result, his circle of friends), I didn’t have as much opportunity to speak Korean so I had to (and still have to) seek it out in Boston. This meant both in-person and online.
When I first started my year in Seoul, I bought a notebook at Artbox (one of my favorite stores) and filled it with all grammar notes and vocabulary I had from my studies at Emory. I then continued adding to it with simplified versions of all the grammar notes I made at Yonsei and all the words I’d encounter on a daily basis while attempting to read Korean newspapers, while watching television, and while interacting with people around me. Before long, I had created my own lexicon of words I’d constantly hear and tried to incorporate into conversation. This lexicon would be an invaluable tool for me when I returned to the U.S.
By reviewing what I already noted and also adding all the lessons on Howtostudykorean.com (an amazing resource that makes complicated grammar easy to understand!!) I was able to refresh my memory and get brought up to speed on where to start studying again when I moved to Boston. It also helped to watch various Korean dramas!
Roughly three years later, unfortunately, I haven’t had much opportunity to use my Korean here but I’m certainly still seeking it out and no less interested in increasing my Korean fluency. My next steps may be to find more advanced textbooks, attempt to read some simple fiction (maybe kids or teen books), and join a local meetup.
With language it’s always said that you have to use it or you’ll lose it. Ironically, this has been extremely true with Spanish since I now transition to speaking Korean when I attempt to speak in Spanish. However, with Korean being the most recent language that I poured the most time and effort into, it’s still pretty fresh in my mind. Hopefully the next steps mentioned ahead will continue to make it so. 🙂
If you have any questions for me or just want to share your thoughts, please comment below!