Learning Korean ~ General Info

First I should tell you how I learned Korean.

I started with self-study, then took a weekly class for a year to increase conversation practice (but continued with the self-study), then went to Yonsei KLI’s three week summer course, then started doing classes twice a week (with self study) for about 9 months, and then went back to only self-study. In September 2014 I will be starting full time language study at a Korean university.

The one important constant through all of this is that all of my textbooks were (are) in Japanese (except for the Yonsei one, which was all Korean), and my teachers were all Korean/Japanese bilinguals (except at Yonsei, where they only used Korean).

So, if you want to know what English language resources I used, the answer is basically zero. I do have one English book I bought early on, “Korean For Beginners” from Tuttle. It has a good appendix about grammar terms in Korean (although I feel like it has too many terms that you’d only need to talk about English grammar. Useful I guess if you are learning Korean because you are teaching English in Korea.) It also has some interesting stories and culture facts, and is humorously written. Other than that, I haven’t really used it. I think I bought it in the beginning for an English speaker’s perspective on pronunciation (the one limitation of Japanese when learning Korean is pronunciation).

Why did I do this despite the fact that English is my native language?

Because I am also fluent in Japanese, and the parallels between Japanese and Korean are significantly greater than between English and Korean. It’s just easier to think of Korean in terms of what I already know about Japanese, than to try to understand it in terms of English.

So, if you also speak Japanese and would like some good Japanese resources for Korean, then please ask away!

For a great run down of Korean language resources (both internet and hardcopy) look at Hangukdrama and Korean. It’s all out there just waiting to be discovered!

If you are planning on coming to Korea to study Korean for whatever reason, I do recommend getting a headstart. One of the major reasons (aside from the already stated ones for KGSP people) is that in Korea, you will find that the instruction is primarily in Korean. Your classmates will be from a lot of countries and not all fluent in English. Depending on the school, however, you may find that they do provide beginner textbooks with versions for several languages (English, Chinese and Japanese with possible others). Still, it will probably be helpful in following the classes at the beginning if you have some background. And you can use the resources above (at Hangukdrama) to supplement your classes even in Korea.

Some random facts about the Korean language…

  1. It’s most commonly considered an Altaic language, which means it most closely resembles languages such as Japanese, Mongolian and Turkish (yes, Turkish). If you already speak one of these then it could be easier for you to learn.
  2. The other major influence on the Korean language is Chinese. About 60% of Korean vocabulary is considered “Sino-Korean,” or in other words it comes from Chinese (though with “Koreanization” of the pronunciation). Sino-Korean vocabulary is more prevalent in writing and formal speech, than in everyday conversation. Japanese also includes a similar percentage of words from Chinese. This means that speaking a dialect of Chinese or Japanese will give you a leg up on vocabulary. The nice thing about Korean, for those who already speak Japanese, is that every kanji character (or hanja as they are called in Korean) only has one pronunciation to remember in Korean (sometimes two for syllables starting with certain sounds). The disadvantage for Chinese or Japanese speakers, is that Korea doesn’t use many of the actual hanja characters in modern writing, so you have to figure out the connections on your own. But once you do catch on you’ll be able to work out more and more vocabulary on your own.
  3. Korean is considered a “Class 3” language by the US Foreign Service Institute, which means that it theoretically is one of the most difficult to master for native speakers of English (and presumably for native speakers of languages closely related to English). Difficulty is measured in the typical time it takes for US foreign service members to achieve “general proficiency” in the language. Class 3 means the estimate is about 88 weeks at 25 hours a week (about 2200 hours total, with half being in the country). Of course there will always be individual variation, and difficult doesn’t mean impossible. Other C3 languages include Japanese, the many dialects of “Chinese” and Arabic. (Just because Arabic is also dfficult fr English speakers doesn’t mean Korean is easy for Arabic speakers
  4. That said, Korean has one of the most logical writing systems in the world. Hangeul, as it is usually called in South Korea today, was deliberately and carefully constructed to make it easy for the general population to learn. At first glance it may look similar to Chinese or Japanese, but the characters are not pictographs, they are phonetic (sound based) like English. Unlike English, there aren’t as many spelling rules and exceptions. And the best part, the letters are actually modeled after the way your mouth moves to pronounce them.

I will do another post about Hangeul, phonetics, and my system for remembering them later.

Language Issues and KGSP

The native language in Korea is Korean.

I know that is pretty obvious to most, but I think it cannot be emphasized enough.

According to worlduniversitynews.com about 20 to 40 percent of courses at all Korean universities are taught in English. I take course in this context to mean class not major subject, but I could be wrong. That means the rest are taught in a language other than English (probably primarily Korean, with some language and area studies courses taught in another foreign language).

This article does not give a breakdown for undergraduate versus graduate level courses. I would guess that the percentage of English classes in undergraduate programs is slightly lower and the percentage in graduate programs slightly higher (for any given university).

So what does this mean for you as a potential scholar in Korea?

First, it means that you have a decent chance of selecting a course that is either entirely or partially in Korean.

Next, this article, indirectly, brings up an interesting issue. While some of the programs taught exclusively in English are taught by Korean professors educated abroad, or foreign professors proficient in English, there are also some programs (or courses) taught by native Korean professors who are not as proficient in English, and only using English as a medium of instruction with reluctance.

One of the consequences of this is that while classroom instruction in English may be mandatory, the professors still may prefer Korean outside the classroom. This can affect things such as a professor’s willingness to advise you.

From the letter sent to all students selected for a KGSP scholarship:

“Though a few grantees will take their classes mostly in English throughout their degree course, each one must possess adequate Korean proficiency to join various meetings and seminars, to participate in various research projects, and to live a fulfilling academic and social life in Korea.”

Korean will most likely be necessary or useful at some point in your academic career in Korea, and for those who don’t find an all English program (or aren’t confident in English either) it will be an absolute neccessity.

So NIIED provides a whole year of language study for exactly that purpose, right?

Well yes, that’s true.

BUT, by NIIED’s own admission, prior to 2012 only 60% of participants passed TOPIK level 3 after one year and were able to start their degree programs on time. Of the 40% forced to do an extra six months “a lot” were still unable to achieve level 3 and ultimately had to give up the scholarship.

Now as these language schools get more experience in teaching, and with NIIED’s encouragement making people take the language courses more seriously hopefully the percentage moving on after one year (or less) is increasing, as is the overall level achieved. Hopefully.

Still, I can say from personal experience that TOPIK level 3 is a bare minimum of what you will need to hold a (semi-intelligent) conversation, let alone study for an advanced degree. Even with a level of 5 or 6 (depending on how you got there) you will be at a disadvantage compared to native Korean classmates (in the Korean classes anyway). Things will just take longer and more effort. And, given the curriculum at most language schools, if you start from zero you won’t get as high as 5, unless you put in some serious self study.

So what am I saying?

I’m certainly not saying not to apply for the scholarship, not definitively anyway.

I am saying to consider it very carefully, and take the language issue seriously.

As I have mentioned before, know what you are getting into. Research the language of instruction for your program, but more than that research the professors. Where did they study? How comfortable are they likely to be with English? Pay specific attention to professors you might want to ask to advise you.

And, whether you have decided to take a gamble on a program with courses in Korean or not, don’t wait until you arrive in Korea to start learning the language. If you have found this blog then you have the resources to start learning Korean (the internet). Make use of them! More on that another time…