Sunday, June 10, 2012

Why Korean Is Hard For Native English Speakers

A couple of days ago, as an experiment, I wrote my first blog post ever in a non-English language. It was an attempt to explain some of the reasons that Korean is hard to learn for native English speakers, so I figured I might as well try to write it in Korean. Those of you who actually read Korean can see how awkward the attempt was =).

In any case, the post came from an email conversation I had with The Korean from Ask a Korean, a fantastically well-written blog about all things Korea from the perspective of a Korean who moved to the United States during high school. Since I tend to geek out on language things, I figured I might as well post part of that conversation. An edited version follows.


Out of the languages that I've attempted to learn so far, Korean has been the hardest. I've done a lot of meta thinking about learning Korean, and I think there are a number of reasons it's difficult for non-Koreans (and especially Westerners) to learn:

1) Obviously, the grammar. If you are used to a right-branching language such as English or Romance languages, then learning a left-branching language such as Korean or Japanese requires a complete rewiring of your grammar center, which is formatted in a certain way during the formative stages of language development.

The "branching" direction of a language refers to the shape of the parse tree of a sentence. In non-linguistic terms, you can think of it as the direction that a sentence extends as it gets more complicated. Languages aren't entirely right or left-branching. English is mostly right-branching with some instances of left-branching, but Korean (and Japanese) are very strongly left-branching. It's easier to see with some sentences.

Let's start with the simple English sentence "I went to the restaurant" - the subject is "I", the verb is "went", and the object is "the restaurant". It follows the "Subject Verb Object" (SVO) order that is common to English. In Korean it would be, "전 식당에 갔어요", which follows the SOV order that's common for left-branching languages. SVO versus SOV is a big pain point for early learners of a language, but it's really nothing compared to what happens when you try to make longer sentences.

Let's make the sentence more complicated by adding a descriptive phrase for the object: "I went to the restaurant that we went to last week." You can see that "the restaurant" is now further modified by the phrase "that we went to last week", and that the sentence extends to the right as we make it more complex (technically this is not an entirely accurate description of the branching direction of the language, but it's intuitive and instructive for my point, so just go with it).

In Korean, this sentence has now become way more complicated than the initial sentence: "저는 우리 지난 주에 갔던 식당에 또 갔어요." The highlighted portion is the new "that we went to last week" part. For the non-Korean readers out there, if we directly translate this sentence back to English, it reads, "I we last week went to restaurant to again went." As you can see, the sentence extended from the middle to the left! Simple enough, but imagine sentences with multiple descriptive phrases, some nested within other phrases. You know, the types of sentences that you use all the time in your native language. And then you can understand better why most Koreans who learn English and most English-speakers who learn Korean stick to simple sentence structures.

(As a bonus, after starting to get more comfortable in Korean, my Japanese, which I never really took the time to study properly, magically got better. The format of the sentences all of a sudden made a whole lot more sense to me once my brain was partially formatted for Korean grammar.)

2) I've found that not only is creating the proper grammatical structure difficult, but since Korean tends to be spoken fairly quickly, you need to speak it quickly enough that the phrases are attached to the right particles in the listener's mind. Prosody (the change in pitch of your voice as you speak) obviously plays a huge part in this, too. Beginners can't think and speak fast enough to complete a grammatically complex sentence quickly enough for the structure to make sense in the listener's mind. This problem is actually kinda funny - unless you speak at a sufficiently fast pace, the Korean listener loses track of what word you were attempting to connect your long and pause-ridden descriptive phrase to.

3) In addition to Korean being spoken very quickly (since its information density is comparatively low), Koreans drop a lot of sounds as they're speaking. Which makes understanding full-speed Korean harder than Japanese, for instance, since Japanese, one of the least information-dense (and thus most quickly spoken) languages, tends to be enunciated more clearly. Some of you might object, but at least to my ears, Japanese often sounds clearer, even at high speeds (note that this says nothing about my comprehension, though).

4) When I lived in Korea, I discovered something interesting - most people are really bad at helping non-Koreans understand Korean. The same applies for most languages, actually, as knowing a language and knowing how to teach it are totally different, but there's a whole lot more "good English" at hand to learn from than "good Korean". I often tried asking people politely, "What did you just say?", so that I could learn, but not only is it difficult to get someone to repeat themselves in Korean when they could switch to Kongrish/English, but many people actually don't know what they just said. This goes just as well for my fluent bilingual friends - they literally cannot repeat what they just said. But like everything, people get better with practice. Best to find very patient people to ask =).

5) In Korean, a lot of things are vocalized that are implied in English. It took me a long time to even start to get the hang of relatively simple constructions like -지, -잖아, -다고, etc, and there are literally hundreds of other endings and constructions that each convey a specific circumstance or tone which, in English, would be conveyed via tone of voice or possibly word choice (as opposed to conjugational endings).

6) This is a touchy subject, but it often feels like East Asians think that non East Asians are somehow intellectually incapable of learning Asian languages. This mentality decreases with increasing numbers of fluent foreigners (e.g., it's quite common to see business conversations taking place completely in Japanese between Japanese and Western businessmen). AAK's The Korean says that this is an example of the "The Foreigner Rule", which basically says that foreigners get away with not understanding how things work in Korea, simply because they're foreigners.

Anyway, due to this bias, the bar is really friggin' low for foreigners there - if you can say basic survival phrases, people are impressed. If you can have a conversation, they call you a genius or ask if you've been in the country for 10 years. In fact, 99% of the time I open my mouth in Korea and Korean comes out, the first thing I hear is some comment about my Korean (한국말 잘 하시네요!, etc). No one ever calls an Asian immigrant to America a genius for learning English, which is a pretty damn hard language to learn. In any case, the fact that the bar is so low does not create a great environment for mastering a second language. But as Korea continues to grow in importance on the global scale, The Foreigner Rule will necessarily diminish as important business is increasingly done in Korean.

So, what to do? For me, the biggest strides in learning Korean have come from the 10 weeks of class I actually took (although we learned awkward, textbook Korean), reading comic books (to learn "real" dialogue, not to mention plenty of "colorful" language =P), and watching Korean dramas/movies with Korean subtitles. And of course, the obvious one - speaking Korean with my Korean friends.

Anyway, this post has gotten pretty long, so if you've made it here, you probably have a genuine interest in languages. As such, a quick public service announcement - next time someone asks you how to say something in your native language, tell them exactly how to say what they're asking, rather than a shortened or simplified version. They will most definitely appreciate it.

Happy learning!


  1. 광장히 공감가는 내용이네요~ 생득적으로 자연스럽게 터득된 언어가 아니고선,

    특히나 한국어는 서양사람들에게는 매우 어려울것 같네요.

    저 같은 경우는 가까운 일본과 중국의 언어를 놓고 비교 해 봤을때, 일본어는

    한국어와 어순도 똑같고 한자의 영향으로 발음이 비슷한 단어도 제법 되어서

    배우기 편한데 그에반해 중국어는 발음도 매우 어렵고 -.,-; 어순도 반대고 .....

    말을 할때는 상대방과 어느정도는 대화 가능한 속도가 나와 주어야 하는데

    머릿속으로 문법같은걸 생각 하면서 말을 하기란 아주 힘든것 같습니다.

    그래서 한국인들이 영어를 어려워 하는거 같네요. 아주 괴롭습니다 - -;

  2. 와, 몇개 언어를 말할 수 있어요? 한국어, 영어, 중국어, 일본어.... 대단해.

  3. I am reasearching for my masters degree in TESOL and I stumbled upon you page while taking a break. I have to say, I feel the exact same way you do. I have been in Korea for almost 3 years and have been studying Korean on and off for about 2 years.

    Reading and writing haven't been that difficult (kakao talk is the best invention ever!) but speaking has been particularly difficult. Either people would rather speak broken English to you when you make the effort to speak Korean. I hear the same thing from every foreigner, even those going to Korean Universities.

    Anyways thanks for the read and good luck to you.

    1. Yep. It's definitely difficult to get Koreans to speak normal Korean with you as a foreigner. Good luck!

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  5. I think your effort the write the post in Korean deserves a huge round of applause. I'm Korean- American, and I certainly would not have had the confidence to do so because my spelling and spacing is a disaster. One of the things that kept popping out at me was your use of "다" at the end of sentences, which is totally correct. However, rather than an 이다, most articles/written Korean would end in 니다. It's more formal, and it just is that way. Also, you wrote "또 갔어요," but that isn't as correct as it could be. 또 indicates sort of redundancy than 다시, which would be a more fitting "again"; when you say 또 갔다, it feels like you really didn't want to go a 1123th time, but you just had to... I think that's all I had to say.

    1. Thanks! This was written a long time ago. Hopefully my Korean has improved a bit since then :). I think when I wrote it, I used "다" at the end of sentences because we learned that was the "literary style". It's definitely not how people speak, except for certain types of phrases like talking to yourself (아 춥다!). As for the other one (또 갔어요), actually at the time a native Korean friend helped me with that sentence because I didn't know how to say it! But you're right - 또 implies a bit of a negative sentiment, whereas 다시 more correctly just means "again". Anyway, thanks so much for the kind words! It's funny - Koreans often are amazed at my proper spelling and use of spaces, but those things are among the easiest parts of the language, whereas the actual grammar and word choice are orders of magnitude more complicated.

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