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An Honest Assessment of My Korean Language Progress

Okay, six months of 한국어학당 finished (20 weeks x 20 hours per week = 400 hours of instruction), so I figured I should self-assess my Korean progress.

First, the positives:

- I speak better Korean than most foreigners here, which isn't saying much, since the bar is embarrassingly low. That is, if you can properly order food, say hello, goodbye, thank you, and pronounce (and remember) Korean names properly, then you are already ahead of probably 95% of foreigners, and Koreans will call you a "genius". It's 2013, people. This is sad.
- I can get around Korea just fine. I have no trouble with daily life.
- I can have conversations in just Korean about various topics, sometimes for hours.
- I can read and write better than I can speak.
- Occasionally, I can express complex concepts by mashing together words I already know.

Now, the negatives:

- My Korean is nowhere near "natural". The word and grammar choices I make are decidedly strange, and I don't sound like a Korean when I speak.
- My pronunciation is decent, but not great. I can make myself understood perfectly well, but I still mess up certain sounds, especially distinguishing ㅅ from ㅆ, ㄱ from ㅋ, ㄷ from ㅌ, etc. I have trouble hearing the distinctions between these sounds, too, which is obviously not a coincidence.
- I am functionally illiterate. I often look at advertisements and come across multiple words I haven't seen before, often different enough that I can't just guess. The informational mailings from my apartment building and the town are incredibly difficult. Forget about the newspaper, magazines, novels, let alone subtitles.
- The gap in my basic Korean is embarrassingly large. Recently, I found myself able to discuss the exchange rate, but didn't know the term for "to wash your hair" (머리를 감다).

So what's the deal, here? Didn't I just spend six months at one of, if not the highest-rated Korean language institutes in the country? How come I'm not fluent?

Basically, I think Korean language instruction is broken. Some of the ways:

- We barely learn how to speak. No, seriously. Let that one sink in for a moment. Speaking is skipped in favor of reading, writing, and listening. Although mostly, all of this is skipped in favor of listening to the teacher talk. As a result, unsurprisingly, I can understand nearly 100% of lectures about learning Korean and Korean grammar, yet I didn't how to say "to wash your hair".

- When we do speak, it's with other students, so we spend nearly 100% of our time speaking incorrect Korean and reinforcing our mistakes. The teacher corrects us about 1% of the time. It's not their fault - they simply don't have the time to correct every mistake.

- Despite being able to understand close to 100% of what the teacher says in class, that translates to much, much less outside of class. The reason is that the teachers don't speak like normal Koreans inside class. They are trained to only use words that they know we've learned, and even more frustrating, they don't speak at a normal speed. The first day our teacher came in last semester, she asked how fast she should speak, and I voted for "as fast as possible". She chose "as slow as that drugged up kid after the dentist". Every now and then the teachers get excited and speak natural, fast Korean with phrases that are often used but never taught in textbooks. I take furious notes during those times. They often ask me why I'm taking notes for stuff that's not on the test.

- Speaking of the tests, they mostly don't test our actual Korean ability. It's not that hard to pick grammatical forms or words to fit into a sentence blank, but this IN NO WAY means you know how to use those words or grammatical structures. The writing section is perhaps the best test of language ability. The listening, not so much - on our final exam last term, the listening portion was recorded at an embarrassingly slow rate.

- The stuff we read in class in mind-numbingly boring. It's also often written in an awkward way. The goal is to pack as much new vocabulary into the readings as possible, and sometimes reinforce recently learned grammar patterns (a good thing). But mostly it's just insanely, want-to-gouge-my-eyes-out boring.

- Korean is mythologized, both in and out of class. We're constantly told how hard it is to learn. Koreans for the most part believe that foreigners, especially non-Asian foreigners, are incapable of ever speaking proper Korean. If your expectations are as such, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I still often encounter Koreans who refuse to allow their brain to understand me, despite most people having absolutely no trouble understanding my Korean.

I really liked some of my teachers. I even asked one why they teach the way they do, and she said that the students want to learn a "large quantity" of Korean. So there it is. Quantity over quality (yet our school brands itself as teaching "precise" Korean). Supposedly demanded by the market.

Anyway, the only times my spoken Korean has gotten better are when I actually speak Korean with Koreans outside of class. Same for my listening. My reading got better from reading song lyrics and comic books. My writing got better from writing Facebook posts in Korean, which require a lot of time spent poring over example sentences in the dictionary to try to figure out how to use certain words and grammar patterns (yep, you figured me out - those aren't naturally occurring fluent Korean thoughts floating around in there).

If I were to design a Korean language course, it would be strikingly different from the one I took:

- For starters, it would spend way more time on the basic stuff. There are word frequency lists for every language. It's the biggest bang for your buck to learn the most frequently-used words first.

- Same for grammar patterns. And speaking of grammar patterns, I would teach them in context rather than piecemeal. We learned like ten different forms of indirect speech (-는다고 ...), and every damn time we went through "If the verb stem has a 받침, then it's -는다고, otherwise it's -ㄴ다고". Seriously, when you're speaking, you don't have time to think of these rules. Nor do you have time to think of grammar. You just speak. If you're thinking about 받침s, you're doing it wrong. If you hear "한다고" enough times, you will never accidentally say "하는다고". Cause it sounds off.

- I would use real material for reading rather than boring-ass contrived crap meant to teach us about the virtues of 떡 and how to properly celebrate a 돌잔치. Comic books, novels, songs, etc. Real stuff written by real Koreans, not academic educators.

- Listening would only use real material too. Korean dramas, movies, even television commercials (as long as they don't have Psy).

- I would teach speaking. This would involve actually speaking. This one seems pretty obvious.

Well, that's it for now. I'm exploring building something for myself to help accelerate my own Korean study. Stay tuned.


  1. So my question to you... you were in China, Japan, and Korea. Exposed to all three languages within your field.

    So... why Korean? (and why Korea. Why Shanghai or Tokyo etc)

    1. I originally really wanted to move to Tokyo, but it was too expensive, seemed impossible to get a visa, and seemed like a bad place if I ever wanted to open an office there. I never want to live in China again. Korea is in between China and Japan on a number of dimensions, and things move faster than Japan. Unfortunately, it turns out it's also extremely hostile to foreign entrepreneurs. Would absolutely love to come back to Japan some day.

      As far as the languages go, I like all three for different reasons, but my Japanese is embarrassingly bad. I would love to properly learn Japanese, sooner rather than later.

  2. Nice idea having a blog! Here's a polyglot who's been learning korean recently on his own:


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