Why I Learned Korean

At the beginning of every year in the flute department at the Academy we always had our first department class dedicated, basically, to “get to know you” activities. In my last year, the head teacher made us play the “3 facts” game, or whatever it’s called, where you have to think of three facts about yourself. One is false, and the other two are true, and it’s up to the other people in your group to decide which fact is false.

I don’t really see myself as a particularly interesting person, so I normally had a hard time thinking of false facts that weren’t things like “I have a dog.” I had a trump card though, which really was a true fact, which every year people would guess was the false fact. And that’s the fact… that I speak Korean.

I can hear the skepticism in your minds. “Anybody can speak any language if they put their mind to it. Kate, you probably took a Korean class at Northwestern.”

Not true! I’ll rephrase my earlier statement. I taught myself Korean, and I can actually speak it.

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Bukchon Hanok Town, Seoul / 북촌한억마을

As a disclaimer, before I start to sound really preachy, with the ubiquity of the internet, it’s easier than ever to teach yourself a language, and keep up with the practice of it. In the case of Korean in particular the proliferation of dramas, K-pop, movies, and live TV shows on the internet now is just astounding. That being said, I’m not the first person to teach themselves Korean, or any language for that matter, nor the last. Even still, I do get a lot of interesting reactions from people when they find out, so, you know, I’m here to clear things up in regards to myself.

Anyways, when I tell people I taught myself Korean, I normally get two questions:

  1. Er… You’re a white girl from America. You live in England. And yet you learned a seemingly useless, complicated language that few people besides Koreans speak. Why?
  2. HOW DID YOU DO THAT!?

In order to keep this post shorter, I’m going to answer the “why” in this blog post, and dedicate another one to the “how.” Good? Good.

So after all that fanfare, why I decided on Korean is actually a fairly simple explanation.

When I was in high school I took Italian. Fortunately for me, my dad also happens to know some Italian, so homework and class conversations became really easy because I could practice at home. I struggled a little at first, but eventually it came really naturally, enough so that I would often finish my work and homework in class and then have a nap or help everyone else. We all have those classes right? The ones where we can just turn our brains off and not try? I loved learning Italian, but I was really bored.

So in my junior year of high school, after two years of Italian, I decided, sort of on a whim, that I was going to learn another language. I didn’t really have the time in my schedule at school to take another one, or the money to take outside classes, so I knew from the start that it was going to have to be a self-motivated endeavor.

So I started doing some research.

Right away I decided that I wanted to stay away from languages that use the Latin alphabet. Why? I dunno, I wanted something more exotic, I guess, and more of a challenge. (To be fair, I did try German for a little bit but all the umlauts and their pronunciation just confused me, so I gave up quickly.)

My first big challenge was finding a language I could teach myself to read. I pulled out some dusty Russian books from some classes my dad took in college, but I just couldn’t get past the Cyrillic alphabet. I tried Persian, but as it turns out they only write vowels when they appear at the beginnings of words. That wasn’t going to do. I was probably most drawn to the big eastern Asian languages but quickly found Chinese to be too intimidating. Japanese was better… I would still have to learn how to write Chinese characters, but in the meantime the two native Japanese syllabaries didn’t seem too bad.  Nothing seemed like a perfect fit though.

Around this time I also had gotten super into Lost. I know, right? It feels like forever ago. For those of you who have watched the first half of Lost you’ll know that there is a Korean couple that features heavily in the first couple of season. And not only are they featured, but they actually speak Korean on the show.

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“Let’s not tell stories about religion / Let’s not tell stories about politics / Let’s not tell stories about the army / Let’s just talk about women” @ a restaurant in Insadong, Seoul

The first few times I heard Korean spoken on the show, I found it to be really beautiful, musical almost, with an overall rise and fall to the phrases rather than the staccato sounds that most people associate with other Asian languages (like Chinese, Thai, and Vietnamese).

Of course, I had to go and research it, and lo and behold, Korean also has an alphabet that is super easy to learn. Bing bing bing! Match made in heaven.

So no, I didn’t learn Korean because of K-dramas or K-pop, or because I had a crush on a Korean guy, or anything like that; I learned it because I wanted to learn something completely outside of my experience, and it fell into my lap at the right time. It hasn’t been all fun and games of course. The grammar is pretty much backwards from English, and memorizing words that have no cognates made me nearly give up many, many times. But over time I fell completely in love with the culture, the food, the people, and the history, and a whole new world opened itself to me. I’m pretty sure the only reason I persevered is because I fell in love with it. I just have this intense curiosity about all things Korean, still, to this day, and that’s why I stick with it.

So there you have it. That’s why I learned Korean. Next time I’ll spill my secrets on how I did it.

 

 

 

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5 comments

  1. Yukechii · · Reply

    wow, i´m really interested how you did it. Because teaching myself korean is really my dream. I just simply don’t know where to begin… But this post motivated me once again to do it!! Thank you!

    1. I have a whole plan for another blog post on how to get started so keep an eye out; maybe it will be helpful! In the meantime, just stick with it! I always found watching dramas to be an easy way to “study” 😉

  2. Korean language is so complex and I’m learning it nowadays! You’re inspiring me to work harder.

  3. […] week ago, I wrote a post called “Why I Learned Korean” (you can find that post here). I got some really lovely responses from people saying that I had somehow re-inspired them to pick […]

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