Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Learning Korean from Scratch

There are few things scarier than moving to the other side of the world by yourself. Oh, wait - what if you moved to the other side of the world, to a country where you are completely illiterate?

 Luggage lost at the airport? No idea how to get out of the terminal building? Don't know how to pronounce the address of wherever you're supposed to go to the taxi driver? How about using that washing machine, or turning on the underfloor heating (especially when you come from a hot country where thermostats are completely unknown)? Need to get to work? Need to go to the bathroom? Need... to communicate at all?

Screw this; at least the beer place has a picture on it. BEER TIME!

I'm all about being overprepared, so for the past few months I've been teaching myself Korean. I started very slowly but since I passed my interview I've taken it up a few notches and I'm taking it a lot more seriously. And suddenly it doesn't seem as hard as it was at first.

How hard can it be?

Some resources

When I told her I was interested in going to Korea, one of the first things my friend Lara did was loan me a book called 'Survival Korean' (reviewed thoroughly here). One of its strong points is the section in which you learn to read Hangul in only four hours. It's fantastic for people who have no knowledge of the language, and no linguistic background.

I have also been spending time looking through the interwebs for some good, free (and not so free) resources, so here are a few that I've found:

TalkToMeInKorean - A fantastic website through which you can learn Korean in whichever method suits you, be it vocabulary from labelled photographs, or through the lyrics to K-pop songs, or from realistic and amusing dialogues, as well as the standard podcast lessons with pdf supplements. This one has been the most effective (for me) for learning everyday spoken Korean.

LearnKoreanOnline (with Rob Julien) - This guy is a fantastic teacher, and has videotaped classes in which he teaches real people the language. I love the fact that he's taped real classes, as the students make comments and questions that are totally in line with what I was thinking at the time. It also means the pace is nice and slow. These videos helped me to finally get the hang of the vowels (ㅗ,ㅓ,ㅏ,ㅣ,etc), as they were confusing me a lot. He's also great at replying to emails if you have other questions.

Memrise - This website allows you to make your own flashcards or learn from lists that other people have made. There are a lot of flashcard programs out there, but this one is definitely my favourite. What makes it special is that how well you remember words and how much time you spend learning them affects 'flowers' in your 'garden' - if you don't practise, they wilt. If you do practise, they grow. It also forces you to become familiar with reading and writing Korean as you sometimes have to type the answers, and it does not necessarily provide romanized forms of the words. Some words even let you listen to a recording of someone pronouncing them.

Heather linked to some awesome syllable charts, available here, which I'll probably print out and stick on my wall for practise during desk-warming.

DAUM - From what I can tell, this is a bilingual dictionary aimed at Koreans learning English and Westerners learning Korean. I use it when I learn a new word in order to get the most thorough idea of all the different nuances of the word. It's pretty awesome, although a bit tricky to get the hang of in the beginning. It does provide example sentences so you know how to use the word in context, which makes it awesome to me. You need to know how to type in Korean in order to search for Korean words.

(KLEAR) Integrated Korean - This textbook series is not free but for someone who has a background in Linguistics like me, and who is used to learning other languages, it's amazing. It can be a bit too technical for people who aren't linguistically fabulous, but I really like using it for the grammar and spelling rules. It explains things really, really well, and the practise exercises are very good for cementing your understanding. So far I haven't found the answers to the questions I've been answering, and a memo would be nice. I'm hoping to get a native Korean speaker to help me out with that once I get there.

So, how am I teaching myself Korean?

1. Alphabet: I think the 한글 writing system is the most logical and reasonable in the world, and it's actually quite easy to get the hang of. I learned it initially from the Survival Korean book, and then cemented that and clarified things with Rob Julien's videos. Now I use it to take notes in my Korean notebook. Which brings me to...

2. Notebook (Grammar and vocab): I keep a notebook that I use to practise reading and writing Korean. I also use it to make notes about how the language works, with examples and colour coding and vocabulary things. So, depending on what I feel like doing on a given day, I write things like a list of classroom Korean that I got from the KLEAR book, or I do some grammar exercises, or write out some vocab with example sentences. As I get better at Korean I'll start writing short sentences, paragraphs, and so on. For now I'm just keeping things simple. Because I'm messier than the Tasmanian devil, I use a qued notebook (with vertical lines as well as horizontal) so that I can practise writing Korean syllables within square blocks.

3. Vocabulary: I use Memrise to learn vocabulary, starting with lists of the most commonly used words. If you're looking for good lists like that, look for lists that mention the TOPIK exam.

4. Pronounciation: If, like me, you've never really been exposed to people speaking Korean around you, then when you do hear it, it kind of sounds like pebbles rolling down a hill and landing in a pond. It sounds pretty, to me, but it's a bit hard to even begin to understand a language when you can't tell where words start and end, or if people are expressing something good or bad, or asking a question. I don't have any Korean friends nearby, so to get my ear tuned in to the sounds, rhythms and speed of Korean, I watch Korean soap operas. It especially helps build my confidence as the words that I've learned from Memrise pop up, such as 그리고 (and, and then, and also, as well as...) and I recognise them. Because that means I actually understand what people are saying! Plus, the soap operas (dramas) are AWESOME - funny, sweet, and a bit crazy. You also start to get an idea of how social interactions take place, especially with regard to bowing, and face-saving. If you're too butch to watch shows in which the heroine seduces the hero by puking on him, watch films like Old Boy instead. They have a massive entertainment industry, so you WILL find something you like.

To sum it all up: if you're an absolute beginner who wants to learn Korean while you wait for it to be February, I think I'd break it down like this:

Learn the alphabet from Rob Julien. Learn some basic phrases from TalkToMeInKorean. Build up your vocab with Memrise and tune your ear with Korean movies and series (not all of them are cheesy romances!) and then if you want to get serious, get yourself a good textbook - the kind used by university courses in learning Korean, rather than ones aimed at tourists - and knuckle down. It's supposedly one of the five hardest languages for westerners to learn.

There's another great list of resources here. The resources listed above are just the ones that I personally use regularly