7 things I did to learn Korean

어떻게 내가 한국어를 배우는 시작했읍니다 ?

With 2016 now in the history books, it’s a good opportunity to look back at the decisions I’ve made the past year and how they’ve changed who I am.

One of the first decisions I made in 2016 was to learn Korean. It all began when my friend posted in one of our Facebook groups asking for New Year’s resolutions.

The challenge

With part of me feeling inspired and part of me just wanting to play along, I responded.

No one else responded

My response to the post made me realize that I really wanted to learn Korean, and in fact, I had already begun with the basics the month before. With that comment, I was finally announcing my pursuit to the world (the friends who viewed my comment on that Facebook group) and more importantly, to myself. Without making that decision to learn and constantly renewing that decision throughout the year, I would not have been able to do the seven things I did to learn Korean thus far.

1. I learned how to write Hangeul on Youtube.

What I did: My brother was participating in the International Junior Science Olympiad (IJSO) in Korea on December 2015, and my mom and I saw this as the perfect opportunity to get in on some of the action. We scheduled a vacation in Korea right after my brother’s contest. By that time I had also started watching several Kdramas — the Secret Garden, Emergency Couple, Doctor Stranger — thanks to my curiosity and a free trial iFlix subscription. Looking forward to a Christmas break with a trip to Korea and Kdramas to binge-watch, I looked up Youtube videos on 한글 (Hangeul), the Korean writing system, to get me started on learning Korean. I made sure to look up several channels and websites to crosscheck what I was learning. It helped to practice writing and reading syllables to get a hang of Hangeul.

How it helped in my learning: Just as cells are to organisms and molecules are to matter, so is Hangeul to the Korean language. Learning Hangeul enabled me to convert sounds into characters and vice versa, which is important in building vocabulary. That said, Hangeul is just as much about the sounds as it is the characters, and for a lot of cases the romanization does not match the pronounciation. One example is 네 (yes). It’s pronounced by Korean speakers somewhere in between the “ne” and “de” sounds, with the tongue placed lightly in between teeth for the consonant sound. However, the official romanization is “ne”, which was confusing for me when I heard it being used. It takes a lot of exposure and practice to get used to the sounds and their corresponding characters, and even until now I still find it tricky to distinguish between ㅓ(eo) and ㅗ (o). For some syllables it’s near impossible without knowing the spelling, like 왜 and 외, both pronounced “weh” (short e).

Also what I looked like after the two days I spent watching videos on Hangeul; for more you can check: https://www.pinterest.com/explore/korean-drama-funny/

2. I went to Korea.

What I did: Going to Korea was not something I did to learn Korean. Like I mentioned earlier, my trip there was for a family vacation. I spent four days there, the first in 대구 (Daegu) for my brother’s awarding ceremony and the next three in 서울 (Seoul), where we did all the touristy things — (window) shopping and eating street food in 명동 (Myeongdong) and 인사동 (Insadong), visiting 경복궁 (Gyeongbukgung Palace), walking the streets of 복존 (Bukchon), and going up the 남산 터워 (Namsan Tower). Not surprisingly, I hardly had to use any of the Korean expressions or the Hangeul I had learned. However, there were still a few times I made it a point (forced myself) to use the little I had picked up in the past few weeks, like when I wrote a “Thank you” note for the hotel staff in Daegu, when I introduced myself to my brother’s facilitator for the IJSO, and when I told the lady selling street food in that her food was delicious.

How it helped my learning: More than an opportunity to use Korean, our four day adventure was for my family and I to enjoy the food, the sights, and sounds of Korea. All these heightened my interest in learning the language. It was then that I realized that learning Korean, or any language, does not happen in a vacuum. A language is inseparable from the culture that gave birth to it and helped it grow. My headstart with Korean gave me a better appreciation of our experience and vice versa.

I call this the salo-salong sidedish conundrum

3. I got into Kdramas and Kpop.

What I did: The first Kdrama I remember watching was City Hunter, back in the early part of this decade. My mom, an on-and-off Kdrama fan, introduced the show to us and catching the episodes became part of our nightly family bonding. Back then I wasn’t into Hallyu. I would never have imagined myself watching Kdramas one after another, but that’s what happened a few years later. It started with Secret Garden, then it hasn’t stopped since. As of this writing I’m catching up on “우리 집에 남자 사는” (The Man Living in our House/ Sweet Stranger and Me) and “역도요장 김복주” (Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok Joo). Thanks to the OSTs of Kdramas, I started looking up Kpop songs. Initially I only listened to the songs I picked up from Kdramas, but nowadays I don’t rely on Kdramas anymore for Kpop song suggestions. As of this writing my favorites are “The Day” by Baekhyun and K.will and “Last Dance” by Big Bang. I’m a sucker for sentimental songs.

How it helped my learning: Listening to Korean actors and singers has trained my ear to be accustomed to speech. This helps a lot because sometimes the Hangeul romanization can be quite different from the pronunciation. Also, both dramas and songs repeat certain words and phrases, and eventually it creates familiarity and develops retention. As my vocabulary expands, some of these words and phrases, often social cues and literary devices, are put under new light and the conversations and lyrics make more sense to me. That’s why sometimes I don’t search for the meaning of a song right away. I just enjoy listening to it, and bit by bit, I unearth the meaning through familiar words and phrases. In Kdramas, one phrase I often hear is “보고싶어요” (bo-gu-shi-poh-yo) which literally translates to “I want to see you” but is usually used to mean “I miss you.” More than expanding my vocabulary and conditioning my ear to Korean, my interest in Kdramas and Kpop has opened up a whole lot of conversations I never thought I would have and led me to people I never thought I would meet.

This is what I mean by sentimental

4. I used Korean in my devices and accounts.

What I did: Basically I switched the language settings from English to Korean. in my devices — my phone and my laptop — and my accounts — from Facebook to Uber. It’s been an on-and-off thing since I first tried it out, as there are some occasions when I had to put it back to English, like when I get lost in the Settings menus or when somebody needs to borrow my phone, and it took me a while to often get back to Korean. Aside from changing settings, I also installed Korean keyboard in my devices and started using it for Messenger, Facebook posts, and just recently, Instagram.

How it helped my learning: By the changing the settings on my devices and accounts, not only did I make my life harder, I also made it easier for me to recognize and define Korean words by association with their English counterparts. For example, the word 검색 (gom-saek) which appears often and corresponds to the word “search” on search bars or right-click drop down menus. By practicing the Korean keyboard often on my laptop, I find it easier to touch-type Korean, but not without the repeated mistakes. It helped that I was already a touch typist on a English keyboard, so I just had to use association and muscle memory. Finally, by using the keyboard to send messages, post the occasional birthday greeting “생일 축하 해요!”, or an Instagram post, I’ve been able to engage my friends and include them in my learning.

My first Instagram post in Korean; the caption translates to “The snow falling from trees is beautiful.”

5. I took a class on Korean.

What I did: I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to select Korean for a foreign language elective we have in our university. When I was still starting out with Korean and wasn’t so sure with my decision to learn the language, I was planning to take Chinese. I spent my kinder and elementary years taking up Chinese, and saw the elective as an opportunity to revisit what I had learned. Then my Korean learning started taking the high gear as the year progressed. I didn’t want to lose the momentum I had gained, and so I finally decided on Korean. I still do plan on revisiting Chinese, but that’s for another reflection. Anyway, the class I took for a semester was a revelation — I learned just how much more there was to learn.

How it helped my learning: The lessons in class helped back up what I was picking up from online tutorials, Kdramas, and Kpop. Having a teacher and classmates to learn from and learn with gave me more confidence and more experiences with Korean. Through the oral tests and writing exercises we had, I was able to make mistakes and learn from them. Finally, our class did more than just explore the language. We had a session where we watched an episode of “그녀는 예뻤다” (She Was Pretty) and another for the movie “완득이” (Punch). We even played Ddakji and Gonggi Nori, a game similar to jackstones, except way harder. We were even invited to talks by the Korean Cultural Center, Gayageum and Nanta performances, and panel discussions by Filipino veterans of the Korean War. Participating in all these brought a little bit of Korea to my life as Filipino, and I experienced just how important it is to learn with others.

Nanta performance at our university’s Window on Korea event

6. I joined an essay writing contest.

What I did: One of the opportunities I had as a student of the Korean elective was to join our university’s first 백일장 (Baekiljang), an essay writing contest sponsored by our university’s Korean Studies Program. Baekiljang had levels of difficulty, and a different topic for each level. Along with my classmates, I submitted an entry on “ 자기 소하기” (Self-introduction). While many of us submitted entries, my decision to join was driven by a desire to be adventurous. We were expected to use what had been taught to us, but I decided to explore new grammar patterns that we had yet to learn, and used these to introduce myself. In the end, the risks paid off, and while I didn’t place in the contest, a few others and I got a special award. I’d like to think it was because I took the risk in playing a bit more with what I had picked up outside the classroom. I also made it a point to get back my essay and read the marks the professors had made.

How it helped my learning: By trying out new patterns and conjugations that hadn’t been taught, I was potentially making a fool of myself. Nevertheless, I saw it as an opportunity to learn. This experience gave me the chance to stretch my limits solely depending on what I had picked up the past several months I had been investing into Kdramas, Kpop, and Korean classes. Not only that, it also taught me that mistakes are inevitable in learning. Might as well make as many of them as possible early on while still doing my best. This also extends to conversations. Oftentimes I find myself hesitating to try speaking Korean when I encounter a native Korean speaker. I’m afraid of making embarrassing myself, but I realize that I’m not going to learn by playing safe. So might as well.

I got a book too! Highly recommend Korean lit, esp if you’re into the realism and detail of Russian lit (eg Chekov)

7. I talked to Koreans.

What I did: My Korean learning experience for the year wouldn’t be complete without actually speaking to Koreans. Thankfully, I didn’t need to go to Korea to get a taste of what it’s like. Simply living in the Philippines as a Filipino university student has already exposed me to a lot of Koreans, who often emigrate to the Philippines for studies, work, or religion, sometimes bringing their families along.

After my trip to Korea in December, my first conversation was with a Korean in Korean was in a coffee shop. I asked to be excused as I plugged in my laptop charger close to her table. As soon as I said I was learning Korean, she started inviting me to her church. Though I had to decline her invitation, it felt refreshing to meet someone new and be able to use what I picked up and learned.

The next memorable conversation I had was for my final oral exam, with a visiting professor from Sogang University. While it was an interview, and she was asking the questions about myself, I was forced to use a skill on-the-go that previously had always been used with some forethought. She was smiling and relaxed the whole way through, but I could feel the adrenaline rush as my mind raced to keep up with my speech.

Finally, the longest conversation I’ve had thus far was with two Korean university students who were conducting interviews in Stanford University, California. It was December last year, and I had just met up with a Stanford student that afternoon and was about to enter the bookstore when I noticed they seemed to be lost. Seeing the opportunity to use Korean, I approached and asked what they were looking for. Apparently it was who, not what. They were looking for Stanford students to interview. I wasn’t one, but I still wanted to talk, so I asked where they’re from. They were university students and were doing research here in Stanford. At this point I was struggling. I ended up using English towards the end. Finding no more questions to ask, and with the situation being slightly awkward, I thanked them and headed inside the bookstore.

A few minutes later I saw them again and this time they approached. They were looking for the bus stop to get to a shopping center, so I gave them directions, pausing to remember the words from my lessons. What I really appreciated from the students was that they repeated back the words I said, and the tone they used meant they either understood or didn’t. That was probably the best type of feedback I could have gotten in that situation. I didn’t get their names and will probably never seem them again, but they really gave me a boost of confidence and a great opportunity to learn.

How it helped my learning: A lot of other moments happened between those memorable conversations where I used basic expressions in Korean, from “Thank you” to “Sorry” to “Excuse me.” They were all learning experiences for me, being able to use what I had learned in the “real world.” That’s really why I wanted to learn the language. To be able to relate and communicate with people who I otherwise would not have had the chance to — be it Kpop fans or my classmates in Korean or the Koreans I spoke to. And the surprise on their faces when I speak in Korean? Priceless.

What now?

I’m going to continue on this journey I started. I can’t wait for all the experiences I’ll have this year because of this journey, and it doesn’t end with Korean. Perhaps I’ll learn Japanese, revisit Chinese, or even Python. This year of learning Korean gave me a lot of insights and experiences into what it really takes to learn. I write this not just as a student of Korean, but simply as a student. The practices, mindsets, and situations I got myself into are valuable in learning any new skill, from coding to cooking to climbing. The best part? There was no foresight or intense scheduling as I learned Korean the past few months. Conscious decisions are necessary, and when the opportunity to learn comes right up your alley, you’ll have to make one. Don’t wait. Go crazy with it and learn.

Time to go crazy and learn!

If you’re interested in learning more about my journey thus far, recommended Kdrama, other favorite Kpop songs (that aren’t sentimental), and the people I’ve met along the way, or just having a conversation about Korean, feel free to hit me up in the comments! Would also love to hear your feedback, advice, and insights! ❤

You’re welcome