7 things that happened when I spent an hour with a Korean

Learning Korean, of course

Coming to Korea, I’ve always been looking for opportunities to learn more Korean beyond the classroom and conventional learning programs. These ranged from attending networking events to ordering food in Korean. While I have been able to pick up a few phrases here and there, my interactions have been like walking in the dark in terms of my learning.

Still more terrifying than any of the rides in Everland — even the Halloween ones

The Korean I do use has become routine, like “조금 할수 있어요 (I can (speak) a bit (of Korean))” and “따듯한 아메리카노 한잔 주세요 (One cup of warm (hot) Americano please).” If the Koreans I’m talking to already know English, then most of them would take that route even if I spare some phrases in Korean. The most diverse my Korean expression has gotten has been in conversations over drinks, and even then I have no way of knowing if the Korean I’m using is correct or how I could have said it better. Making friends who would use Korean with me has also been difficult, considering I’m not staying for long and there’s no urgent reason for me to learn that much anyway.

While going off the road in terms of learning Korean has not been easy, exposing myself to various communities here in Korea has led me to some interesting opportunities, one of which I’d like to share.

Through a Facebook group for the startup community in Seoul, I met Quan Nguyen, a Vietnamese-American Ivy League graduate who had been in Korea for more than five years working as an English teacher and building a startup on the side (on paper, but if you talk to him, it feels like the other way around). When he introduced his startup, sayspeaking.com (SAY), as a platform that offers a fun and flexible way of learning Korean by having online one-on-one conversations with native speakers, I was immediately interested, as someone who was learning Korean and advocating experiential learning.

Even managed to meet with him at the office in Gangnam!

I got to meet him a few times after, and we would talk about SAY so much that it came to the point that I decided to try out SAY. I signed up for a lesson, which lasts an hour, and before I knew it I was signing up for the next one. In those one-hour sessions, seven things happened that have helped with my Korean learning and made the experience with SAY worth sharing with you guys.

1. I made a new friend

I was expecting it to be awkward the first few minutes but right off the bat, my teacher Seon Young (선영) made it as comfortable as possible, considering we were communicating online through appear.in (an online video call platform — thankfully the internet didn’t crash during our sessions). She got to know me, and used my answers to introduce the lessons. I learned to return the favor, oftentimes passing back the questions I was asked when I had the chance. Because of this rhythm and environment we had created, the hour didn’t feel like a class but more like two people meeting casually at a cafe. I didn’t even notice time passing until she brought up that we had to end the session. The only thing missing was a warm cup of coffee.

Yup. Just missing the coffee.

2. I learned new vocabulary and phrases (and got to use them right away)

These ranged from greeting and farewell phrases like “내일 뵐게요” (See you tomorrow; polite) to slang like “불금” (literally, “Fridays on Fire”; something like TGIF). The former was part of the curriculum we were following, the latter just came up as we were talking. The best part was that in the days that followed our sessions, I got to use these phrases. More than standard phrases and slang, our lessons involved also putting together lengthier sentences like — 제 취미는 드라마 보기, 공원 산책하기, 독서하기, 그리고 블로그에 글 쓰기 예요 (My hobbies are watching dramas, strolling (in) parks, reading, and writing essays on (my) blog). While I still haven’t gotten the hang of expressing thoughts more fluidly, and I still tend to segment my expressions, Seon Young emphasized how much more natural my speaking would be if I could practice forming longer sentences.

This is the first gif that appeared on google when I searched “불금 gif.” Well you get the idea.

3. I practiced speaking

Speaking of speaking naturally, the sessions served as a sneak peek at what an everyday, spontaneous conversation with a Korean would be like. After covering the necessary vocabulary and phrases, we would review what we learned by having a complete conversation. Though Seon Young spoke slowly for me to understand, she still remained consistent in her use of Korean, and didn’t compromise. It was only when I asked her questions about definitions or when she wanted to make instructions clear that she would resort to English. In the end, I think the SAY sessions were the among the few hours I’ve spent speaking more Korean than English, even if the word I used the most was “네” (Yes) — even in everyday situations it is still the word I use the most.

This is me most of the session

4. I got recommendations

It was inevitable that because of the informal nature of our sessions, we drifted towards various aspects of Korean culture, from the cuisine to music. A considerable portion of our first session involved talking about favorite food, and she recommended trying out 파전 (pajeon; fried pancake with vegetables) on a rainy day. Since then I’ve had more than my fair share of 파전. In the second session we talked about music and shared our favorite artists, and while we didn’t share the same tastes, it was still valuable to broaden my perspective. Korean music isn’t all pop.

Pajeon is often called “Korean pancake” but it tastes nothing like pancake.

5. I shared stories about the Philippines

All the talk about Korean culture was reciprocated with responses about the Philippines, ranging from the typical side dishes we have during drinking, in Korean 안주 (anju), to random Filipino expressions like “kwan” (used as a filler in expression when one is at a loss for words; similar to Korean’s 뭐… or 막…) which came up because of Quan’s name (also pronounced “kwan”). Hopefully she’ll visit the Philippines soon!

And explore the islands like Sandara Park from 2NE1 on Battle Trip!

6. I made mistakes

In talking about the Philippines, I would try my best to express myself in Korean, and oftentimes I would make mistakes, either stumbling with my sentence structure or finding myself at a loss for words. In any case, Seon Young was always there to guide me and fill in those gaps I had. The mistakes I made didn’t discourage — rather, they encouraged me to make even more mistakes. The sessions we had were safe spaces to straighten out points of confusion and misconceptions I had picked up about the language. The best part about the sessions for me was that I was able to review these new points with Seon Young at the end of the class.

One of those “oops…let me help you out there” moments that I’m thankful for

7. I gained confidence

By sharing a safe space for learning with a newfound friend, I was able to find the confidence I sorely lacked when it came to using Korean. While those sessions weren’t a one-stop-shop for success in everyday situations, it certainly accelerated my learning, not just because of the new expressions and cultural insights I gained, but also because these expressions and insights were placed in my context. That shift from learning Korean just as it is to learning Korean as you would be able to use it provides a lot of opportunities to apply lessons right away.

Reviewing the phrases and words so I could use them out in the streets!

A lot that can happen in an hour

My search for ways to learn Korean beyond the classroom and conventional learning programs has led me to a lot of fun and worthwhile opportunities like the two sessions of SAY speaking I experienced. There’s definitely a lot that can happen in that hour’s session, and the great thing is that the experience can be different for everyone. In those two sessions, SAY balanced the flexibility of informal learning and discipline of curriculum-based learning, and by doing so, created a unique experience for me as a Korean learner.

When it comes to learning, there’s no definite equation for the best experience, since we all learn differently. What I learned from my exploration is that perhaps the best way for us to learn is to be open to these different ways of learning. Thanks to Quan and Seon Young, I’ve gained more confidence to continue my own journey beyond SAY. Who knows what more I will find?

Never thought I’d end up spending an hour talking to a Korean (mostly) in Korean twice!

If you’re interested in learning more about SAY, you can check out their website at sayspeaking.com. SAY also started opening up offline group lessons for learners in Korea, which my friend recently experienced. If you feel like learning offline in groups of three or four, reach out to Quan at quan@sayspeaking.com for more information. Feel free to comment any questions you have about my experience!