[SPECIAL SERIES – KOREAN LEARNERS] #9 Shawn Cheng

13 November, 2017

Time to revive the special series I had started back in 2012 (omg) when Korean learners/bloggers are invited to share their Korean learning journey! It will be nice if you can leave a comment after reading! ^^ To participate in the series, leave me a comment or drop me an email at shanna[@]hangukdrama.com. Check out previous entries HERE.

The Beginnings

You could say my interest in Korean began in 2008. I was a junior (or 11th grade in high school) in America at the time, and my friend sent me a song that she really liked. The song turned out to be Haru Haru by Big Bang, and this launched me into the world of K-pop. Within a year I found myself listening to K-pop all the time and watching Big Bang concert performances late into the night.

This interest in K-pop continued into college, where I briefly became obsessed with other artists such as IU and T-ARA. In addition, I started playing Starcraft II in college, and from watching professional games I realized that the best pro-gamers were all Korean. This got me even more interested in Korean culture, and on top of that I had a big crush on a Korean girl who lived in the same dorms as I did.

Despite all these factors, however, I never really considered learning the language. I had always wanted to study another language and flirted with the idea of being a polyglot. However, I had been fascinated with the way German sounded even before I started listening to K-pop, so I ended up signing up for a German class on a whim one semester. However, when I checked the required books for my classes, I found that my German textbook would cost somewhere around $300. $300 for one textbook! So, wracking my brain for options, I decided that maybe I should consider Korean classes since I was also interested in a lot of things Korea-related. I checked the textbook for the Korean class: $20. Okay, Korean it was. I changed my registration from German to Korean, and that was my first step into learning Korean.

In my one semester of Korean class, I learned to read and write Hangeul and the basics of Korean. I found that I really enjoyed learning languages. I had taken Chinese classes before but that was different since I’m a Chinese-American and Chinese was my first language technically. This was a language that I actually wanted to learn of my own independent free will. As a Chinese speaker, the aha moments when I could relate a Korean word to my Chinese knowledge was really rewarding. I had this experience with words such as 도서관, 운동, 체육관, and innumerable other words. I found that, compared to my classmates at least, I seemed to be learning quite fast and doing quite well with the language. Pronunciation-wise, I think my years of passive exposure to the language via K-pop and Starcraft had primed my brain to the sounds of the language. Maybe I had discovered a hidden talent?

I came out of that Korean class with an interest in Korean and language learning, but due to schedule constraints I was not able to continue Korean classes. However, as I had always wanted to study abroad, I looked into the possibility of studying in Korea for a semester. So, in 2014, after finishing up all my major classes, I flew halfway across the world to Korea to spend my last semester of college at Yonsei University.

Falling in Love

Those four months abroad in 2014 was perhaps the most magical time of my life. I took mostly classes in English on subjects like Korean history, Korean philosophy, and Korean culture, but I was also enrolled at their Korean Language Institute (KLI), where I had language class five days a week for two hours a day. I was hoping that I could test into level two since I had already taken a semester of college back at home, but I had a rude awakening when I took the placement test and realized that I could barely answer any of the questions. I was placed into level one, albeit the slightly accelerated level one class for students who already knew Hangeul.

At the beginning of my semester at Yonsei, I met an Australian who spoke impressive Korean, and we quickly hit it off. He told me he had only self-studied for about two years at that point, yet he tested into level five at KLI. On top of that, he had learned Chinese to fluency in a similar amount of time before starting Korean. I was thoroughly impressed, and this proved to me that I could also learn the language to fluency if I put my mind to it. He was also the one who introduced me to many of the learning tools I still use to this day for language learning, such as spaced repetition and Naver Dictionary.

I spent my four months at Yonsei going to class, studying Korean, going to language exchanges, joining Korean clubs, making Korean friends, exploring the nightlife of Seoul, drinking until the wee hours of the morning with friends, and in general having the time of my life. As an aside, I firmly believe alcohol is an amazing tool for unlocking your conversational potential. I was always nervous and had trouble talking, but once I had a few drinks in me it was amazing how much more I could express myself. Before I knew it, my semester was up, and it was time to pack my bags and go home. With a heavy heart, I said bye to the friends I had become so close to in such a short time. Language-wise, I had definitely improved a decent amount (I would say at this point I was around an A2 level) but still not happy with where I was. I could have basic conversations at this point with Koreans such as, “Where are you from? What are your hobbies? What foods do you like? What’s your job?”. I could understand simple, slow speech. But this was still far from enough for me.

The Long Tedious Slog

After coming back to America, I found a job and continued to study Korean on the side as by now becoming good at Korean had become a passion for me. Around that time I started watching a new show which was just getting popular at the time called 비정상회담 (Abnormal Summit), and seeing the number of foreigners who could speak Korean well blew my mind and gave me added motivation. Especially seeing Tyler Rasch and his dizzying vocabulary gave me renewed belief that, yes, I can learn Korean to fluency too.

For the next year or so I studied Korean on the side while working. My routine consisted of watching Korean shows regularly, looking up a lot of words that I didn’t know (and trust me when I say there was A LOT), and adding some of these words to my Anki deck. I also used TalkToMeInKorean’s grammar lessons, audiobooks, and their Iyagi episodes. The audiobooks and Iyagi episodes were invaluable because they were recordings of native speakers speaking at slightly slower than normal speeds bundled with scripts. The included scripts were really the key, since I could use them to check my understanding, easily look up words that I didn’t understand, and do exercises such as shadowing or dictation. I would highly recommend any high beginner to intermediate learner to take advantage of these.

Despite this pretty consistent schedule (I did Anki pretty religiously), I found my Korean progress frustratingly slow. It took me almost a year of studying in the US to go from about an A2 level to a B1 level. I did not have any Korean speakers around me whom I could practice Korean with, and it was very much a solo journey except for my Australian friend whom I had kept in contact with and the Korean learning subreddit on Reddit. I was also not really happy with my life and not sure what I wanted to pursue, and I found myself constantly thinking back to my life in Korea. As a result, I decided to take a risk and do something crazy while I was young, so about a year after coming back to the US I packed my bags once again for Korea and jetted off to teach English in Busan.

Becoming Korean

Going back to Korea after having plodded along in Korean for the past year in the US with no practice opportunities felt like the first breath of air after being underwater for a long time. It was amazing. Suddenly, I was able to use Korean everywhere I went and hear it everywhere I went. It was as if something clicked in my head, and all of the passive knowledge I had accumulated in the past year was suddenly activated. I continued to use Anki to review vocabulary, but I slacked off quite a bit and only added new cards to Anki occasionally. Most of my learning at this point was through talking to Koreans, not understanding something, asking them what it meant, and then, if I thought it was an important word, saving it to my word list on Naver Dictionary. Every so often I would go through this word list and add some of the words to my Anki, but I didn’t really do it in a structured manner. I also continued to watch Korean shows, but I still needed English subtitles most of the time for these. At this point, I could maybe understand about 70% of TV shows like Show Me the Money or Abnormal Summit.

A few months into my second sojourn in Korea, I met my current girlfriend who turned out to be one of the biggest factors behind my Korean development. Talking to her every day skyrocketed my Korean ability. In the beginning, I would have to stop her every few sentences and ask what a word meant and jot it down on my list. However, within a few months the interruptions got drastically fewer, and I found myself having more substantial conversations with her. Although I didn’t have a formal study schedule, I found that this process of 1) talking to friends or my girlfriend regularly 2) obsessively looking up unknown vocabulary that I encountered and 3) adding these vocabulary words to Anki and reviewing them was able to take me from ~B1 to B2 in about a year. Again, alcohol was a great tool for both lowering the barrier of speaking and making new Korean friends.

I ended up staying in Busan for almost two years. After teaching English for a year, I transitioned to working at a craft beer bar, where I felt like my Korean was able to improve even more thanks to constant interaction with Korean customers. While I was not able to practice my Korean much in my previous teaching environment outside of eavesdropping on students speaking in Korean, now I was forced to talk to both Korean coworkers and Korean customers every day. This, combined with continued conversation with my girlfriend and friends as well as continuing to mine vocabulary from TV shows and Iyagi episodes, made up the bulk of my Korean study for the next half year.

Although at this point I felt okay having conversations about most things with Koreans, I still felt that my progress had been rather slow (partially due to lack of a consistent study schedule). I had to head back to America soon, but I decided to spend a last three months in Korea simply living off my savings and trying to study Korean full-time. This idea was inspired by a post on the blog Page F30 about how the author stayed in Seoul for three months self-studying full-time (I’ll include a link to this blog post at the end). Although I was not able to make as much progress as he did (I will readily admit I lack self-discipline and spent too many days being lazy in my bed and watching TV shows or movies), I still made a decent amount of progress during this time. I was finally able to make headway into my Korean Grammar in Use Intermediate book that had been collecting dust for the past half year, and I continued to mine words for Anki from both native media, conversations, and Iyagi episodes. At this point Iyagi was starting to get a little too easy for me, so I simply used it for listening practice when I was walking or going to sleep. At the end of my three months of “full-time Korean study” in Korea I was just beginning to feel like I was approaching real fluency. I could understand almost all conversations and felt like I could really express myself well without much thinking, but unfortunately now I had to go back to the US.

The Never-Ending Journey

Now it’s been almost five months since I’ve come back to the US. After I came back I was determined not to let my Korean slip, so I’ve doubled down my efforts on Korean study. I finished up my Grammar in Use Intermediate book and purchased two advanced grammar books. I registered for the TOPIK in November, and that really gave me renewed motivation to study. My routine these days has been taking past TOPIK tests and reading through TalkToMeInKorean’s News in Korean book and adding unknown vocabulary from these sources to my Anki. I’ve found that drilling more formal writing such as that found in news or TOPIK tests has been able to take my Korean to another level, since the difference between everyday colloquial vocabulary and more formal vocabulary is huge in Korean. I’ve been doing well on my practice tests, and I expect to get a level 6 as long as I don’t completely mess up the writing section. Although I guess you could call me advanced at this point, it’s insane how much more it feels like there is to learn. There are still so many words and so many things I can’t understand. The journey never ends.

Concluding Thoughts and Advice:

To beginner Korean learners, I would strongly advise putting a lot of energy on learning Hangeul and pronunciation early on. Pronunciation is so key, but so many language learners seem to think of it as an afterthought. Once they’ve learned the rough pronunciations, they think, “Well it’s good enough and people know what I’m saying, so I don’t need to practice pronunciation anymore.” Not only does having good pronunciation mean Koreans well constantly compliment you, but it also makes listening much easier if you know how things are supposed to sound. As a beginner, I remember constantly muttering things to myself under my breath while walking just to get my mouth and tongue used to moving the way they were supposed to. Even now I still work on pronunciation now and then by recording myself reading a text and then listening to it and comparing it to the native recording.

Another thing is to try to live your life in Korean. In the early stages, I changed my phone to Korean and followed a bunch of Instagram and Facebook pages in Korean. This will force you to see Korean everyday as part of your daily routine. I also tried to change my thinking to Korean, so I would often talk to myself in Korean. I even started counting my reps at the gym in Korean and changed my cursing from English to Korean. At this point, my first reaction when seeing a cute kitten is not “aww” but “아이구~~~”. It may seem excessive, but I think forcing yourself to think like a Korean really helps you progress. I realize that living in Korea also helped immensely with this, however, and maybe not everyone has the same opportunity.

Lastly, having role models helps a lot in learning a language. When you feel like you’ve been stuck for months, having someone you can look at and think, “It is really possible to become fluent” really helps. For me, I had my Australian friend (shout-outs to Jason C.) who initially showed me it was possible. Two other language learning heroes of mine are Hyunwoo Sun from TalkToMeInKorean and Tyler Rasch from Abnormal Summit. I would recommend anyone interested in learning languages to check them out if you need motivation.

Don’t limit yourself to one single resource. I see so many beginners online who ask, “What should I do after TTMIK?” As much as I like TTMIK, learning only from them is just not smart. I would often look at three or four different websites to get a complete picture of a grammar point that confused me.  Attack the language from as many angles as you can. Lastly, spaced repetition is amazing! Use it and love it.

여러분 화이팅 하세요!

Notable Resources and Links:

TalkToMeInKorean grammar lessons: http://talktomeinkorean.com/curriculum/

TalkToMeInKorean Iyagi: http://talktomeinkorean.com/category/lessons/iyagi-intermediate/

TalkToMeInKorean News in Korean

Korean Grammar in Use (Beginner and Intermediate editions)

Page F30 Post: www.pagef30.com/2013/02/how-i-learned-korean.html

Anki: https://apps.ankiweb.net/

Berkeley’s Online Intermediate College Korean: http://www.language.berkeley.edu/Korean/10/

8 Comments
    1. Thank you for sharing your long journey! No wonder you reached such an advenced level 🙂
      TOPIK 그리고 다른 한국어 공부도 계속 잘 되시길 응원합니다!

      1. Thank you Yuri for your comment! I’m afraid it turned out a bit too long and detailed, but I hope it was not too boring. I’m amazed if you read the entire thing!

    1. Spaced repetition is life! My boss told me about it for a work related project and I thought, “I can use this for language learning” since then i have learned so much vocab. Do you have any plans to go to Korea again in the future?

      1. Definitely. My best friend and girlfriend are in Korea, so I see myself at least visiting Korea regularly for the rest of my life. As far as going back to live there, I don’t plan to do so in the short-term but wouldn’t mind going back and working there in the far future after I’ve developed myself professionally! I also want to live in China for a while to improve my Chinese skills and get in touch with my ancestral country, but that’s in the far future too 😀

    1. There’s a word in Korean when you want to say your handwriting looks really bad: 악필. Learned it from 1박2일 and memorized it since I am myself 악필 🙄
      But seriously, his pronunciation is really good…. *부럽다*

      1. Just to share, we call a person or the writing 악필 when the hand writing is terribly bad so we can hardly read. I would say Shawn is really far from 악필 🙂 He is just being humble haha

        1. Funny, I don’t have that experience with that word. I’ve seen lots of Korean friends with good handwriting (IMO) call themselves 악필, meaning that their handwriting was not pretty, though legible.

          1. Probably they are also being humble or exaggerating. Just to let you know the proper meaning 🙂

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