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Learning Korean: Challenging but Not Impossible
Learning Korean: Challenging but Not Impossible
One of the best ways to overcome culture shock and adjust better to the surroundings of Korea is to learn the language, which helps to reveal the mentality, attitudes, values, characteristics, humor and culture of the country. Foreigners who come to live here for a while come to realize that, from the start, it’s highly advantageous to learn some Korean to integrate better into Korean society. By showing a positive willingness to learn their language, it shows a courtesy and definitely improves relations between Koreans and foreigners.

Over the recent years, there’s been an increasingly b interest from foreigners in learning Korean, an endeavor that could be prolonged into a long-term study commitment anywhere from three months to two years plus. Ten years ago, if you went to a bookstore in Korea, you’d only find a few Korean dictionaries with some textbooks that were rather dry and lackluster. Now, there may be a whole section devoted specifically to Korean language and culture, giving foreigners plenty of choices from beginner to advanced levels.
Aigu! Geez, Why is Korean So Difficult?
As foreigners embark upon learning Korean, it becomes a challenging experience but a committed one. Richard Harris, a writer for SEOUL magazine and the author of Faces of Korea, states “Korea is extremely difficult for anyone whose first language is English, especially if you have no background in any East Asian languages.”

Why is this so? Kwan Yoo-mi, a Korean teacher at Yonsei University’s Language Institute, explains further, “Korean is difficult especially for Westerners because of the sentence structure, honorific forms, various verb conjugations, complex grammar and syntax structure. Also, hanja, from which most Korean characters are derived, is quite difficult for Westerners.” The reason for this is because each individual Chinese character has a meaning or nuance that must be memorized. Learning hanja as a supplement to Korean language is quite beneficial to understanding certain phrases and idioms, and especially for reading Korean newspapers, since 70 to 80 percent of the articles use hanja. In the end, learning Korean does give you results, and what you put into studying is what you get out of it.
What? No CliffNotes or Crash Courses?!
Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts, no Cliffnotes or Coles Notes, no crash courses to learning the language. If it were that simple, learning Korean wouldn’t be so antagonizingly difficult or time consuming. The good news is it’s not impossible to learn - truly. It just takes a lot of patience and time. Some have jokingly said that the secret to learning a language is through the language of love. Although you may have been smitten by your Korean boyfriend or girlfriend, a romantic mate can definitely help motivate you since you’ll want to say cute things to each other in Korean. However, your partner won’t give you the “Midas touch” of learning Korean fluently. It’s purely based on you alone, from a lot of sweat and hard effort. Hopefully, learning Korean won’t give too much unnecessary stress, tears or a bloody nose, although there really is an old Korean wife’s tale that believes one can get a bloody nose from working or studying too hard. Both teachers and students alike say the best way to learn Korean is to study hard and practice every chance you get - honestly.
Some Options to Learn Korean
University Language Institutes
Whether it be Yonsei, Ewha, Sogang, Korea, Seoul National or Kyunghee University, they all have multi-level Korean language programs that offer intensive morning and evening classes to fit the needs of international students who’ve enrolled on a semester basis. Although their curriculum program, teaching methodology and textbooks vary, the goal and end results are the same. These educational institutions are well-organized with their own curricula, and continue to do educational research development on their programs and linguistic pedagogy in general.

In the summertime, especially many gyopo (overseas Koreans), most of whom are Korean Americans, come to visit their homeland and opt to take Korean courses at these educational institutes. Each institute has its own unique characteristics and reputation. Some emphasize speaking while others stress grammar, accuracy and sentence structure. One is not better than the other; it just depends on one’s individual tastes and needs. If you choose the route of studying at a university language institute, be prepared to study hard each day since it can be quite intense, even the evening programs, which are geared more for full-time employees who work during the day. You’ll be expected to give presentations and actively participate in class, and your performance and ability will be evaluated by mid-term and final exams. Ask around and research the many schools available before picking the one that suits you best.

Private Hagwons
Places like YMB SISA Language Institute, Seoul Korean Language Academy, Ganada and myriad others also offer their own Korean language programs, which are set in a hagwon-type (learning institute) atmosphere with smaller class size, from three to eight students maximum. This is ideal for students who want to study Korean but don’t have the time or financial means to attend full-time at a university institute program. These hagwons also offer a range of choices that are flexible to the students’ needs, providing sometimes interchangeable morning, afternoon, evening and even weekend classes. The class hours vary depending on the class you enroll, but usually range from two to four hours a day. They even offer private tutoring and dispatch teachers to the student’s company, if requested. Students sign up by the month and after a one-month term, can go up a level, which does not significantly differ from level to level. There is homework but rarely any formal exams. It is much more laidback and less intense than the university institute programs.

Language Exchange Partners or Private Lessons
Others options to consider, which act as more of a supplement to formal Korean classroom learning, are language exchanges and private lessons. For those who are on a slim budget, language exchange is perhaps the best option. However, with such language exchanges, more times than not and especially if you’re a beginner, you end up speaking more English than Korean. You need to find a Korean language exchange partner who’s at the same level as you or someone who’s a beginner of English. If either English or Korean is the dominant language being used during the exchange lesson, then only one of you will improve and that’s not truly a language exchange. Private lessons, on the other hand, are helpful if one needs extra help with Korean but is too busy to commit to a class schedule in a formal setting. However, private lessons can be somewhat costly, and you’ll want to make sure to find a qualified Korean instructor who has either teaching experience or has majored in Korean language or literature.

Online Korean Language Websites
For those who spend a lot of time on the Internet, there are also online Korean language program websites. One of the best online programs is Sogang’s online Korean program, which not only divides each level into beginner, intermediate and advanced sections, but breaks down each section even further into step I, II or III. Another good website to use as a reference is Arirang’s “Let’s Speak Korean.” This is also televised on TV and has weekly updates. It’s quite fun and informative. To check out Sogang’s online Korean language website, go directly to: To check out Arirang’s “Let’s Speak Korean” website, go to:

→ Welcome to KOREA! Come Study in Korea!
→ Korean Language Study Programs
→ Scholarship Programs in Korea
Any More Helpful Advice?
Learning Korean doesn’t stop after the class has finished or when you’ve reached the highest level. It is truly a lifetime of practice. You must be open and willing to immerse yourself in the culture and with the people by speaking, listening, reading, writing, thinking and even dreaming in Korean.

Foremost, learning Korean should be enjoyable. Otherwise, it’ll be like pulling teeth...even more excruciating than going to the dentist - pure torture. Boredom, mounting frustrations, throbbing headaches and the onset of foul language may cause you to feel like it’s worthless to continue and to give up despairingly. However, before it comes to that extreme, take a few breaths, relax and remember just how much you’ve learned so far, even if it’s only a few phrases. Try to go at your own pace and find the right solution for you to learn Korean. One of the primary advantages of learning Korean in Korea is that you can practice - in many different settings. Seize this golden opportunity now.
Lastly, you should keep true to yourself by just being yourself, not trying to be “Korean.” It really takes courage to learn a new language, so give yourself credit for trying and believe that you can do it. It’s quite achievable if, like anything else, you set your mind to it. Gaining a better grasp of the language will boost your self-confidence and you’ll find that learning Korean has really paid off. Don’t give up! As the Koreans say: “Gosaeng kkeut-e nag-i onda” (No pain, no gain). All right, go for it! Assa assa pai-ting!

Written by Kelli Donigan
Photos by Ryu Seunghoo
and Yonhap News Agency
The article courtesy of SEOUL magazine

Date 07/09/2007

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