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Archive for November, 2008

If the last post didn’t discourage you from learning Korean, then perhaps nothing will. Since you are still with me (or more likely you skipped the last post because it was too boring and long–I don’t blame you), below are some online resources for studying Korean that should be well worth your time, no matter what level you are coming from. If you’ve done any searching on your own for study helps, then you know that there is a lot of hastily-put-together crap that wastes your energy and time. If you haven’t, you’re lucky. Here are some of the best online resources that are out there

1. NAVER–Naver is like Google for Korea–it’s primarily a search engine that will deal with queries written in Korean or English. It also contains an online Korean/English dictionary. The site is in Korean, but don’t let that scare you. All you need to know is ‘sajeon’ (사전 = dictionary), find it in the options under the search bar; and ‘yeongeo sajeon’ (영어사전 = English dictionary), which will be one of the search bars that shows up after clicking on 사전. Or forget all of that and just go directly to the Naver English dictionary through this link. If you are more advanced in Korean, you should also know that Naver provides a Hanja dictionary (regrettably not with English translations) and a straight Korean dictionary, as well as several other options.

Naver represents the cream of the crop when it comes to Korean/English dictionaries. I’ve not seen anything better. First, it’s free, unlike those fancy hand-held things. Second, when you type in a word you’ll get definitions, alternative usages, sentence examples, and a few references of where that word was used on the web or in the news. Third, it’s quite user friendly. That said, take each definition with a grain of salt; there are still lots of little mistakes.

2. SOGANG KOREAN PROGRAM–Sogang University in Seoul is recognized by many as having the best Korean program in Korea. It’s noted for helping students to converse quickly. It also has a free website! This is probably the most comprehensive online program you will find without having to pay tuition (and maybe even still). The website contains lessons from background on Korean culture, history, politics, etc. to introductory Korean, to six levels of study (novice 1,2, and 3, and intermediate 1, 2, and 3). Each level has ten different lessons. The lessons contain listening and reading activities, as well as explanations of grammar and vocabulary. If you don’t have the time or money to take a formal classes this is likely your best bet for learning Korean. You should probably get some books though as well.

3. INDIANA UNIVERSITY KOREAN (Center for Language Technology and Instructional Enrichment)–While not as comprehensive as the Sogang site, this is a great resource for listening. At the bottom of the web page find the ‘Languages Online’ section, which will give you links to lectures for first year Korean, semesters 1 and 2; second year Korean, semesters 1 and 2; and fourth year Korean, semesters 1 and 2. The lessons are audio files that are direct readings from the Integrated Korean textbook series out of Hawaii University. If you have those books, these audio files are a perfect complement. If not, they can still be good for listening practice.

4. . MY SOJU–This website is literally an Asian media wonderland, with dramas and movies from several East Asian countries. Just click on ‘Drama/Movie List’ at the top of the page, and then find the links to the Korean stuff. There is enough material to keep you busy for years–it’s also updated regularly. Korean dramas aren’t my cup of tea as far as entertainment goes (my wife loves them though), but they often speak slower and are, well, more dramatic, which makes for easier understanding. The movies are generally faster in speech and often use colloquial forms that are harder to pick up on. The more practice the better though. Some of the stuff even has English subtitles, but don’t use that as too much of a crutch.

5. GOOGLE TRANSLATE–You’ve got to try this one if you haven’t already. It’s as easy as setting the input to English, the output to Korean, typing in your sentences (or copying and pasting from the web), and then hitting the translate button. Surprisingly, it keeps up with quite a few colloquial forms and speech levels. I wouldn’t trust it for answers on a final exam though–there’s bound to be mistakes, especially the longer or more complicated the translation text. It’s great for impressing your friends though on instant messenger. They’ll wonder how you learned so fast.

When it comes to online Korean study, the above are my weapons of choice. At least three more are worth mention though. First, Yahoo maintains a Korean/English dictionary that is pretty good, but NAVER definitely has an edge. The second site is learnkorean.com, which has lessons suited for beginners, 15 short lessons on hanja, and a few other things. Third, is a web page with links to mp3 files for the Integrated Korean textbook series produced by the University of Hawaii (same as the audio files provided by Indiana U.), along with links where you can purchase the actual book.

There’s bound to be other great resources out there that I have yet to stumble upon. If you know of any of them, please enlighten the rest of us in the comments section. Happy Korean studies!

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(Be sure to check out my next post for some online resources for studying Korean)
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You’ve probably heard, Korean is a crazy hard language to learn; but does it have to be? The answer is partly yes and partly no. Granted, there are many reasons why Korean should be harder to learn than say Spanish, or even Chinese (assuming the position of a person coming from an English background). However, there are also many reasons why Korean should be much easier to learn than it currently is. Understanding why Korean should be hard, and why it shouldn’t, can help a person see more clearly what they are faced with, and how they should go about formulating their study strategy.
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Korean should be hard for many reasons. The writing system is completely different from that of English; Korean uses a Hangul alphabet, which any half-serious learner must be able to use; it’s easy to learn at first, but much more difficult to learn to read with fluency. Pronunciation is completely different; Korean has several vowels and consonants (and combinations) that do not exist in English. Also, while the Korean alphabet is phonetic, one quickly learns that there are many exceptions to the rule when characters are read together.
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The grammar is completely different; in fact, it’s almost flip-flopped. A proper Korean sentence always has a verb at the end, which is almost never the case in English. The culture is completely different; Koreans say many things that might sound funny, or just make no sense at all, from an English speaker’s point of view. Finally, Korean has a huge amount of vocabulary, even comparatively speaking. Part of this is due to the fact that it has borrowed (and adapted) many words from Chinese, and a few from Japanese and English as well, while still maintaining use of many of the original Korean words. This has led to the use of two counting systems (one based on pure Korean and the other on Chinese). If you are counting people, use the Korean numbers; if you are counting days, use the Chinese numbers based system. These are the basic should-be-hard reasons that any Korean learner from an English background will be faced with. Of course there are many more that I will not get into.
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Perhaps it will help to look at Korean comparatively. I’ve been told that the US Government puts Korean at 4 on a scale of 1-4 in comparative difficulty, or how long it takes a government official to gain a certain level of proficiency. This is in contrast with Spanish, which is at 1, Chinese, which is at 3, and Japanese, which is also at 4. Many people who’ve taken Spanish classes in the US know that it is no walk in the park. However, Spanish and English have many cognates that are much easier to memorize. Korean has virtually no cognates with English, although South Korea has adopted (and adapted) many modern words from the English language, which are quite easy to learn. While Spanish pronunciation and grammar are quite different from English, the degree is much less than with Korean, especially concerning grammar. On a brighter note for those who have studied Spanish, Korean verb conjugation is much easier than what you experienced ‘hablando el español.’
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While Chinese is more difficult than Spanish, it’s still not as difficult as Korean. More specifically, the Chinese writing system is much more difficult than the Korean one, while the difficulty of pronunciation is perhaps about the same (especially factoring in Chinese tones), but the grammar order is where the major difference appears. Chinese sentences are much more in line with those of English. Finally we come to Japanese, which is probably the most similar language to Korean that exists–but that is not saying much. The grammar structures of both are quite similar. The Japanese writing system is much more difficult though. Japanese pronunciation is easier, as the sounds are closer to those found in English. But still, I would argue that Korean is more difficult. To see why, we need to look at the should-not-be-so-hard reasons.
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While Korean is formidably difficult, there are a few reasons why it should not be (but still is). The basis of these reasons is that Korean language teaching (especially to English speakers, and presumably to other westerners) is still in the developmental stage–much more so than the other languages mentioned. There are not many materials available and there are even fewer classes, especially for learners coming from a native English background. There are only a handful of Korean programs in the US. If you go to Indiana University, Berkeley, U. of Hawaii, or Brigham Young U. then you are in luck, but if not, then your odds are slim of finding anything (I know, there are some other good programs; if you know one I didn’t mention please give a heads up in the comments). Likewise, don’t expect to find many Korean language materials at your library or local book store. Even online you’ll find that available resources are quite limited. In contrast to this, many universities have well founded programs in Spanish, Chinese, and Japanese, with an impressive line of materials to choose from. I suppose this will not change until there is more interest in the US in learning Korean. (Alas, how can there be serious interest before there are better opportunities? Tis the dilemma)
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The problems don’t stop at the lack of materials and classes. It turns out that the materials that do exist are flawed to say the least. Many texts’ explanations are horrible if they exist at all, and they often get worse the more advanced you get. For example, the books out of Seoul National University (the “Harvard” of Korea) don’t contain explanations of the grammar at all past the level 2 book. Grammar explanations from the Ganada Korean Language Institute books, while they exist in English up through the 2nd intermediate level, are often very confusing and very unclear. I concede that these books are among the best resources that I know of available for studying Korean. In fact, I recommend them with a few disclaimers, simply because other options are so few and so poor (or at best, they are on par with these two).
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Contrast Korean language learning materials with those of Spanish, Chinese, or Japanese, and you will quickly see how big of a disadvantage you face in learning Korean. Try it, pick up a book that teaches a grammar principle for Spanish, or Chinese; give it a read, and then find a similar grammar principle from a Korean text book. My own experience with this is that studying both Spanish and Chinese is easier because the explanations are both more abundant and better by a huge degree. I’m not left with a bunch of question marks in my head concerning the accuracy, or even just the meaning of the explanations. With Korean however, the severe lack of quality and quantity in grammar explanations has forced me to consult several texts and ask my Korean friends before I gain a comparable understanding.
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Furthermore, when Korean is taught (either in books or in the classroom), generally no distinction is given between the literal meaning and the contextual meaning of words and phrases. Sometimes the two are the same, but often they are not, and this gets us into trouble. Take the Korean word Gamsahamnida (감사합니다) for example, which we are always taught means ‘thank you.’ The literal meaning of the word is ‘to be grateful.’ OK, close enough for most occasions; however, if someone compliments you by saying you are smart, “thank you” is a good response, while “Yes, I am grateful” might seem snooty; In fact, it does in Korean just as in English. Likewise, if you heard someone state “Thanks, I have enough to eat and I live happy” you might be more confused than if you thought of it as “I am grateful I have enough to eat and I live happy.” In the absence of distinctions between contextual and literal meanings of words, Korean learners are left to figure them out on their own; or worse, miss them and continue in confusion.
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At least one more criticism is in order. Most Korean programs do not integrate Hanja to the level, or in the way that Western learners need. Hanja is the set of Chinese characters used by Korea. A person who knows Hanja well, and more specifically, the meanings of the pronunciations of the characters (knowing how to write and read Hanja is less important), is much better able to deduce the meanings of most Korean words. This is similar to knowing what the sub- means in subway or submarine, or how the compound word bedroom can be broken down into two simple words. Perhaps, Korean is even more like this than English. Most of the words are two syllables, and eighty percent of them can be broken down into two simple meanings, which originate from Hanja. While there are far more Hanja characters than one should spend time learning (especially at first), there are some core characters that make a world of difference once they are known. “Hak” (학) for example, means to learn. Once you know this, it is much easier to remember the meanings of words like “haksaeng” (학생, student), “hakkyo” (학교, school), and “kyeongjaehak” (경재학, the study of economics); it is also easier to see how the words relate to each other, and what other underlying meanings they may contain.
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Most people that study Korean in Korea are either from China or Japan, in which case they are already familiar with Hanja. Perhaps that is why language programs in Korea don’t put much attention on it. Another reason may be that they don’t want to over-burden students, or take attention away from other things. However, my own experience is that Westerners are put at a huge disadvantage when they are not taught the building blocks that make up the vocabulary they learn. Westerners will find that their understanding of Korean and their ability to memorize vocabulary will increase, once they have a rather basic foundation in Hanja. If you don’t get it from you school program, take it upon yourself to learn some Hanja–it will help you in the end.
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Korean is a very hard language to learn for both necessary and unecessary reasons. Hopefully in the future it will continue to develop so that my criticisms become obsolete. The serious and patient learner can overcome the difficulties and it is well worth the time and effort. If for nothing else, you get the bragging rights of being able to speak a language that very few Westerners know. Seriously, Korea is a very culture rich, and intense society, and knowing Korean well will allow you to connect with and understand the people at a much deeper level. Best of luck.

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