Learning Korean in China
24 Jul 2006
Since I don’t have classes over the summer, I figured it was a good time to start learning something new. I started learning Korean. To fit Korean into my hectic schedule, I hired a Korean foreign student from ECNU to come to my apartment and tutor me once a week. Why Korean? Well, I have several reasons:
1. Korean looks cool. I’ve always liked it. I like the way it sounds, too (more than, say, that overrated language French).
2. Korean (mostly) uses a phonetic writing system. The last two languages I tackled seriously have been Japanese and Chinese, and let me tell you, I don’t have time for any more of this “memorizing thousands of characters” crap.
3. It would be great to have some ability in all three of the official languages of East Asia. With English and Spanish, I’ve already got most of North America, South America, Australia, and Europe covered.
4. Outside of Korea itself, China is a pretty good place to study Korean (see below).
Anyway, I have had three classes so far, and I’ve learned a few things:
Hiring a Korean tutor in China is not expensive. I already knew this was true for hiring Chinese tutors (whether for the Chinese language itself or for another subject such as math or piano). If you find a Chinese student tutor through ECNU’s activity center, you usually won’t pay more than 50 RMB per hour for any of the many subjects offered. The one-time processing fee is something like 100 RMB, but that allows you to get a new tutor if yours doesn’t work out, or to hire multiple tutors at no extra cost.
What I didn’t expect is that hiring a Korean exchange student is just as inexpensive. My tutor’s asking price was 50 RMB per hour. (I doubt a Japanese tutor’s hourly rate would be as low, but I don’t really know.)
My tutor’s teaching methodology is as unenlightened as typical Chinese pedagogy’s. When John B recently described his first few Japanese classes here in Shanghai, it sounded very familiar. My tutor, too, insisted on first teaching the entire character set, all its sounds, and even all its spelling conventions before teaching any significant actual language. I don’t think she would have even covered “hello” and “goodbye” in the first lesson if I hadn’t demanded it. I can’t agree with that approach. Like Ken Carroll, I believe that language should be communication-oriented from the beginning. My tutor’s reasoning seemed to be that I would want to write down all the new vocabulary and phrases that I learned, so I had to learn the entire writing system first. This brings me to my next point…
The reality of the Korean writing system (called Hangul) was very disappointing. It was disappointing because as a student of linguistics and Asian orthography, I’ve long heard about how great and scientific and near-perfect Hangul is. I guess I imagined it a little too perfect.
For one thing, I (foolishly?) thought Hangul would be totally phonetic or very nearly so. By this, I mean that words are always written exactly as they are pronounced and always pronounced exactly as they are written. Sadly, such is not the case. There are quite a few “spelling rules” and exceptions that must be memorized. This isn’t unreasonable for any language, as languages are living things and change much faster than writing systems, but I just expected more out of the one writing system that has earned so much linguistic acclaim.
Oh well, Hangul is still a lot easier to learn than Chinese characters. I am currently in the process of memorizing all those stupid spelling rules.
Korean pronunciation is hard. OK, this may seem obvious once again, but it’s been a long time since I started learning a totally new language, plus after getting a handle on the pronunciation of three very different languages, you expect fewer phonetic challenges. Guess what? It’s still hard. I find ㄹ, ㅈ, and ㅊ particularly frustrating, but they won’t elude me forever.
Korean Grammar doesn’t seem to map to Japanese grammar as well as I had hoped. Again, this is probably a silly expectation on my part, but I was thinking that if Japanese and Korean grammar are basically the same, I’d have a huge advantage in studying Korean, because I could basically just learn the pronunication and vocabulary and base all the grammar on Japanese’s. This will work to some extent (I’ve learned the Korean equivalents of Japanese’s particles wa and ni, for example, and word order does seem the same so far), but Korean appears more complex. Using different particles depending on whether the preceeding word ended in a vowel or a consonant?? Excuse me? What is this, French? There’s none of that particular nonsense in Japanese.
If anyone knows of any good, practical online resources for learning Korean grammar in reference to Japanese grammar, please let me know. If there’s nothing good out there in English, I will probably make it myself eventually.
The best Japanese resources for Korean I’ve discovered so far are:
1. 韓国語1年生. Quite extensive! It uses Hangul on the page, which is good.
2. Taamchai : Korean Grammar. You may have to manually switch to Shift_JIS encoding for this one, but the grammar charts it provides are exactly the kind of thing I was looking for. Too bad it doesn’t use Hangul.
3. 文法編 目次 – その２の韓国語講座. Some useful stuff, with Hangul again.
– John B on learning Japanese in China
– Ken Carroll on John B on learning Japanese in China
– Muninn: the blog of a scholarly guy living in Korea after learning Chinese and Japanese
– Hangul Wikipedia entry
– Hangul online Flash tutorial (it’s very buggy, but still useful)
– Korean Alphabet Tutorial
– Let’s Learn Korean: a blog for now, but soon a podcast as well