Korean Update

I while back I announced I was studying Korean, and since then I’ve had quite a few inquiries as to how it’s going. So let me make an official update: it’s not going. Yeah, that whole Korean study didn’t last too long.

Why not? Well, it turns out my reasons for studying Korean weren’t very good in the first place. A quick recap of why I decided to study Korean:

1. Korean looks cool.
2. Korean writing is phonetic.
3. I’ve already got a good foundation in 2 of 3 major East Asian languages down (might as well go for the East Asian Linguistic Trilogy).
4. It’s easy to do in China.

Just in case these reasons don’t strike you as entirely stupid, I’ll add a few incisive questions into the mix:

1. Do you need to learn Korean? Not at all.

2. Do you have plans to go to Korea? No, not really. Been there once, and it was nice, but I’m not itching to go back.

3. Do you have a love of Korean culture? TV dramas, maybe? No, not really.

4. Do you have many Korean friends that you could practice with? No.

5. Is learning Korean related to any other long-term goals you might have? No, not at all.

Hmmm, OK, I think that’s probably enough. So I basically had no compelling reason to learn Korean, and I gave it a shot anyway. It lasted 2-3 months, I learned a bit about the language, and it was fun. No regrets.

But I did learn a thing or two about motivation for language learning. Having a need or a use for the language you’re learning is important. This doesn’t mean that you should choose only super practical languages (Spanish, anyone?), but it does mean that trying to pick up a random language just because it’s kind of interesting probably won’t work. You need stronger motivation.

Aside from motivation, you need occasion to practice the new language. The opportunities for practice and the motivation for learning feed on each other. When you have both, they nurture each other. When you’re missing one, the other easily withers.

As it turns out, I had neither for Korean. I have both for Shanghai sign language, and it’s going really well. I’ll be writing more about that soon.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. My own attempts at language learning have gone pretty poorly too. I could identify with this list because unlike in China, there wasn’t any pressing need or times when it would’ve come in handy. Sometimes I still overhear the occasional common phrase (“huay la” especially) and I think I should learn it again for an all to brief period of time.

    I remember when I actually was in China years ago, I was picking up the language very quickly and it’s mostly the stuff I learned and used then – as opposed to what I learned in classes and online since – that has been what stuck with me

  2. Ever since I started teaching at a Korean school I’ve been playing around with the idea as well. Despite working here though, I’m still not motivated enough to learn it. I’d have quite a bit of opportunity to practice it, but I just don’t really….want to.
    There are other languages, like Arabic, that I’d love to learn and I’m sure I’d have enough interest to work at and enjoy it, but not being in an Arabic speaking environment is enough to hold me off. I have the same problem with Japanese here. The interest to pick back up my studies is there, but not being able to jump in a cab and use it tends to stunt my motivation. I need relevance! For that reason, I may try a bit of Shanghainese.

    Anyway, ‘Shanghai’ sign language? What’s the difference?! Interesting…

  3. The first time i met you you were copying out the 한글 trying to remember them.

    I’m sure you’ll pick it up again soon. 加油!화이팅!

  4. I agree with what you say, John, but I might emphasise the “no regrets” angle. Starting in on a language, even without the intention to become fluent and move to the country, is very worthwhile. I’ve done this on purpose a number of times, and it’s always rewarding.

    So, rather than present the Korean experiment as a faiilure, you can announce it as a success – you learned the sounds and structure of the language, got aquainted with a new writing system and have some handy phrases in the vault.

  5. Matthew Stinson Says: March 19, 2009 at 11:32 am

    John, I can understand what you felt about learning Korean, even though you only learned it for a short time. Photography is to me what language is to you, and I find myself learning new techniques that I don’t ever really use just to show I can do it, but eventually I set them aside and get back to my main interest.

    Anyways, based on the reasons you listed, I think number four is the biggest disincentive to you learning the language. As you say, if you don’t have chances to practice, you lose motivation.

  6. Seeing that list I realized that I learned at least four languages with as only motivations that my school teachers told me to, and that I was good at it. I didn’t need to, wasn’t particularly interested in the culture before starting to learn the language, didn’t have immediate plans to go to France or Germany, let alone ancient Rome or Greece, and didn’t have any friends from any of those places. I learned them mostly for the sake of learning them.

  7. korean is pretty useless. mandarin is far more important

  8. Hey John, if you are still interested about learning Korean, have a look at my website which contains some courses and introduction to the language! 🙂

  9. Jacob: that entirely depends on who you want to talk with.

  10. John-
    Ever thought about learning Shanghai hua? While it isn’t necessarily practical per se (I can’t imagine there are too many people in Shanghai who don’t understand putong hua these days) I’ve always thought it would be especially interesting to learn a Chinese dialect, especially with your interest in linguistics.

    When I was living in Fuzhou, I started learning a little bit of Fuzhou hua during my last few months, and learned a lot (linguistically) from that short experience. Firstly, I learned that learning a Chinese dialect is a much faster process than learning Chinese (putonghua) for the first time. Secondly, I learned that you can get a much better understanding of the development of the Chinese language family by studying a dialect, since most southern dialects are closer to classical Chinese than putong hua.

    Unless you really like impressing old fogies, there wouldn’t be much practical about learning Shanghai hua, but from a linguistic perspective, I think it would be an invaluable experience. Plus, you would have unlimited chances to use it without up and moving.

  11. Most koreans can speak english anyways

  12. @Jacob

    hmm….not the ones here in Chicago

  13. Jacob: I haven’t met most Koreans, but most of the ones I have met didn’t know more English than I know Korean. Which is not more than a few words.

  14. After studying in Japan before, I thought I was headed to Korea. I got a scholarship in a university + language training.

    But instead, I took a detour to Ireland before ending up in Shanghai. Now, I pay for my education to study Mandarin. Tough luck! Would have been fluent in Korean by now.

  15. “korean is pretty useless. mandarin is far more important”

    To whom? The usefulness of a language depends very much on location and occupation. Neither Korean nor Chinese is highly marketable in the US, where Spanish dominates heavily. I actually got two teaching jobs owing to my Korean language skills, one at a K-12 international school in China and one at a US public elementary school; both schools had a large population of Korean students.

    Even with John’s background in Japanese (more relevant) and Chinese (less relevant), it still would have taken years of patient study and practice to become fluent enough even to have a normal social conversation in the language. Living in Korea doesn’t help all that much. Potential Korean friends and partners already have years of English study under their belts and aren’t likely to speak Korean to a foreigner unless that foreigner is already fluent.

  16. Korean language is not a casual undertaking. The script apart (which is easy), it is far harder than Chinese for English speakers, there are fewer quality resources, and at present most Koreans themselves don’t expect or even really want (in my experience) foreigners to speak the language. That’s the downside. On the other hand, it is NOT a small language group – 78 million worldwide, including a large diaspora. It is likely that there have been human settlements in Korea for hundreds of thousands of years. It has two thousand years of recorded history and a rich literature. Today of course South Korea is a first world country with a vibrant and complex culture. It is also of major economic significance. To say that Korean culture and language is “uninteresting” or “useless” for foreigners is absurd. Learning English is also exceptionally hard for Koreans, and English fluency is not widespread in the general population in spite of countless cram schools and ubiquitous high speed internet in the country. That means the mutual bridge between inner Korean culture and the world community is still rather fragile, but it is strengthening with each generation. As mutual understanding becomes easier, there will be much for us to share in both directions. The challenge of learning Korean language is definitely worth the effort for a surprising and increasing range of people.

  17. There’s a lot of interest in learning foreign languages in modern times. You get people using watching jdramas. So there’s more time spent on ways to immerse passively. These are good times to be picking up languages.

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