Learning Another Language: Korean

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 A zealous K-pop fangirl started learning Korean in Year 7 and dedicated years to improving. Seven years later, and having done away with her K-pop phase, Erin Miranda reflects upon the learning experiences that allow her Korean skills continue to be a valuable asset.

I was thirteen years old the first time I stepped off a plane in South Korea. In the lead up to that indelible moment was two years spent fully-immersed in Korean pop culture. Korean music slowly but surely outnumbered Justin Bieber in my playlists, I subscribed to three or four Korean dramas weekly, Korean food became one of my go-to cuisines and, to no one’s surprise, I tried self-learning the language I had surrounded myself with. Thankfully, I can’t say that I’m that same crazed fangirl six years on, but I haven’t let myself forget Korean, nor the best of my experience learning it.

The Internet was my bible. I started off by learning the Korean alphabet from YouTube videos and mobile apps. I translated K-pop lyrics and studied subtitles on dramas. I used many websites like talktomeinkorean.com and italki.com to consult with other Korean speakers who helped me understand the tricky nuances of Korean grammar. Italki also hosts pen-pal networks. I found that talking to Korean speakers was the most effective way of learning. The other option was talking to myself – but save yourself the embarrassment of getting caught speaking gibberish to your mirror ...

Speaking Korean gave me a new form of expression, with some Korean phrases lacking English equivalents. ‘느끼하다’ (neu-kki-ha-da) captures the feeling you get after eating something greasy or oily, but is often used to describe people, a phrase similar to “cheesy” (but it’s not the same). Another is ‘답정너’ (dap-jung-nuh), which is used to describe situations where you respond to someone with what they want to hear. And ‘눈치’ (noon-chi) — a word referring to someone’s ability to gauge another’s emotions and thoughts instinctually. You know when a word just fits? I’ve had my fair share of translating these words to non-speakers just to get my point across, or sometimes just to express myself better.

Many language learners begin by digesting lists of vocabulary. I saw the benefit in this but also struggled to string those words together into a sentence. So, for me, the trick to sounding natural was making pronunciation, grammar and slang (like the examples above) my first priority when learning Korean. Admittedly, this meant my vocabulary was limited to start with.

Visiting Korea a second time and staying there for six months changed all of that. I picked up most of my vocabulary whenever I spoke colloquially with young locals, who had quickly become my friends. The ease of establishing friendships largely relied on the manner in which I conversed with them. It was so easy to be accepted when they could tell that I had put in effort to learn their language, to the point where I sounded natural. Lessons were learnt on both sides about how communication is a bridge rather than a barrier.

If you’re learning a language, I encourage you to practice out of your comfort zone. We learn best from challenges and making mistakes.

Erin Miranda is a first/second year (don’t worry, she’s confused about it too) Law and Communications (Digital and Social Media) student who probably loves her two dogs more than any humans.