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Response to Gerry Bevers: Learning Korean & Classical Chinese


Student practicing calligraphy at Susenji Elementary in Fukuka, Japan (福岡市立周船寺小学校).

Hi, Kieran. My name is Gerry Bevers and I manage the “Korean Language Notes” blog. Three years ago we exchanged comments when you pledged to learn Korean in three months. I expressed doubt that it would be possible, based on how hard it was for me to learn the language, but you had learned Japanese and Chinese very quickly, so I was somewhat curious to see if you could possibly do the same with Korean, even though I still felt it would be almost impossible. Today, I happened to see your post in the results of a search I was doing and decided to comment.

Thanks for your comment! I apologize for my late reply.

You were very right that it was impossible (at least for me) to “learn Korean” in three months, and at the time, as now, I appreciated your healthy skepticism & sound advice.

In “years,” I think I learned Japanese & Chinese quickly. I knew virtually nothing of those languages at 18 years old, and by 20 I could speak colloquial Japanese, and by 23 I could speak Chinese. However, in “hours,” I don’t think I learned particularly quickly. I had 10 months in Japan as a student mostly devoted to learning Japanese, and 8 months in China. I spent untold hours trying various inefficient methods with each language, and eventually “learned” them both before I could figure out exactly what worked and what didn’t. Some things definitely didn’t work (like memorizing Japanese-English word pairs), while other things worked slowly (like rote memorization of sentences). With Korean, I have hoped to home in on efficient methods I can use in my spare time.

I am curious to know how much more difficult it has been for you to learn Korean relative to Chinese and Japanese. Did you find learning Korean to be much more difficult than you expected?

In a sense, I found Korean more difficult than I expected. I thought I could learn it to reading fluency in about one year, but has taken me 3 years to reach only intermediate reading level.

However, I don’t feel qualified to comment on the relative difficulty of Korean compared to other languages, because I learned Korean differently from the way I learned Chinese & Japanese.

Japanese & Chinese I learned while living in those countries. Thus I felt intense pressure to progress quickly. Also, I was a student, so I had lots of time to study. With that much energy & time put into the project, even inefficient methods showed results.

So, in another sense, Korean was not more difficult than I expected. Had I studied Korean for an hour a day for a year, I believe I would have achieved my original goals. However, there was no pressure for me to learn Korean quickly. Also, I was working and had little time to study. So, considering I studied it haphazardly but consistently for 3 years and can now read with some facility, I am satisfied with my progress.

What do you think is the most difficult thing to learn about Korean?

For me, I think the most difficult thing about learning any language is acquiring a large enough core repository of “chunks” of language that I can understand the gist of the spoken language. That requires motivation, as well as good materials & methods.

I can’t think of anything uniquely difficult about Korean. The grammar is difficult to master in production, but I don’t think it’s particularly difficult to read, or more difficult than Japanese.

Since communicating with you, I have had a chance to look through the textbook series published by the University of Hawaii entitled “Integrated Korean,” which was a project of the Korean Language Education and Research Center (KLEAR). I was impressed with the progressive series, especially the beginning texts. Not only are there English translations for all the reading material in the series, there are also comprehensive grammar indices and Korean-English/English-Korea glossaries in the backs of all the books in the series, helping to make them self-study friendly. You might want to check them out.

Thanks for the recommendation! I’m always hoping to find a really good textbook. Personally, almost all textbooks bore me. I think there are two main reasons for that.

(1) I want to engage with the real language, as used by native speakers with native speakers. I’m skeptical that a textbook represents real language (because native speakers often produce a simplified, idealized version of their language when teaching). There is so much existing content: why not adapt existing content for learners? For example, I really like the Talk to Me in Korean “News in Korean” textbook.

(2) I want to learn something more than just the language. Through the “News in Korean” book I can learn about the Ebola virus and dieting in Korea. Through reading Park Min-gyu’s (박 민규) novella “Is that so? I’m a Giraffe” (그렇습니까? 기린 입니다) in bilingual edition, I can experience quality Korean literature & learn about society.

For the past few years I have been trying to casually teach myself Classical Chinese, which I now find more interesting than just studying Korean, itself. I have not bothered to learn the Chinese pronunciations of the characters, but simply use the Korean pronunciations. I am currently creating a textbook that teaches Korean-language learners to read Classical Chinese sentences. That essentially means I am teaching the Korean pronunciation of the characters and explaining Classical Chinese grammar in terms of both the English and Korean grammars. Most of the time it is easier to understand Chinese sentences with English translations, but there are times when adding a Korean translation makes it even easier.

That’s great! After learning Japanese, I learned some Classical Chinese through Japanese, and then had the good fortune to take a class on Classical Chinese in college where we translated texts into English. Of course, you already know all of this, but Korean can help you learn Classical Chinese in two ways.

(1) You have a Korean pronunciation to attach to each character, so you can remember them.

(2) You have a hanja syllable to help understand the word that a character represents.

That said, I agree that Classical Chinese grammar is so similar to English, that reading English translations is easier than Korean (and fortunately there are places like http://ctext.org/ where you can find translations).

Anyway, I wish you continued success in your language studies.

Thank you, and likewise, I wish you the best in learning Classical Chinese, and more Korean!

Your thoughts?

Kieran Maynard

Kieran Maynard

Writer, translator, researcher, traveler specializing in Japanese and Chinese literature.

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