Korean is hard. I’m sure that doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone, especially native English speakers.
I’ve studied Spanish for a long time now and am plateauing comfortably at my high-intermediate level of being able to express everything at a very basic level but communicate almost nothing on a deeper level. Spanish is easy enough because of the similar grammatical structure and plethora of cognates. If I don’t know a word in Spanish I can just say the english word with a different accent and chances are I’m at least close to the right word.
That is a luxury which I am, unfortunately, not afforded in Korean. AT ALL. Except of course for the random Konglish words that crop up when you’re least expecting them. (like Ice cream = 아이스크림 a-i-seu keu-reem.)
Everyone knows asian languages are considered to be incredibly hard for native english speakers to learn, but here are some concrete reasons why, for me at least, Korean is really stinking hard.
- The grammar. This is the obvious one. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently and I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m not even learning grammar at this point. Grammar is a concept I understand. When I try to construct a sentence in Korean it feels more like speaking in code, randomly saying nouns and verbs in an order that doesn’t actually hold any meaning for me. For example, “캠퍼스 안에 나무들이 많이 있어요” means “There are a lot of trees on campus.” But the literal translation says something like, “Campus in tree’s many there are.” So yea. I’ll just leave you with that.
- Particles. Going along with grammar is the fact that Korean uses particles all the time and there is no direct English translation for them, only grammatical function. And if you don’t know what a particle is, don’t worry! I’ve been studying this language for almost a year and I barely do either! Basically they’re little pieces like (은/는, 이/가, 들, 을/를, 에/에서) that you add to the end of the word to assign it a grammatical function. Add 을 or 를 to a word and that noun becomes the object of the sentence. So while I can understand how or why they’re used, we don’t have them in English so when I try to create sentences or speak in Korean I feel absolutely no need to use them. Even though they’re essential most of the time. But of course other times they’re not necessary at all which is another distinction that I can’t understand.
- The next thing is the pronunciation. Although the alphabet is amazing, scientific, easy to learn, and easy to read that doesn’t mean you can actually say any of it. Or so I’m discovering. ㄹ is pronounced somewhere in-between an L and an R and I feel so awkward and uncomfortable when I try to do it. ㅅ is like S but breathier and sometimes sounds like SH. ㄷ and ㄸ are both kind of D but the second one is aspirated and I cannot for the life of me hear the difference between the two.
- The last thing is intonation of the language. This, in my humble opinion, is more of a cultural thing than a function of the language itself. One of my friends once told me that when she was little, because of the huge Confucian influence, she always felt that she had to act really cute and girly to get her grandparents attention. In Korean culture, (again this is just in my opinion) the gender roles seem to be iron clad. And so in turn, the way of speaking between men and women is really different. Women speaking Korean sounds really, for lack of a better word, cute. There’s even this concept called 애교 aegyo which is basically speaking like a baby in order to seem cuter. And while this is NOT every person, my female Korean friends are some of the most driven, independent, hard-working people I’ve met in my entire life and they definitely don’t speak like babies, the fact that it exists is a little insight into the culture. ANYWAY, all that to say there is an intonation patter that is used in Korean that very different from English. And because it’s so cultural when I try to use the correct intonation I feel more like I’m trying to be a Korean person rather than trying to speak Korean. Which is a really bizarre thing to navigate when learning a language.
But even after all that complaining, here I am in a Panera Bread studying grammar that I probably won’t ever need because I enjoy it. Learning languages is fun and learning grammar, especially the basic stuff, feels like your slowly unlocking all the tools you need. And because I hear Korean spoken all the time (between the dramas I watch, bands I listen to, and just hearing my friends speaking) when I learn something it’s usually something I’ve heard before but didn’t know what it meant. “Ohhhh! So that’s what that means!” is an awesome feeling.
I came across this lovely classification from the US Foreign Service Institute. There are 5 levels of how long it would take a native English Speaker to achieve basic proficiency in a language. Guess which level Korean is in? -_-
So here’s to those of us learning languages “which are exceptionally difficult for native English speakers.” We can do it. Korean is hard, but I suppose nothing worth doing was ever easy.