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Korean: my language learning

What is this? Does your language intuition and cultural expectations meet in the path of understanding?  Without context, it can be a little challenging.  Imagine this all around you. It was this alien experience, like living in some alternate reality, where I had my first experience with language workout.  Korean.

How it all began

But there’s more to this than meets the eye.  My affair with this country began when I was in Grade 7.  It was then that the upcoming Olympics were to be held in Seoul, a place little looked upon by the world let alone a 13-year-old.  Fascinated by the sports more than the country, I chose the Seoul Games as my project for, believe it or not, French class. I learnt much about Korea, presenting about it and the Olympics in French.  Out of all possible project choices, why Korea?

Shoot ahead 9 years to a year after  my undergrad, I chose to travel on an English-teaching contract to Seoul.  Surprisingly, there were very few resources in 1997 on South Korea in my local library, despite the fact that its Olympics had long past.  I’d found one book from 1987 that included a very basic introduction to key phrases in Korean, so I knew how to say hello phonetically, ahn-nyoung ha-say-yo (it didn’t take long to drive home the maxim that book language and spoken language are vastly different).

An alien in an alien land

Needless to say, I landed in Seoul almost 100% linguistically blind, deaf and dumb. For the first time, I was in a place where I could not orally communicate unless someone tried to communicate with me first.  I was faced with a language that didn’t use the alphabet I was used to–it wasn’t clear if it even was an alphabet or pictograms.  I was like a toddler, unable to recognise any words on signs, understand what the ‘grown-ups’ were talking about, or say what I wanted to the general public.  Only here and there was I thrown a bone, with an Romanised place name on a subway sign or an adventurous stranger who wanted to practice their English.  So, as a newbie in a foreign land, where was I to start?

Breaking the code

What amazes me is that our minds are amazing tools, striving to make sense at all times. Since I took the subway to work everyday, I had a lot of time to stare at billboards and signs on the platform while waiting for the trains.  It wasn’t long that I started paying closer attention to the Romanisation of the subway stop names, and patterns seemed to emerge.

The station where the book store sold English titles
The station near where I lived

Look at the first character of these two stations. Can you guess what sound it might make?  Now look at the following sign, can you find where that sound occurs?

How about this one?

Another station I went to often.

Not quite as easy without the English alphabet guiding you below it, is it? If you’ve figured it out, congratulations! It takes a little critical thinking to realise that you can’t count on typography to be consistent from sign to sign. If you didn’t get it, look again for a similar character. I’ll tell you at the end of this post.

It took me about three weeks before I’d really figured out how to read the characters with fairly good consistency.  And I practised sounding out signs in my head, then reading them aloud to increase my speed.  Though I never became a fluent speaker or even a particularly accurate one, I did learn a lot in a relatively short period of time and completely without any formal instruction.

Learning without instruction

So, HOW else did I do it initially?  I picked up important expressions by listening to others in a particular context and then confirming the phrase I’d heard was what I thought it meant with students.  I improved natural pronunciation by copying what others said.  I put myself out there, took risks by trying to use the phrases I’d learnt with taxi drivers, store clerks and subway ticketeers as much as I could.  Bravery is key.

WHY did I learn it when many other language teachers didn’t try at all?  I didn’t want to be one of them.

So my experience with total immersion in a completely foreign language began with a project in a language class; it drips with irony.  It’s been almost a decade since I left my life in Korea, but I’ll be forever tied to the language and its culture.  Now I want to take a trip back to visit.  Thank you, Brad Patterson and your blog challenge.

So what was that character and sound?  Check it out here.

 Related reading: Turnings in your story


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Cecilia Lemos

Wow! I cannot imagine myself in such a situation – too scary! I admire you, Ty.

And at the same time, I wish you had written more about how you learned the language – surely it was not as simple as that.

I picked up the G sound from the symbols – I think.

Thanks for sharing your experience 🙂

Brad Patterson

“I put myself out there, took risks by trying to use the phrases I’d learnt with taxi drivers, store clerks and subway ticketeers as much as I could. Bravery is key.”

I agree, and wonder to what extent “extrovertism” is a key component to language learning. Naomi even asked this in reaction to my post.

Funny to see also that these young experiences YEARS before we leap into an adventure, have a strong impact on where we leap.

Lovely reading, Ty. Thanks for taking up the challenge! Cheers, b

Debbie @datenglish

As Cecilia says I can’t imagine myself in your situation. And you add “nop, it was that simple, at least to begin with!” Thanks for sharing. Total admiration.


“What amazes me is that our minds are amazing tools, striving to make sense at all times.” – for me this is THE statement of the post here, Tyson (or is it Ty?) – this is so important to all language learners…if only they’d let this happen in the classroom a little more instead of rushing to open their e-dictionaries. Perhaps the process is more natural outside of the classroom and they don’t think to do it inside…??
I’ve only visited Korea once but have been to Japan twice where the same experience happened to me, too – it’s fantastic to be in a place where you really have to pay attention to all those patterns – I love it!!!
PS I was looking at Gwa vs Go vs Gu….so is the last one ‘gang’?? As in Gangnam?? :)))

Martin Sketchley

I can relate to this. When I first moved to Korea, I had to make sense of everything in my very eyes. The language, context and culture was all different but out of chaos, language and understanding emerges.

How did I learn the Korean language? I consulted books, conversed with Koreans, chatted to taxi drivers, and made a mental note of all that was around me. Eventually, I started to notice language and patterns and connections were made. It did help that I am married to a Korean woman and someone that I could share my experiences with. Also, I remember reading a sign everyday for about five weeks every time I walked home (outside an apartment). I wondered what the sign meant and was left wondering in the evening. After a while, I looked around at the sign and where it was located (next to the road) and something clicked in my brain and I realised that it was a ‘no parking’ sign. I hold a lot of respect to connectionist theory with language learning and this experience has led me to introduce real contexts in the classroom for particular language points or grammar.

I love the photos that you have uploaded and brings so many memories back of travelling to work via the subway or to clients’ offices, such as the Office of the Prime Minister or to other companies.

Finally, I am considering writing an eBook of working in Korea and other teachers a reference material as so little exists.

[…] ‘er out, and since then I’ve loved reading Ceci, Elinda, Naomi, Shikha, Ann and Tyson‘s stories and can’t wait to hear […]


I wanted to participate in this blog challenge as well, but I was stumped on what to say! Your Korean experience was very different from my overseas experience. I studied Thai for almost 2 years – formally. She was an excellent teacher. She had me create visualizations with the sounds of the alphabet for better recall – which worked extremely well! And after 2 years I could fumble my way through a basic verbal exchange, and read at a 1st grade level (on my good days). I started to dream in Thai, which always stunned me when I awoke because I had no idea what I said! Your question, “Why did I learn it when many other language teachers didn’t try at all?” really struck me. I avoided learning the language the first year I was there. It was daunting. I was shy. I had picked up a few words that could get me by in the market. But the language I remember best is what I spoke in the real world – outside of the classroom. For me, this is the key lesson I pass on to my students. You MUST actually try and use the language.

Excellent post Tyson, thank you for sharing!

Naomi Epstein

I’m very impressed.
A really challenging situation!
I had a professor in college that said (in the days before there were cell phones!!) that deaf people and new immigrants have a lot in common, except that for new immigrants it is a temporary situation.
Thanks for sharing this tale!


My best friends in the French course for immigrants that I took when I first immigrated to Canada (I lived in Montreal then) were Korean and I learned phrases and words from them. It quickly got into my list of languages I would like to learn. Maybe I should learn a bit more form you! Although lately I’ve been thinking it would probably make more sense for me to learn Mandarin, given the students we teach…. But Korea is high on my list of places I’d like to visit!

I have yet to visit a country where I don’t speak the language and cannot read the signs and often wondered what that must be like. The closest I got was connecting flights in Germany and even then I had to learn at least to say “I’m sorry, I don’t speak German, do you speak English?” and “One dark beer, please.” But that was not at all comparable to your experience since a lot of Germans speak English, particularly at an airport the size of Frankfurt’s.

But I understand the feeling of suddenly being illiterate – I felt very much like a pre-schooler when I started learning Hebrew. A very humbling experience…

Carolyn, above, is right of course. Unless we actually use a language outside the classroom, learning it becomes much more difficult. My Spanish developed very quickly while I was in Spain mostly because I took every opportunity I could to talk to people and I made sure that everything I read and the TV I watched was in Spanish. It made all the difference.

[…] My language learning experience  – I was like a toddler, unable to recognise any words on signs, understand what the ‘grown-ups’ were talking about, or say what I wanted to the general public. (Seburn) Brad Patterson’s challenge on language learning gave me opportunity to consider how I tried to make sense of a completely foreign language: Korean; and here, you get to try out my deciphering process too. […]

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