reflections on my time in korea – and in the korean classroom

when i visited for the first time my first impression of korea that i remember the strongest was the smell once we left hongik university station. in korea, trash is just heaped up in plastic bags and left out on the street for the collectors to pick up at night and this, plus the pollution in the air wafting over from china was absolutely incredible. it reeked. and it was everywhere. i visited korea for the first time during the summer of last year. i visited seoul with two australian friends i had met while studying abroad and one friend’s sister. while we were in korea, we stayed in an airbnb in hongdae. this area is super famous as a shopping and entertainment district, and from the evening and late into the night amateur dancers hang out on the street and perform insanely well-choreographed and well-rehearsed dances to popular k-pop tracks. the area is also full of shops, restaurants, cafes and food stalls.

it was a lot of fun just walking around and taking in the atmosphere, and in hongdae the smell of grilled meat was enough to drown out the smell of trash so even that wasn’t a problem. actually, to be honest, it didn’t feel that different from walking around the streets in toyko. hongdae felt just like shibuya or shinjuku on a busy night when everyone is walking around shopping, or heading out to eat. however, one thing was distinctly different and that was the voices of the people walking around me, and the letters written on signs and menus.

when i visited japan for the first time two years earlier, i was no by means fluent but i could say a few words, understand a couple more and at the very least read basic sentences even with some kanji mixed in. however, when i visited japan for the third time when i went to study abroad, i knew a lot more japanese than i did two years earlier and there was no real feeling of being in a foreign environment with a foreign language for me anymore. six months later i’m heading to korea, and it’s first time i had visited a foreign country where i couldn’t speak the language, or at the very least read. luckily for me, seoul (like tokyo) is the kind of place where you don’t really need to know the local language to get by. people in most restaurants spoke (actually surprisingly good) english, and all trains stations have translations of station names and train lines in english too. but there were moments in korea when i wanted to say ‘could i please have this?’ when ordering food, or ‘how do i get to this station?’ when we were out sightseeing. i felt like my brain immediately pushed me to speak in japanese because my instinct in japan was to avoid english and try to speak japanese instead. but in korea, the second language i had been studying for three and a half years at that point was useless, and i was just another dumb tourist who knew nothing. 

now, unlike a year ago i’ve now been taking korean classes for five weeks, and i’ve started using my textbook too. but i still feel like i know nothing.

the hardest thing so far is reading. they say that hangul was designed to be so simple that a genius can learn it it one hour and an idiot can learn it in a day. maybe it’s a design flaw in hangul itself but it’s been a few weeks since i learnt hangul and i still cant read it with any degree of fluency. if i really focus i can make out what a sentence says, but my vocabulary is so low that even if i can read a sentence i have no idea what it means. unlike japanese, which i’ve gotten used to reading over the last four years, hangul still looks almost completely meaningless to me. i feel like one of the reasons i’m struggling to retain vocabulary is because i can’t picture hangul super easily in my head. when i can’t picture the letters, i can’t recall the pronunciation and even if i learn a new word i completely forget it straight away. i feel like even if i sit down and force myself to read sentences over and over i wont improve. the only way i feel like i’ll see improvement is by reading in context, on social media, youtube, supermarkets and food packing. so i’m gonna work harder to increase my exposure to hangul over the next week.

the first chapter in my textbook is titled 처눈 일본 사람 입니다,  私は日本人です, or  ‘i am japanese’. in other words, this chapter outlines how to say ‘X is Y’ so that you can introduce yourself, say your name, and what country you come from. it also outlines how to turn phrases into questions. i made a lot of notes on the dialogue in the first chapter, both in english and in japanese. i also highlighted sections about grammar in pink and new vocabulary in blue. this makes it way easier to know what i’m reading and what the dialogue is talking about. by seperating these two things i can focus on the relationship between the words and how they connect to each other.

in contrast, the korean class i attend on campus is quite different from self-study with a textbook. the korean class is designed for absolute beginners like my textbook is, however it’s more focused on speaking korean rather than knowing korean. we’re not so much learning grammar rules, but rather just phrases and words that can get us speaking in korean. the class is run voluntarily, so there’s not reason to go into too much detail but it’s sometimes difficult to follow without knowing how words and phrases interact and the grammatical rules behind them. learning new words and phrases blindly without knowing how they’re related to each other is not a great way to learn a new language. learning this way, you ultimately limit the range of things you can say, whereas if you lay a good foundation and learn how words interact in a sentence all you need to do is learn new vocabulary and you can say anything! i don’t love this aspect of the korean class, because sometimes i feel like i’m learning things without having a good foundation in place yet.

that being said, i really enjoy the class. the teacher has got a really big personality, and the way she teaches always makes me laugh. however, i’m painfully aware that each time i go to class i experience the same feeling i had when i visited korea. all the words are unfamiliar again, and the only thing that’s different this time is that i can read just a few of them. but i still don’t know what they mean or how to use them. even if i understand the questions the teacher asks us in class i have no idea how to respond or how to ask questions back. i’m also finding that just like when i was in korea, there are time when i wanna speak in japanese. i often find myself thinking in class, ‘if this were in japanese, this would be no problem’. it’s a weird, and frankly kinda difficult experience being an absolute beginner again. i have vivid memories of being a beginner in japanese class thinking ‘there’s no way i’m ever gonna get good enough to have a conversation’ or ‘i’ll never be able to memorise enough characters to be able to read anything’ but now (although it’s taken a few years) i can do those things with ease. but when i think about my korean, i’m back at the bottom rung again. the atmosphere in the classroom reminds me a lot of my time in korea. i’m just a dumb tourist again with no knowledge or experience. but i miss lots of things about korea (even the smell) and now that i’ve started to study more and more it makes me wanna go back and visit again just so i can practice the very small bit of korean i’ve learn out in the wild. at the very least, i’ve completely memorised this one useful phrase:

한국 사람 보았요?

Did you see a Korean person?



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