Let’s Talk 한국말 (That’s Korean for “Korean”)

Each week on the Let’s Talk series, I’ll be featuring a language learner who will share their heroic process of mastering a foreign tongue. Next up, Adam talks Korean.  

깜놀 (g/kam nol) n. (slang). Language: Korean. Meaning: Surprise, a shock. My time in Korea has provided me with a constant stream of surprising things. Perhaps one of Korea’s most endearing things to me is how it has consistently managed to surprise me despite my constant attempts to understand it. Sometimes, you get more surprised and confused the more you learn. 

My name is Adam R. Carr and I’m a Canadian national living in Korea for the last 3 years. I started out here as a private school teacher in Busan. After a second stint at private school in Southeast Seoul, I now tutor executives at a major company in social issues, management techniques and English.

During my time here, I have been to just about everywhere in the country by motorcycle, bus or train. The language has fascinated and terrified me every step of the way due to its complete dissimilarity with English or French, which came a lot easier to me. I originally began learning Korean in Busan, where the dialect is considered ‘hillbilly’ by Seoul standards. After being called out by a Seoul taxi driver on my accent, I figured a more consolidated effort to develop the standard accent was in order.

Numbers for Words

1. How many years have you studied it?

Well, at first, I didn’t really study it. I learned enough not to be terrified at the prospect of buying things, as I believe most of us do. I learned only through active curiosity after that for a good long time. Curiosity is important when approaching a new language. It’s an unassuming way to inherit most anything. Language is no exception. I started taking classes about a year ago (off and on).

2. How would you describe your fluency? 1–10 (0, a houseplant speaks this language better than me. 5, I’m just barely fluent; 11, I could write the dictionary.) 5. I learned enough Korean to have conversations about things with people in casual social situations. It’s really hard to get over that hump in order to feel like you could sit down with someone and have a relaxed conversation, but I think that’s a great accomplishment. I mean, what are we learning a language for if not to express ourselves properly?

Learning Korean Seoul subway

Out in Seoul subway with my friends Emily and Maddy.


3. Rate difficulty in learning Korean on a scale of 1-5 for each of the following categories: 

     a. Pragmatics/communicational competence. (Appropriate use of language in context.) 3. ​The tricky thing about communicating that every foreigner will tell you is the difference in politeness levels. I mean, they teach you in semi-polite, but when you are out with Koreans, there’s almost none of that. I think that the struggle with communicational competence in particular is that they don’t talk the way that they teach you. I’m sure that’s true of any language to a point, but ​it puts a strain on your ability to participate at a social level, and not sounding like a textbook is a really difficult endeavour for all language learners. Korean is no exception. It’s perhaps worse the younger the conversational partner is here.

     b. Grammar 4. Grammar is particularly strange here. Learning Korean (and Japanese) is difficult because their sentence structure is so different. This makes it harder to develop a flow of thought, because there’s a reroute every time you talk until you develop a space in your head that thinks in that language. That’s exactly why, conversely, Japanese and Korean people have such a hard time learning English. It’s a lot different even from the get-go.​

     c. Pronunciation 2. Well, learning Korean pronunciation is no cake walk. There are unaspirated consonants and aspirated consonants. The difference between ‘bread’ (bbahng) and ‘room’ (bahng) is a small aspiration​. It’s hard to even hear at first, let alone pronounce. However, most of it isn’t particularly taxing, so long as you get it right from the start. 

     d) Vocabulary 3. The vocabulary is something that hasn’t been hard for me. There are plenty of flashcard programs out there, and with any language, the more you study, the more you learn to recognize patterns and roots of words. Also, a lot of words are Konglish (half Korean, half English), so there is some immediate familiarity with some terms that are forgiving ambassadors to the experience.
     e) Spelling 1. Learning Korean spelling isn’t hard at all. There are very few exceptions, and it otherwise follows a very standardised progression. The alphabet is able to be learned in a day, whereas it took me about 2 weeks to learn Hiragana and Katakana in Japanese (and that’s not even the tip of the writing system there). They get a big thumbs up here for Hangeul. They’re right to brag about its ease.
Korean kop | learning korean

Me and the cop that helped me out of a tough situation.

Language Meets Culture

1. Reinforce for me in ONE way or ONE example, from your own experience, the idea that language and culture are inseparable. This question is very open-ended, and it’s meant to be ;) 

This is a popular refrain, and for good reason. The most easily pointed to example is in politeness levels. You can learn about Confucianism from the very idea of addressing people according to age and social standing. I feel like there are more nuanced examples that deserve attention (like the tendency to omit the subject and how you can claim it shapes ideas of personhood), but it’s properly important to not get chewed out on a mountainside for speaking impolitely to a spritely old man two bottles of Makgeolli into the afternoon.
2. Did language inspire you to travel? Or did travel inspire/force you to study language?
In my case, I’ve always loved language. My father refused to send me to French immersion as a kid, but I learned a fair bit anyway. I love the idea of being able to think in a different language, and to see someone light up when you speak to their heart directly.I even learned basic Tamil from Sri Lankan guys I worked with as a teenager. It’s fun for me, and it affords you an intimacy with the people you talk to in that language (including yourself).
3. Provide an example of how learning Korean has helped you integrate yourself or become more invested in your travels or your life abroad.

When I drove my motorcycle around the country, a piece of scrap metal flew into my chain about 10km from the Eastern DMZ, stopping it dead. I headed over to the convenience store to get help. I spoke to the clerk, who talked with me about my situation, and then phoned for the police to help me out. When they arrived, I spoke to them in Korean, and they were as appreciative of my efforts as I was of their assistance. In fact, they had my bike towed to their station for free, then bought lunch for us to share and took pictures with them. They even gave me my Korean name, Yonggi (용기). I came back a week later, the bike was fixed for 30 bucks, and they were all smiles and high fives. I’m fairly certain that it would have gone a lot differently had I slow-and-loud-talked my way through it in English.

4. You are this language’s lawyer. Build a case for it. Why should people study this language?

It would be no easy task to convince someone to learn this language without context. Korean culture is exploding all over Asia, and I was floored how many bored housewives back home were able to list 5 K Dramas they watch. If I were to say anything, it’s that Korea’s time is finally here. They are as culturally and technologically important today as Japan was 20 years ago. They are there, right now. They just do not have the benefit of a longstanding Western fetishism for their culture. I’d like to see that, especially because that would probably make me more awesome for living here.


Learning Korean | Pohang

In front of a monument in Pohang with my bike during my travels.

Some Fun Stuff

1. Favorite word in the language.

Written, I like “flower” (꽃, ggot). It’s a pretty word to look at. Speaking, it’s probably (at the moment) kiss (뽀뽀, bbo bbo). 

2. A word that doesn’t translate directly to English. 

Aegyo (애교). It approximately means winsomeness or cutesy behaviour. However, it’s a thing women do here to charm the men into doing things (such as buying things). It’s a divisive subject these days, but I’m not going to set out its moral standing. It’s just something particular to the girls here that is adorable/annoying, depending on who you ask. adorbannoying? Sure.

3. Any insane differences that blew your mind as a native English speaker.
As a native English speaker, there was one that really stuck out. There is no difference in everyday usage between ‘you probably should/it’s a good idea to’ and ‘you have to’. They use 해야돼 (hae ya dwei) as a rule. It’s more a problem of translation of what Koreans understand by ‘should’.Also, Korean has so many words for wear. Wearing a hat, a shirt, a watch, a gun, a purse . . . they’re all different verbs. I just don’t ask people what they’re wearing without Google.

4. A gesture in this language that differs from English. 

Part of learning Korean is learning to hand over things gently (especially money). One hand forward, one perpendicular to support the dominant hand. If you throw money on the table here, be prepared for the thousand yard stare.

5. A funny mistranslation you made while learning Korean.

Actually, I was in a sauna one lazy sunday with my cleaning stuff. The old man in charge leaned in and stared at my deodorant (they don’t have it here). He said “Why do you use this?” I wanted to say something stupid like “Ladies think it smells nice.” What I actually said was “Ladies smell nice.” He gave me the most twisted stare, carefully put it down, and walked clean away from me. Embarrassing.

6. A little somethin’ extra: 

Koreans are super appreciative of efforts to learn their language. Their stumbling blocks to encouraging others are their incessant correction of minor details and their lack of exposure to foreigners speaking Korean. They’re still new to outsiders speaking Korean, and as such, are not good at understanding and encouraging/teaching outsiders to speak confidently. They’ve worked miracles to get themselves where they are as a people, and I’d like to see them move forward socially as fast as they have economically.

And in conclusion. . . .

원숭이도 나무에서 떨어진다

​ (won song ee do, namu eh soh Ddal eo jin da)​
​”Even monkeys fall from trees.”
Thanks so much, Adam! To read more from heroic language learners in the Let’s Talk series, click here. And make sure to follow A Thing For Wor(l)ds on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram
  • Pingback: DMPK()

  • Pingback: Event Management Company in Hyderabad()

  • Pingback: how to get dofollow backlinks()

  • Ah 한국어… I really tried but the grammar KILLED me… it was much easier to learn the limited Korean I do know through immersion but I still have a long way to go. Great interview ^_^

  • I know it’s senseless to lump all the East Asian languages together, but if I had to learn one it would be Korean…almost entirely because the simple script is so very phonetic—a huge contrast with China’s logograms and Japan’s mishmash of 3? 4? writing systems.

    Definitely LOLed about the deodorant anecdote

  • …Thanks for this interview!!…I want to hit up Korea in a few years, so it’s always nice to see the perspective of someone who’s learned(ing) the language!!…