It occurs to me that I am really well-positioned to pick up Korean, and I don’t mean in terms of taking lessons in a classroom.
I learn almost all my Korean while watching kdrama, and I always, always get a thrill when a connection clicks in my brain and I learn something new.
Friends whom I’ve watched kdrama with have consistently pronounced me weird and somewhat freaky because of my ability to do that, which is what got me thinking.
Without thinking about it, I’d kind of assumed that most people would pick up the language similar to the way I pick it up, so when I realized that my friends found it freaky and I gave it some thought, I realized that I really am quite uniquely positioned to pick up Korean.
A LANGUAGE BENT
First of all, I’ve always enjoyed languages. Though I don’t exactly enjoy studying them in classrooms, I have the ability to reproduce an accent fairly well, once it is demonstrated to me.
Because of this, picking up phrases in foreign languages has always been a bit of a thrill for me.
In my first job, colleagues from India got a real kick out of teaching me phrases in Tamil so that I could answer basic questions over the phone.
Indian colleagues calling in to the department would come away really puzzled, and they’d ask other people, “Is there a new Indian girl in that department??”
That gave me and my Indian coaches a real thrill, I tell ya 😉
Of course, that affair with Tamil was only a brief fling, and now, I can only remember the barest details of those Tamil lessons.
Now I apply that heaven-sent ability towards picking up Korean, and when I use some basic phrases on the Korean ahjusshis and ahjummas at Korean food stalls, my friends come away thoroughly convinced that I am fluent in Korean! So not true – yet! 😉
I’ve even been mistaken as Korean, by Koreans, upon my initial self-introduction.
Of course, the illusion fell apart soon after, when I couldn’t keep up with the spoken Korean, but the point is, the pronunciation was good enough to fool a native, and that gives me a bit of affirmation, that I’m saying it right 🙂
Besides my language bent, though, I also have my history to thank, in terms of positioning me to pick up Korean.
A BRIEF JAPANESE FLING
Although I don’t generally enjoy formal language lessons, I did sort of enjoy Japanese lessons, which I took in school on top of my required curriculum for a couple of years.
At the time, Japan and all things Japanese were taking the world by storm, and learning Japanese was the coolest thing ever. If you managed to snag a student exchange gig to Japan, all the cooler. (I didn’t)
After 2 years of lessons, though, I reluctantly threw in the towel.
At the beginning of my third year, the sensei said, “From now onwards, I will only speak to you in Japanese.” Ouch.
That was the beginning of the end for me, basically. I stopped understanding what she said in class, and I couldn’t even understand basic requests that she made and instructions that she gave in class. So not productive.
3 months into that, I quit. I kinda had to, since y’know, I couldn’t understand a thing she said.
What I did take away with me, though, was an understanding of the sentence structure in the Japanese language.
It had been weird – but useful – getting used to the sentence structure of “Subject-Object-Verb” since in English we use “Subject-Verb-Object.” What this basically means is that “I love you” in English becomes “I you love” in Japanese: わたしは、あなたを愛しています.
I found that even though the order of these elements is less strictly applied in Korean, this “Subject-Object-Verb” structure is often used, and “I love you” is expressed as 나는 당신을 사랑합니다 or something similar, depending on the form and formality chosen by the speaker.
Without formal Korean lessons to explain those workings to me, having an understanding of that sort of structure from my days in Japanese class was a real bonus.
On top of that, there are also some loan words from the Japanese language in the Korean language, and remembering some of the Japanese words that I’d learned in school did help me identify similar words in Korean.
A LOVE-HATE AFFAIR WITH MANDARIN
I vividly remember crying lots and lots of tears in all my years studying Mandarin in school. I found the language impossibly hard, even though I am ethnically Chinese.
Every Chinese character has its own unique pronunciation and meaning, and the only way to learn it is to memorize it. Get one stroke wrong, and it’s either a completely different word, or a nonsensical, non-existent word. And there is no way of guessing each word’s pronunciation.
Just because one character looks like another doesn’t mean squat when it comes to how each word is pronounced.
So in school, they gave us stacks and stacks of Chinese words and idioms to memorize. We had to memorize how they were written, what they meant, and how each was used. It was So. Painful.
My struggle with Mandarin also had a lot to do with the fact that I mainly spoke English growing up, English being the language of choice at home.
Why, you may ask? Well, it’s coz my mother failed spectacularly at Mandarin in school, so speaking Mandarin at home just wasn’t a practical choice. We wouldn’t have been able to understand each other, between us! 😉
What’s happened, though, is that because of the substantial amount of Chinese influence in the evolution of the Korean language, there are a good number of loanwords that I now recognize, which instantly speeds up my understanding of what’s being said in Korean.
MY SPECIFIC LOCATION: SINGAPORE
While knowing Mandarin helps a lot in terms of picking up on the loanwords, it is actually my specific location in Singapore that has made that process even more effective.
The reason is that in Singapore, even though Mandarin is the official Chinese language spoken and studied in schools, there are a lot of Chinese dialects that are still spoken, thanks to our immigrant roots.
Most of the older generation ethnic Chinese in Singapore came to Singapore on boats in the early 1900s from all over China to seek their fortune here, and with them, they brought a whole spectrum of Chinese dialects, making Singapore a pretty cool melting pot of Chinese dialects.
I’m not sure that there’s anywhere else in the world where so many Chinese dialects meet and co-exist so comfortably in one place.
Walking around in Singapore, you’d still be able to overhear conversations in a wide variety of Chinese dialects, with Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese being the most commonly spoken ones.
What this means is that as an ethnic Chinese in Singapore, my ears and brain have gotten used to the variations in pronunciation between dialects when using the same Chinese words.
This has produced some kind of “instinct,” if you will, in terms of how the pronunciation of the same characters shift between dialects.
There are a ton of words in Korean that sound like loanwords from the Chinese language. Some of these loanwords sound more like the equivalents in the Chinese dialects rather than Mandarin.
My exposure to the various Chinese dialects helps me to increase my vocabulary quickly & easily, coz I recognize the words more easily when they’re spoken in dramas, and then find it easier to remember them as well, because I have a point of reference to a language – or dialect – that I’m more familiar with.
Like, 问题 (problem) is pronounced as “wen-ti” in Mandarin and “mun-tai” in Cantonese. In Korean, it’s 문제 (moon-jae) which isn’t that different from the Chinese equivalents. And yes, I did pick up this one while watching a kdrama 🙂
EDIT: JUST A COUPLE MORE EXAMPLES
时间 (time) is pronounced as “shi jian” in Mandarin and “si gan” in Cantonese. In Korean, it’s 시간 (si-gan) which is practically identical to the Cantonese pronunciation, but for the tone.
药 (medicine) is pronounced as “yao” in Mandarin and “york” in Cantonese. In Korean, it’s 약 (yahk) which is closer to the Cantonese pronunciation than the Mandarin one。
祈祷 (pray) is pronounced “qi dao” in Mandarin, “kei tou” in Cantonese, and “ki do” in Hokkien. In Korean, it’s 기도 (ki do), which sounds practically identical to the Hokkien pronunciation.
Pretty cool, huh? 😀
LEARNING TO READ KOREAN
On a tangent, I’ve been trying to learn how to read Korean, and it’s quite a thrill when I manage to read the characters.
It’s fascinating how the characters look unique, almost like Chinese characters are unique, yet can be read using an alphabet-like set of sub-characters.
Just like phonetics in English, by following the sound of the sub-characters, you can make out whole characters in Korean phonetically. It helps that I already recognize the sound of many words in Korean.
This makes reading Korean SO much more accessible than reading Chinese! In Chinese, every single character is a unique word, and the parts of each character tell you nothing about how the word is pronounced.
You just have to learn individual words and remember them individually, which makes it the most complex language I know.
Also, the Korean alphabet is so much shorter than the Japanese one, which makes it much more accessible too. It’s interesting how the 2 are so different fundamentally.
In the Japanese alphabet, each alphabet has its own sound and is a syllable on its own.
But the Korean alphabet functions more like the English alphabet, where each alphabet has its own characteristic that must be combined with other alphabets to make syllables and then complete words.
Now when I see Korean characters, my first instinct is to try to read them! But as with English words, I have to get past the stage of using phonetics, to actually recognizing words on sight. That would be so cool though, if I could get there! 😀
HOW ALL THIS HAS AFFECTED MY DRAMA-WATCHING
When I first started watching Goong, my very first kdrama, I watched it dubbed in Mandarin with English subs. The reason I preferred the Mandarin dialogue is coz the Mandarin dialogue captured a lot of nuances that the English subs did not.
This was a time when box sets were my only source of kdrama crack, so I kind of had to live with whatever subs they came with.
I watched several kdramas that way, including Winter Sonata, which I first watched with Chinese dialogue, then eventually with Korean dialogue, but with the same English subs.
Later on, I progressed to watching kdramas with the original Korean dialogue, when I discovered better English subs, and that helped so much in terms of helping me match Korean words to their accurate translations.
Good subs play a HUGE role in helping me get a grasp on what means what. I mean, if my Japanese lessons had come with English subs, I might’ve done quite well, actually! 😉
This time, I actually understood quite a bit of what the characters were saying, and the nuances not reflected in the subtitles finally showed up for me.
It was almost like watching a whole new drama, & I thought that was pretty darn cool 😀
It’s been almost 6 years since I first watched Goong, and I feel like I’ve learned so, so much since then. And I’m happy to say that I’m still very much thrilled today, when I make connections while watching kdramas and learn new words or phrases.
Yes, the romance and the dramas themselves are a huge draw. But the adventure of learning Korean while watching the dramas are a huge part of my adventure too 🙂
All in all, I am really grateful that watching kdrama has been not only this much fun, but also this educational – something that I would have never guessed when my sister first brought home that box set of Goong that fateful day!
I also don’t take for granted the very specific and unique factors that have helped to make learning Korean such a pleasurable and exciting experience for me, & with no classrooms involved too! 😉
So what’s YOUR journey been like, watching kdrama and learning Korean?? 😀