Speaking Korean (or…not)


My knowledge of the Korean language is spotty. It is rich in some places (…food words) and incredibly sparse in others (basic grammar and connecting words). Being here has made me fully realize just how poor my Korean language skills are.


I know the Korean alphabet, and have a pretty good grasp on how the characters function together. I’ve also been making an effort to read the signs we pass, either in my mind or out loud, and just this little practice has helped my reading speed quite a bit.

The thing is that I cannot readily recognize words. That is to say that I read like a first grader: when you learn the English alphabet and how the letters work together, you can see the word “afternoon” and sound out “af-ter-noon” syllable by syllable. Once you get there, you realize that you’re reading the word “afternoon” and know what that means. That’s how I read Korean: syllable by syllable to figure out what word I’m reading.

Another issue? I can’t really read handwriting. I can only read typed Korean because the lines are clearly drawn and there is a separation between the consonants and vowels so I can easily distinguish each character. It’s a struggle and isn’t very practical.


So I thought that I understood Korean very well because, for the most part, when my mom and dad speak it at home I understand what they’re saying, no matter how quickly they’re speaking.

Well, I figured out why that is. It’s because I grew up hearing their intonation and the way they speak, so it’s familiar to me. When people here talk to me, I can’t fully understand what the heck is going on because I can’t pick up the key words that I usually can hear from my mom, dad, and other close relatives. To be fair, however, my understanding is much better than my production (see below).


HAHAHAHAHAHAHA no. My Korean hand writing looks like I’m holding the pencil with a fist, using my non-dominant hand (which is my right hand, lefty pride), and don’t understand the concept of keeping the characters in a straight line. It’s really elegant.


And here’s the major problem: I can’t make sentences and don’t know enough words. So basically, no, I don’t speak Korean.

The other day, someone in a shop asked me if my mom was a Seoul local. I fully understood the question, but replying was an issue. I knew the words for “mom”, “is” (in the honorific), “American”, and “Korean” but didn’t know how to put them into a sentence. So it kind of just sounded like this (underline denotes that those words were in Korean) “My mom is Korean but moved to, and lives in, America“.

And that’s a generous example. Most of the time I open my mouth to respond to a question, sifting through my vocabulary to see if there are words I can use, then I pick out the couple that might work in my reply and then when I come up short for the rest of the necessary words, I reach into the figurative “Korean language compartment” of my mind to find it tapped and empty.

Want to know what weird thing happens next?

My mind then subconsciously reaches for the rest of the words in the neighboring Spanish compartment of my mind.

So while I’m trying to suppress the desire to string together my Korean words with Spanish prepositions and conjunctions, my mind then moves to the French compartment, and, as I try to suppress that as well, I realize that I’ve been standing there with my mouth open, trying to find the words to answer the question.

Guess what happens then?

I answer in completely English and mentally hit myself for not using at least a couple of the Korean words I knew.

This inability to converse fluently in Korean frustrates me, not only because I should know it, but because languages usually come so easily to me and trying to speak them has always been a fun adventure.

This is the same girl who, in the 8th grade, knowing almost no verbs and having a limited knowledge of Spanish, marched fearlessly up to the ticket counter in Madrid and tried to get bus tickets to Granada for herself and her family, asking about student fares and seat availability.

That girl is now standing, open-mouthed, like a deer in the headlights, unable to figure out how to communicate in the language with which she spoke her first words.

And, you know what? All eloquence aside: it sucks. It really does.

But you know what else? It’s an incredible motivator. I cannot wait to get into that Yonsei classroom and study my butt off to learn this language. So prepare yourselves, because by August 11th, I’m going to write a blog post completely in Korean. Count on it.


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