That’s a question I get a lot these days, especially at graduate school interviews. Why Korean? I have no family ties to Korea, I don’t live in a place populated by a lot of Koreans (and those who are Korean prefer to communicate in English), and I don’t plan on visiting or living in Korea any time soon. Sure, there are K-dramas and K-pop which I love and obsess over 26 hours a day but that’s not the reason I started learning Korean. So what was it exactly? I’m not even sure I know myself.
I’ll be honest. I’m a commitment-phobe when it comes to learning new languages. I “dabble” a lot in the languages I’m interested in, picking up only a few basic phrases and words before I get bored and abandon it. I studied French for 4 years in high school but as soon as I graduated, I forgot most of it. While I studied it, I loved it, but afterwards I just couldn’t be motivated to carry on on my own. After that, I found a great Italian podcast which I was listening to diligently for several months before abandoning that too, because I just couldn’t find any way to practice and reinforce what I’d learned. A few summers ago, I learned the basics of Sanskrit (an ancient Indo-Aryan language that’s significant in Hindu and Buddhist scriptures) from my grandfather who’s a Sanskrit scholar. From Sanskrit, I tried my hand at Hindi but that didn’t last long either.
Languages excite me. But finding a language to commit to was like finding the right man. I dated around, flirted with the languages I was interested in, but ran off when times got tough. It wasn’t them, it was me. So what was it about Korean that kept me coming back? Not to sound trite, but it was just like what people say: I found love as soon as I stopped looking for it.
A while back, a friend of mine told me to watch a Korean horror movie, 고死: 피의 중간고사 (Death Bell/Bloody Midterms) on YouTube. That was the first time I really heard the Korean language aside from some TVXQ songs I’d listened to (though I didn’t really hear much in the movie – it was mostly screaming). Through Kim Bum, I got sucked into the mire that was Boys Before Flowers. I thought I would try watching a couple episodes and I was determined to just enjoy it for what it was and not try to learn anything. (At that time I was, unsuccessfully, trying to teach myself Japanese and did not want to get sidetracked by Korean).
But things didn’t work out as planned. I started to pick up more and more Korean words and phrases, even though I wanted to concentrate my efforts on Japanese. I got really interested in Korean writing, sentence structure, and grammar. I would look up stuff for fun. I remember getting so excited when I understood some lyrics in Korean songs. I watched more dramas. I got sucked into K-entertainment. I listened to more Korean music. I looked up articles and struggled to read sentences. I gave up trying to find English-translated manhwa at my public library and found I could actually understand the originals quite a bit. My grammar got better and I tried some Korean-English translations. I found a Korean penpal and marveled at the fact that she could actually understand what I was trying to say to her. I slowly began understanding more Korean than I did Japanese or any other foreign language. In fact, I’ve studied Korean for a little more than a year and I already think I know more Korean than French. Fact of the matter is, I’m putting in far more effort into my “relationship” with Korean than I did with any other language. I’m not only studying grammar and vocabulary but also communicating with native speakers. That’s a dimension of language-learning that I’d never explored before.
Truth is, I’m not quite sure what my motivation to learn Korean is exactly. It’s true that I love Korean entertainment but my goal was never to watch dramas without subtitles. It’s kind of the reverse – studying Korean might someday give me the advantage of watching dramas without subtitles, but I study Korean because it’s Korean and I love it for no reason. I have spent so many years trying out other languages and with Korean, it was as if something just clicked into place. It’s like the more I learn, the more it motivates me to learn even more, like a (hopefully) endless cycle of positive feedback.
So when people ask me why Korean, why not Spanish or Chinese or something that would be more “useful,” I just shrug. I found a connection in Korean that I couldn’t find in French or Chinese or any other language I tried to learn. Usefulness is an important thing but for me to stick with a language that I’m self-studying, I need something more. And Korean has this inexplicable something that makes me want to go above and beyond the efforts I’ve made to study any other language.
Long story short, I’m studying Korean just for the heck of it and it’s awesome!