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Beware the dictionary

I’m having fun writing in Korean.  Whether it’s lang-8 entries, fan letters, random tweets, or me2day updates, I’m really enjoying the fact that I can construct a decent sentence without laboring over it for a long time.  In fact, I LOVE that Korean grammar allows me to write longer sentences that would sound like absolute nonsense if translated into English.  As it is, I tend to have long, adjective- and adverb-ridden, clause-filled sentences in English, but because of the glorious overuse of relative clauses in Korean, I can make my Korean sentences EVEN LONGER than my English sentences!  Haha.  I’m sure few native speakers actually write like that these days, but I like it.  In fact, I actually think that’s part of the reason some native speakers have told me that my writing sounds natural.  I might not have acquired a broad vocabulary yet but because I’ve somewhat figured out the cadence of Korean writing, I think I have a better “ear” for how a sentence “sounds” – and I think Korean sentences on average tend to be longer and use descriptive words more generally than English.

But aside from that, whenever  I write, I almost never look up words in the dictionary.

Don’t be misled by the title of the post – I love the dictionary.  And it’s pretty much impossible to learn a language without one.  When I’m reading, I’m always using my crappy Korean-English dictionary app on my iPod or the Daum 영어 or 국어 dictionaries.

But I avoid using the dictionary when I write.  I only want to use words that, I guess, come naturally to me as I write. Sometimes I do check the definition of a word to make sure I’m using it correctly but I never try to use a word that I’ve not learned.  I never “compose” a sentence in English in my head and then try to translate it into Korean; obviously, I did write like that at one point, but now I compose what I want to say in Korean itself and then write it down.  That means limiting myself to the vocabulary I truly know.  The only exception I sometimes make to this rule is looking up specific nouns (for example, I looked up the Korean word for resume, 이력서, when I was writing about graduate school interviews).

I keep harping on about nuances of words but honestly that’s what this comes down to as well.  I just don’t think it’s possible to accurately use a verb or adjective (especially adjectives), sometimes even nouns, that you’ve just looked up in a dictionary.  For example, if you look up the word “mistake” in an Eng-Kor dictionary, you’ll get words like 잘못, 틀림, 착각, 오해, 실수 – ALL of which have different connotations and are used in different scenarios.  If you tried to ask a Korean person to correct your “오해” or “착각” in something you’ve written… it’s just weird.

I know people are eager to spice up their writing using pretty new words (I’m guilty of that) but sometimes it’s painfully obvious people have looked up words in the dictionary without having any idea of whether native speakers use that word in that manner.  Just because some word “X” is used in some manner in English does NOT mean it’s used in the same way in another language.  And sometimes it’s just awkward… imagine writing a simple sentence with the grammatical complexity of an elementary school student, but throwing in a complicated, rarely-used word?  That’s why I think it’s important to limit the words you use in writing to words you feel you know really well – even if it means that you just use 좋다 or 대박 or something over and over again.  READING will help build a broader vocabulary better than writing and context will help with recognizing the nuances of certain words.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong in using wrong words and making mistakes.  I know I do.  Some people may even prefer to learn by making mistakes and being corrected.  Personally, I prefer to not make mistakes when I write – that way, I can confirm what I really know well, both in grammar and vocabulary, and I can move on from there.

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