Organizing new vocab

Part of the reason I’ve never liked formal language classes (or even textbooks, for that matter) is because I like learning new grammar and vocabulary in the context of original (native) reading material.  I can’t deal with “themed” chapters (e.g. “Chapter 2: Weather”) that force me to memorize relevant words from a word list.

But my problem with reading original stuff is that I jump around between several different novels, webtoons, and news articles at a time.  A lot.  On top of that, because I make it a habit of jotting down words I don’t know, one page of my notebook can be a jumbled mess of words and definitions from five different sources.  This really really bothers me because I tend to learn words in clusters (e.g. learning the words ‘detective,’ ‘prosecutor,’ ‘murder’, ‘death penalty’ together because they’re often used in combination with each other).  So it throws me off when I’m looking over a page that’s half-filled with detective vocabulary that then switches to words about painting and geometry.  Then I don’t remember either sets of words effectively.

I puzzled over how to solve this problem of organizing my vocabulary for a long while.  It didn’t seem cost- (or space-)effective to start a new notebook for every Korean novel I owned.  I switched for some time to using a binder and writing on printer paper.  Then I could organize the pages of vocabulary notes according to different novels, articles, etc.  But the paper buildup started getting annoying and I didn’t want to fill up my shelves with binders upon binders of Korean vocabulary.  So  then, I came up with this solution.  For online articles, I simply copy and paste the text into a Word document and voila.


I use the “Comments” feature to highlight all the words I don’t know and type up the definitions.  This is an article about 나인: 아홉번의 시간여행 which appeared in Ceci a few months ago (side note: some of these words I’ve already committed to my long-term memory!)  This is really helpful when I’m practicing translation too; I can just type up the English portion below the Korean text and use the comments as a reference.  Also, it’s great for visualizing how much my vocabulary has improved over the past several years/months.  Provided that I read the same genre over time, the number of words I highlight in every article will be bound to decrease as my vocabulary builds up.  (Again, this depends on the type of thing I read.  If I suddenly started reading economic news instead of celebrity interviews, without a doubt I would have crazy highlights all over the article.)

Okay but what about hard copy stuff?  For now, this is what works for me.

2013-11-27 00.07.07This is a page from 바람의 화원 and, as you can see, I’ve used Post-It notes.  Personally, I hate marking up my books (unless it’s for an English Lit class) so this is a good alternative.  Plus the notes are stuck roughly in the same area as where the unfamiliar words are located in the text.  The only issue this poses is that it makes going back and reading kind of inconvenient because you have to move the notes aside – and then they lose their stickiness and falling out.  Urgh.  But thus far it’s working for me!

So much of how well you learn or retain something depends on knowing how you yourself learn best, which is why I decided to write this post.  I still suck at retaining new vocabulary but I’m definitely getting better now that I have these note-taking strategies in place.  There’s really no right or wrong way to learn or study.  Trying different things and figuring out what works for you is the hard part!



Cécile Corbel & songs in foreign languages

Good music makes me so, so happy.

I’ve been listening to a lot of “experimental” electronic, indie rock, and singer/songwriter type music these days.  When I listen to music in a language I can understand (English, Korean, and some Japanese), lyrics are often the most noticeable element of song for me and vocals tend to stand out against the backdrop of instrumentals.  But in other languages, vocals become mere morphemes without meaning, indistinguishable from the other layers of sound in a song.  A friend and I were discussing how sometimes we prefer to listen to songs in languages we don’t understand – for me, at least, it’s because it lets me interpret and feel the song in my own way without being hindered by semantics.

Recently, this friend introduced me to a singer who, as she described it, has “the voice of a siren.”

Cécile Corbel is a Breton singer and harpist who, in addition to having the most enchanting voice I’ve ever heard, also composed the score for the Studio Ghibli film 借りぐらしのアリエッティ (The Borrower Arrietty).  That’s her singing a song from the film in the video above and, yes, she is singing in Japanese!  Corbel’s native language is Breton – a Celtic language that originated in the British Isles and is spoken predominantly in Bretagne, France – but she also sings in French, English, Italian, German, and Irish.  And true to her roots, many of her songs have a gorgeous Celtic feel to them.

Here’s one of my favorites by her – “La Fille Damnée” in French.

It’s been ages and ages since I heard anything in French and, as per my usual weakness with French, I understood very little about what this song was about until I looked at the lyrics in French (so I guess my four years of French in high school wasn’t all for naught?  Heh.)  But that wasn’t necessarily the point because I wasn’t really trying to understand this song.  Corbel has a voice that I just want to listen to and feel without thinking.

But then I noticed something interesting.  I remember when SNSD’s “I Got a Boy” came out and English-speakers “misheard” the chorus (“I got a boy 멋진, I got a boy 착한”) as “I got a boy munchin’, I got a boy chicken.”  It’s as though your brain takes the sounds of a language you don’t know (e.g. Korean) and forcefully tries to apply meaning to it using a language that you do know (e.g. English).  Now, I’ve listened to Korean music for years so I never “misheard” those lyrics in English.  Even when I come across Korean speech or lyrics that I don’t understand, my brain still recognizes it as Korean.

Now the weird thing with me is when I listened to one of Corbel’s songs in Spanish among others, I kept hearing what sounded weirdly like Korean or Japanese or even Hindi words.  Never once did my brain try to “Englishify” what I was listening to, despite the fact that 99% of the time I open my mouth to speak, I use English.  I wonder if this is a result of the fact that the vast majority of songs that I listen to are not in English, even though I use English in my daily communication.  But something similar happens when I watch movies in foreign languages to which I have little to no exposure – let’s say German or Thai.  I’ve found this to be really disorienting because my brain keeps trying to hear Korean or Japanese in the dialogue, not English, even though the vast majority of movies I watch are in English.  It’s almost as if my brain understands I’m hearing something in a foreign language, makes a switch from English, and tries to interpret it in my next-most-proficient foreign language.  Does this happen to anyone else?  And I’m not sure but is there a technical linguistics/cognitive science terminology for this phenomenon?

It’s crazy.  I’ve been thinking more and more about neurobiology these days and how fascinating it must be to study the brain in the context of language acquisition.  I wonder if there’s a way to visualize a phenomenon like the one I described happening using fMRI – do different parts of the brain light up?  Is the neural connectivity changing?  Does synaptic plasticity affect whether or not you experience something like this?  Gah, so many delicious questions.  I should dig into the literature sometime.

속을 보여주는 속담

(Here’s a beautiful instrumental piece that has nothing whatsoever to do with Korean.  Enjoy!)

I remember how I was four months ago and I tell myself that progress, while frustratingly slow, is being made.  And I’m not talking about Korean.  

A couple weeks ago, I made a decision that I thought would help me get back on my feet and, while I think it is helping in some sense, I also feel myself relapsing for reasons I didn’t anticipate.  Getting though each day seems like a tremendous accomplishment. 

It’s scary to admit that I’m going through something I arrogantly thought would never happen to me.  It’s scary to admit that I need help.  It’s scary to realize that I am, first and foremost, battling with myself.  It’s going to take time to sort this all out and it’s scary to even think about how to take the first step.

The biggest thing I’ve accomplished in the past few months is accepting that I’m not okay and reaching out to people for help.  These days, I’ve become pretty open about my struggles with clinical depression and anxiety disorder.  I’m taking active steps to help myself.  As a result, I’m sleeping better, going out and talking with people more, attending talks, waking up at a reasonable hour, and not spending 16+ hours in bed as I once used to.  But I still struggle with emotions that are difficult to write about here.

Anxiety, especially, still runs rampant in my daily life.  Naturally, I wanted to erase everything that triggered fight-or-flight, panic-attack-like symptoms in me – that meant not reading academic papers, not going to talks, not getting various academic forms signed, and cutting off communication from everything related to lab work.  Even a simple text message from my labmates evoked a physical reaction from me.  On two separate occasions, I went over ten days without checking my email because I just didn’t want to see or read anything from my program or related to school.

In a sudden moment of clarity, I realized what I was doing.

손바닥으로 하늘을 가리려한다.

Literally:  “Covering the sky with the palm of my hand.”  That is, I have been trying to deny the existence of the sky, by merely covering my eyes.  In reality, the sky is always there and I’m the pretending it doesn’t because I don’t want to face it or accept it.  I am ignoring the obvious.

It’s like those emails.  Because I didn’t want to deal with them, I never checked my email and it was as if they didn’t exist.  But in reality, they were sitting neglected in my inbox, growing in number every day.  Knowing that made me feel worse.  When I finally faced my inbox, it was so much more awful than it would have been had I just checked my email regularly.

In a deeper sense, I think this proverb reveals something about my life as a whole.  Something that I’m afraid to acknowledge about myself.  But that’s a battle to be fought on another day.

I talked once about Korean triggering my anxiety through negative associations with my academic life – it still does.  It makes me sad and frustrated because I can’t listen to the Busker Busker CD my friend gifted me with without my hands shaking and feeling sick to my stomach.  I feel like all the 욕심 I had for improving my Korean competency has been sucked dry.  But!  I’m experimenting with trying different Korean media – like I started reading more webcomics instead of novels, because I realized I didn’t have as much of a negative reaction to it.  Newer Korean bands and vocalists that I listen to don’t affect me as much either.  Overall, I’ve lost appeal for Korean dramas but, then again, I tentatively started 응답하라 1994 the other day and thought it was delightful.

So… I have confidence that I can go back to loving this language.  I don’t think I can ever permanently erase it from my life; I just need to remember the things I loved about it in the first place and not let the rest of my life get in the way of something I was once passionate about.

Sigh.  Tell me I’m not the only one suffering from a quarter-life crisis?  Best wishes to all of you battling your twenties.


It’s been a really really long time since I’ve been this obsessed with an anime series.  Last month I started watching Shingeki no Kyojin on a whim and… well, my life hasn’t been the same since.  Heh.


その日 人類は思い出した、 ヤツらに支配されていた恐怖を。 鳥籠の中に囚われていた屈辱を。
On that day, humanity remembered the terror of being ruled by them, the humiliation of being held captive in cage.

Thus started the first episode of arguably the most epic anime of 2013.

SNK is so hyped these days that even I somehow came to know about it, even though I have been totally out of loop with anime/manga since high school.  I watched it with no prior knowledge of the plot and, let me tell you, that first episode sucked me in so fast that I spent 6 straight hours watching all the episodes that had aired in one day.  I resisted reading the manga for a couple weeks before caving and spending 2 sleepless days catching up on all the chapters.  I now spend a considerable amount of my free time sobbing over fan art, watching interviews with the seiyuuswriting fan fiction, agonizing over cosplay, and listening to every rendition of “Guren no Yumiya” I can find.  This anime has one of the best OSTs I’ve ever heard, in addition to gorgeous animation and a gripping story.

In a line, the plot is about humanity fighting to survive in a world populated by strange, man-eating giants called titans (kyojin).

And it’s so good to hear Japanese again.

Honestly, I never focused my efforts enough in Japanese to progress past the beginning level.  That, and I just find Japanese very difficult.  Mad respect for my fellow language learners who are studying Japanese.

But I am starting to realize that I can recognize more and more grammar patterns and I can pick up more and more nouns/adjectives/verbs quickly.  I can recognize words that sound similar to their Korean counterparts.  Radio dramas are getting slightly easier to understand too.

When I’m watching a show and hear a string of dialogue, I can more often than not figure out the meaning of single words using the subtitles.  Then I’d jot them down and later use a dictionary to make sure I got the definitions right.

This isn’t exactly exciting news except that it occurred to me today that I remember doing this exact same thing with Korean.  I’d make vocabulary lists in the middle of watching a drama and, depending on the drama, the more specialized the vocabulary would be (i.e. a detective drama would teach me words like ‘murder’, ‘detective,’ etc.)

I don’t do this anymore with Korean (though I should) but doing this for Japanese, especially with this anime, makes me feel accomplished.  I think my listening skills have improved a lot!  It also helps that SNK has a number of memorable lines.


I will exterminate them… from this world… every single one!

One thing you miss out on if you use subtitles, is the derisive language Eren uses to talk about the titans, despite how fearsome they are.  Take the line above for example.

  • あいつら is a plural pronoun that has a very informal, almost contemptuous nuance to it.
  • VERB + てやる:  Doing a favor for someone lower than yourself; can sound insulting
  • 一匹「いっぴき」:  counter used for small animals

I think the use of 一匹 is pretty interesting, considering that the titans are gigantic.  You would think 一頭「いっとう」 would be more appropriate… but then again 一匹 is used also for demons and monsters so maybe titans fall under that category too.

There’s more vocab I picked up from SNK under the cut.  These are words that I heard repeated so many times, they just stuck.  Most of them are specific to the story, but still kinda fun to know.  If you’re at all into anime, I HIGHLY recommend this series.

Continue reading “進撃の単語”


Graduate school makes me sigh so hard my chest hurts.  It’s crushing to realize I’m starting my third year when academically, socially, financially, medically – basically in all aspects of my life, things haven’t improved or progressed in the slightest.  I feel myself unraveling.

What’s worse is that Korean, which used to be an anchor of sanity for me, is turning into a type of anxiety trigger.  It used to be the thing I could turn to when my day wasn’t going well or when I was feeling stressed out.  In that way, I inextricably linked a cherished passion with my lackluster academic life.  Now my Korean immersion actually induces stress because I’m beginning to associate Korean with all the negative emotions I have for grad school.

I’m finally taking a small vacation, and during the past weeks I’ve mostly avoided studying Korean.  Thankfully, I think it’s so prominent among my interests that it’ll be impossible for me to cut it out of my life entirely.  And of course, I have a lot of pleasant memories of Korean, which are collectively more potent than the grad-school-induced negativity I’ve come to associate with it.  My language partner, for one, is the main reason why I still have a smattering of Korean in my daily life.

A while back, I was talking to my language partner (who is also many years my 선배) about all these worries – basically how my research was falling apart, how I’m doubting my abilities as a scientist, how I’m nearly a year behind my peers, she comforted me with this four-character idiom:  대기만성 [大器晩成].

Looking at the Hanja, we have:

  • [큰 대]:  big
  •  [그릇 기]: ability, capability, caliber
  •  [저물 만]:  night; late
  •  [이룰 성]:  accomplish

큰 그릇을 만드는 데는 시간이 오래 걸린다는 뜻으로, 크게 될 사람은 늦게 이루어짐을 이르는 말.  In English, the meaning amounts to:  Great talents are slow to develop.

Regardless of the encouragements we may get from others, we’re all experts at doubting ourselves and thinking we’re not good enough for something.  But just because something is a struggle doesn’t mean you lack the talent or ability to do it.  It’s difficult, but I’m trying not to feel bad about how slowly my research is going and how many setbacks I’ve had compared to my peers.  It may take considerably more time, but hopefully my efforts will pay off and there will come a day my abilities will shine.

Status update

It’s 12:30 AM and I may or may not be eating Cheez-Its out of the box at this very moment.

Lots of stupidity going on in my life.  Things have been tailspinning since February and I feel like I’m falling deeper and deeper into a hole I won’t be able to climb out of.  I think I’m going to have to make a major decision soon but, for once, I’d like to have the chance to choose one way or the other, and not be forced into one direction.  I dunno if I’m going to get that chance.

Anyway, this is a little potpourri post about what I’ve been up to with regards to my Korean studies/immersion.

1)   I’m starting to regularly watch things without subtitles. It’s liberating.  I find that often I don’t even notice the lack of subtitles.  This is nice because many of the drama sites I was using in the past are shutting down (RIP Dramacrazy), and it’s much easier to find raw episodes elsewhere within hours of it airing in Korea.  The only exception I make to this is mystery-thrillers because I want to get every detail of the plot revealed in the dialogue – though subtitles don’t always help in this case because they aren’t always accurate.  That aside,

2)  I am profoundly bored with almost everything that’s airing in K-dramaland at the moment.  Except Monstar which is so precious and endearing and refreshing and basically all the positive adjectives ever.  I watch 최고다, 이순신 bracingly, with one finger poised over the FF button, but I adore every second Jo Jung-seok’s on-screen.  I tried 너의 목소리가 들려 briefly but there’s something about it that just strikes me as… contrived?  I dunno.  Maybe it’s because I don’t like any of the actors.  The first few episodes did not get me emotionally invested whatsoever.

3)  I watched 파수꾼 recently and it shook me to the core. It’s up there as one of my top 5 film of all time.  It’s everything I could want in a film.  I don’t have proper words for it.  I’ve always felt more of a connection to Japanese films than I have to Korean films, but this is the first Korean film that’s really gripped me.

4)  I switch between Korean novels a lot but currently I’m reading 바람의 화원 and translating a bit here and there.  It’s fun learning art- and geometry-related vocabulary.

5)  My most recent auditory obsession is Dynamic Duo’s 7th album ‘Lucky Numbers.’  It is F-L-A-W-L-E-S-S.  If you haven’t already, check out their new single here.  Not sure if I’ve expressed how much I love Korean hiphop (and especially Amoeba Culture) on this blog, but there it is.  I’ve been listening to a lot of old Epik High lately too.

6)  As for idol music, I don’t really know what’s going but I think a few groups (B2ST! Which, tbh, I’m extra excited because of Monstar)  that I follow are planning on making their comebacks soon.  B.A.P. kind of blew me away with their new single.  I don’t even know what to think about these boys anymore – is there any concept they can’t pull off?  Other than that… I’m still listening to a lot of SHINee.  Still super impressed with how strong they came back this year.

7)  I’ve been listening to a lot of 유인나의 볼륨을 높여요, while I’m walking to lab, on the bus, while I’m doing experiments.  It’s nice to fall asleep to too.

8)  I skype regularly with my language partner.  When we talk, on her part, it’s roughly 50% Korean, 50% English (though it varies – when she’s excited it’s like 3% English.)  On my part it’s 5% Korean, 95% English because I still struggle with having a real-time spoken conversation in Korean.  But my language partner’s good at forcing me out of my comfort zone.  She’s often like, “Okay for five minutes, let’s use Korean only!” One thing I’ve noticed about my language partner.  Personally I… I think I’m pretty decent at Korean for a self-studying, non-Korean person, but my language partner compliments me only very rarely.  It’s nice!  If I show her something I’ve written, or I say something, it’s like she acknowledges it for what it is without the label of ‘oh this is good for a non-Korean person.’  If that makes sense.  I feel like she holds me to the same standards as a native speaker, which might seem a little unfair, but then again I do the same for her in English.  That’s the best way we can improve ourselves.

9)  A couple months ago, I tried making a facebook page for this blog… and then promptly took it down.  I decided it was kind of boring and I’d rather not log in to facebook more than I need to.  Heh.  Instead, y’all can talk to me as much as you want here.

10)  THANK YOU to M and Curioser and Curiosor for nominating me for the Liebster Award – the post has been sitting in my drafts for months now and I just haven’t had the drive to finish it yet.  Someday!

Okay that’s it for now.  More coherent posts to come in the future (hopefully).