Category: Korean

No more “mental translation”

If I’m being honest with myself, I haven’t really touched the Korean language books I bought back in April.  I do occasionally flip through them, but I can’t bring myself to take notes or work on the exercises.  I don’t know if it’s because I prefer the more dangerous route of context learning… that is, not really reading proper grammar explanations, but “inferring” them from reading and/or listening to A LOT of Korean.  The reason I consider this somewhat dangerous is that it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking you know how to use a certain phrase or grammar point, but in reality you’ve failed to grasp its subtleties and proper usage.  Until recently, I felt like my Korean progress stagnated because I haven’t touched my grammar books.

But something has clearly changed in the past couple months.

I find that my brain is starting to comprehend Korean better.  I’m not sure if I’m expressing this the right way but… well, before, when I was watching a drama, whenever I came across a phrase I would understand, I would pause the video, mentally translate the Korean phrase into English, and then move on.  The same thing would happen when I read.   I’d come across a sentence in Korean, pause, translate and rearrange the phrases so it made sense in English, comprehend, and then continue onto the next sentence.

Now when I watch a drama, I can understand a lot of what’s being said without the need for this “mental translation.”  I can actually understand real-time Korean!  It’s amazing how my mind seems to go blank when I’m watching  a Korean drama, just like when I watch something in English.  What used to be an active language-learning endeavor for me is slowly becoming more and more passive.  Sometimes I don’t even notice that I’m not reading the subtitles.  Now if only I can learn words faster so I can do away with subtitles completely!!  My reading has gotten more fluent as well.  If I know all the words, I usually don’t have to stop and mentally translate whatever I’m reading.  In fact, my brain seems to have developed a contextual “sense” of some of the difficult-to-translate Korean words and phrases.  That is, I can read and comprehend certain phrases in Korean, without needing to mentally translate – because the mental translation itself would be weird in English.

As for writing, I think I only started writing longer, essay-type compositions after I did away with mental translation; before then, I just didn’t have the confidence to write anything because I knew my “ear” for Korean writing hadn’t developed yet.  Sadly, my Korean speaking is nonexistent so I have no idea how much I can think on my feet in Korean without thinking about what I want to say in English first.  I think I’d be really horrible at carrying a real-time conversation in Korean.

I’m still working on being able to comprehend Korean fully without having to resort to mental translation.  Sometimes, with more complicated words, I find myself going back to thinking in English and usually end up confusing myself.  I can only hope with more reading and listening practice, I’ll get better at this!

Chrome Add-On: Pop-Up Dictionary (via Jeanne’s Korean Learning Journey)

This is seriously the best thing I’ve ever come across. Thank you so much, Jeanne!!

Chrome Add-On: Pop-Up Dictionary Ever since my Japanese-learning friend bragged about pop-up dictionary Rikaichan or something, I’ve been looking around for something similar for Korean, in vain… Until now. Seriously, why didn’t anyone tell me about it? A free Chrome add-on (though I’m pretty sure that other browsers have it too) allows you to double-click on a Korean word and have its dictionary entry opened right away, in a little pop-up window. Easy-peasy, and you’re not ev … Read More

via Jeanne’s Korean Learning Journey


What’s in a name?

One of the reasons I love watching Korean and Japanese dramas is because language often plays a role in the progression of a relationship.  Sometimes within just sixteen episodes of a Korean drama, we can hear the shift from honorific language to polite language to plain language; and, I don’t know if it’s just me, but hearing the change from polite to intimate language makes me giggle and spazz and flail more than physical displays of affection.

In particular, I love hearing the use of honorific suffixes.  I’m sure students of the Korean and/or Japanese language are no strangers to honorific suffixes.  In Japanese we have most commonly  さま (sama)、さん (san)、くん (kun)、ちゃん (chan)、先生 (sensei)、先輩 (senpai) and, unless you’re addressing a peer by his/her last name only, it’s pretty uncommon to hear a name without one of these suffixes.  In Korean, we mostly see 씨 (ssi), 군/양 (goon/yang), -님 (-nim), 선생 (seonsaeng), and 선배 (sunbae), which are similar to but do not directly parallel their Japanese counterparts.  Another related concept is that of occupational titles.  I know in Korean at least, it’s not uncommon to address a person by his/her title such as 양 작가 (Writer Yang) or 김 검사님 (Prosecutor Kim).

Anyway, I love that the intimacy between two characters can be shown through the use (or lack) of honorific suffixes.  For example, I always found it amazing that couples in Japanese anime or dramas would address each other by their last names even though they were “dating.”  For example when I was reading 君に届け (Kimi ni todoke), Kazehaya and Kuronuma fantasized about calling each other by their first names (no honorifics) but just the thought would make them blush, as if it was too intimate to even think about.

In Korean dramas, I’ll admit the most heart-fluttering moment for me is when the guy drops honorifics with the girl.  Best example of this?  Lie To Me.  Throughout the first half, we have Kang Ji-hwan’s character calling Yoon Eun-hye’s character “Gong Ah-jung ssi” and then when he suddenly starts calling her “Ah-jung-ah,” not just once but over and over again?  I just about melted.  Clearly, it had that effect on Ah-jung too, since she kept replaying the recording of him saying the diminutive form her name.

Another one of my favorite examples is in 건빵선생과 별사탕 (Biscuit Teacher and Star Candy) when Tae-in says “Na Bori ssi” instead of “Na Bori seonsaeng-nim,” showing that he regards their relationship as that of a man and woman instead of  student-teacher.  This type of courtship is something you can only appreciate if you understand the language and  the culture to some extent.  And to someone who grew up in a culture that oversexualizes everything, it’s refreshing to watch romance unfold through language.  It almost makes me cry with happiness.

Romance aside, I also love relationship terms following a person’s name:  오빠 (oppa), 언니 (unnie), 형 (hyung), 누나 (noona), all of those terms literally make me squeal.  I remember being surprised but also happy when a Korean-American friend of mine called me 언니 once when we were chatting in Korean, even though I’m not Korean myself.  Haha.  All of a sudden, it made me want to act all elder-sisterly.

In Act II scene 2 of Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare writes “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose //By any other name would smell as sweet” to mean that an object is an object, regardless of what it is called.  Though that may be the case in English, we see that in other languages, how one uses another’s  name is indeed a significant matter to consider.  Whether or not you say that person’s name with an honorific suffix, an occupational title, or a relationship term matters.  Whether or not you say that person’s name at all matters too. In Korean and Japanese, the way a person addresses you can give you insight into how that person perceives your relationship with him/her.  It can be a tricky thing to grasp… but I still wish English had some sort of thing like it.

Learning versus memorizing

When I first started out learning Korean,  I learned most of my grammar and vocabulary by translating Korean songs.  These days, I pick up new words by reading books, 만화, articles, and watching interviews and reality shows.  But the critical question is, of course, how does one retain this seemingly endless onslaught of unfamiliar words?  With regards to that, I’ve seen that there are usually two factions of language-learners:  those who swear by flashcards and those who condemn them.  I fall under the latter category.

Honestly, I like to think I have a fairly good memory (you can’t really be a scientist without one heh) but I just cannot memorize decks and decks of flashcards and store them in my long-term memory.  And this problem isn’t just limited to Korean.  I made about 200 flashcards in order to study vocabulary for the GRE but the only words I could remember consistently were the ones I had encountered while reading something.  Why was this the case?  I strongly believe it was because I was incapable of just memorizing definitions; I had to actually learn how to use the words for it to stick.

The general way I go about learning new vocabulary is this:  I pick a song or an article or a passage out of a book and write down all the words I don’t know.  Then I look up the words in a dictionary and write down the part of speech and the definition that most closely matches the context of the word.  I don’t bother with writing down numerous example sentences (maybe one or two); the main example is already in the original source.  After that, I DO NOT SPEND HOURS MEMORIZING THE WORDS I’VE LOOKED UP.  I’m a huge proponent of learning a language organically – that is, not really forcing yourself to sit down and STUDY (I mean, unless you’re in a language class or something.)  My language acquisition process is kind of undisciplined in that regard.

But despite that, I noticed the more I read, the more I would come across a certain new word or phrase I’d just looked up in the dictionary.  Sometimes while I watched a drama, I would start picking out those newly-encountered words in the dialogue as well.  Soon, I would develop a fairly good sense of not only the definition of the word, but also its nuance and the context in which it’s usually used.  That right there is the difference between memorizing vocabulary and learning vocabulary.  To me, memorizing is superficial recollection of the definition of a word through repetition but learning implies that you know how to correctly use the word yourself in different contexts.  That sort of solid, thorough understanding cannot be attained by merely seeing the word once, noting its definition, and then losing it in a stack of 200 flashcards.  It’s critical that one develops a deeper knowledge of how the word is used by encountering it in not just one but several different circumstances.

Nouns don’t present that much of a challenge; in fact, I would say that flashcards are effective for the rote memorization of nouns.  But one has to be careful to learn how to appropriately use certain adjectives and verbs.  When I wrote my entries for Lang-8, I tried to use only the words I felt I had learned well enough to use correctly (you might argue this defeats the purpose of Lang-8, but I’ve noticed that many native speakers just correct a misused word without really explaining why).  I only looked up nouns and avoided looking up adjectives and verbs.  Undoubtedly, the one unfamiliar adjective I used, I had used incorrectly.

Of course, I’m not saying there’s no merit in flashcards.  In fact, I applaud you if you can retain new words in your long-term memory with just rote memorization (I can’t, no matter how hard I try.)  Flashcard proponents may also argue that it’s fine to quickly and steadily build a base of words that you “semi-know” (i.e. know only the basic definition but don’t use that much) and then wait for the deeper understanding (i.e. the nuance, stylistic usage) to come later.  I think that’s fine too, but personally, the only way I can remember a new word is if I learn its definition in tandem with how and in what context it’s used.

The only issue with my way of learning vocabulary is that it can be slow.  If I look up 100 new words in the span of a week, because I don’t force myself to memorize, I’ll probably only learn the twenty that I encounter over and over again.  But the advantage is that I usually end up knowing those 20 new words fairly well; they’ll be nestled in my long-term memory, ready to be used when needed.

Korean reality shows

As if being hooked to Korean dramas wasn’t bad enough, lately I’ve also found myself addicted to Korean reality-variety shows.   SIGH.  It all started with watching CNBLUE’s Jung Yonghwa and SNSD’s Seohyun on 우리 결혼했어요 (We Got Married).  I didn’t expect to be hooked but, well, I was barely one episode in and the damage was already done.  And now that one of my good friends has turned me into a legit SHINee fangirl, I’ve watched SHINee’s mini reality show 샤이니의 연하남, back from the time of their debut, and now I’m watching SHINee’s Hello Baby.

Aside from being just plain entertaining, I find that Korean reality shows also help me learn Korean better than dramas!  This is because of the existence of WONDERFUL, GLORIOUS KOREAN CAPTIONS.  Most of the shows I’ve watched tend to have captions that either match what someone’s saying word-for-word or that summarize whatever is going on in a particular situation.  In addition, there are other words or word bubbles that pop up on screen (I’m sure there’s an official word for this) around a person, usually describing their feelings or mood – words like 민망, 고민, 걱정, etc.  Captions and word bubbles make it so incredibly easy to look up words and build vocabulary faster.  And you may even find that you don’t rely on the English subtitles as much.

I’ve realized that with dramas, I’m at that awkward stage where I understand enough Korean to be sufficiently distracted by English subtitles (they’re actually really messing with my mind) but not good enough to follow what’s going on without them.  But when I watch Korean reality shows or interviews, the Korean captions have eliminated my dependence on English subtitles.  I first noticed this when I watched 불후의 명곡2 (Immortal Song 2) without subtitles a few days ago.  I guess my listening comprehension is actually better than I thought it would be because I found that most the time I could understand what was being spoken before I had time to read the captions.  But when I couldn’t understand what was going on, I just paused the video, read the caption, and looked up a few words here and there.  It was amazing!!

I really want to watch more Korean variety and/or reality shows so if you know any good ones, please recommend them!

Fishing for compliments

No matter what language you’re trying to learn, if you’re learning by yourself, you’re bound to get discouraged at some point – especially if it’s a language that you don’t get to practice on a daily basis.  Unless you have the opportunity to communicate with a native speaker, there’s still a degree of unreality, a sense of “foreignness” associated with that language that I feel has to be overcome before you can aim for fluency.  For example, when I first learned Hangeul, typed my first Korean sentence, and submitted it as a comment on TTMIK, I still felt like I didn’t know what I was doing – until one of the teachers replied back.  It’s really hard to describe the amazing feeling of being understood by native speakers of the language you’re studying.  That, in itself, was a powerful motivation to learn more and to keep improving.

I don’t live in Korea nor do I really live in place populated with many Koreans but still, as I learned more Korean, I kept trying to find ways to communicate with native speakers.  (My best friend is Korean-American, but she’s also a second-year medical student so I’d rather not bother her!)  I’ve talked to some people on Twitter, left comments on Talk To Me In Korean, communicated with my fellow Korean-language bloggers, posted on Lang-8, and even messaged people on tumblr.  I’ve been so fortunate to get incredible feedback from so many people.  One person mistook me for an actual Korean person!  And my fellow language-learners have been more than generous with their compliments.  I even received this incredible comment from someone on Lang-8 that nearly brought tears to my eyes.

정말 훌륭합니다. 1년밖에 배우지 않은 실력에 이렇게까지 쓸 수 있다니 놀랍습니다.

Sometimes, a person might just say 한국어 잘 하시네요 simply to be polite but even that can be encouraging to a self-learner.  What I’m trying to say is that when you feel deflated and discouraged some time during your language-learning pursuit, or when you just feel stuck in a rut, FISH FOR COMPLIMENTS.  Not in the crude sense of belittling your ability in order to be complimented – rather, put yourself out there to the language-learning community, to the community of native speakers to be motivated.  Sometimes that motivation is a compliment, sometimes it’s a correction or a suggestion, or sometimes it’s just an answer to a comment or question you made in the language you’re learning.  Nothing is more motivating than being able to communicate in the language you labored to study by yourself.  The important thing is to not just bury yourself in an academic atmosphere of language-learning – among books, professors, and exams.

Of course, after reaching a more advanced level, compliments or communication without criticism, can be more frustrating than motivating; people tend to just say you’re good without giving you any points to improve on.  I’m guilty of that in English – I prefer not to point out every single English grammar and/or spelling mistake an advanced English-learner makes, even if he/she asks to be corrected.  For now, I don’t have to worry about that in Korean.  Whether it’s compliments or criticism, feedback of any kind always motivates me!

Translation Challenges

While tumblr is having another meltdown, I thought I should write another semi-intelligent post over here on wordpress, instead of spazzing about CNBLUE, BIGBANG, and SHINee.

I’m not an expert on translation nor am I really at the level where I can translate something with confidence.  But I do think it’s a good way to expose yourself to the language you’re learning, at least at the level of vocabulary and grammar.  In that aspect, I feel as if I have progressed somewhat in Korean, though not as fast as I would have liked.  It’s been about 1.5 years since I started teaching myself Korean and now I can usually understand about 85% of almost any Korean pop song on the first listen, 95% if I look at the lyrics.  (Falsettos and hardcore raps still trip me up though).

I used to do a lot of K-pop “translations” (basically looking up every word/grammar pattern I didn’t know and re-writing the song in English) but now I don’t feel the need to do it as much anymore since I basically understand the song.  But also because… well, sometimes it’s just hard translating Korean to English.  Why?  There are several reasons.

  1. relative clauses:  Korean uses a LOT of relative (noun-modifying) clauses and sometimes they can get so long that it just sounds awkward in English.  For example, I think Koreans are more likely to say “I am a person who never lies” rather than “I never lie.”  The nuance is slightly different but I think English uses fewer relative clauses, especially in casual conversation.  Korean also has a tendency to modify personal pronouns (I, he, she, etc.) which English doesn’t do so much.  For example, there’s a line from 하루하루 which goes “네가 없인 단 하루도 못 살것만 같았던 나” which literally translates to “I [the one] who thought I couldn’t live even a day without you – which just sounds WEIRD.  Most translations of this song get rid of the relative clause and just say “I thought I couldn’t live even a day without you.”  Another examples is the commonly used “널 사랑하는 나”  which translates to “I [the one] who loves you” but is often also translated as “the me who loves you” which is just ACCCKKK.
  2. untranslatable words/concepts:  I’m talking about songs that use distinctly Korean words like 존댓말, 반말, and relationship words like 누나/오빠.  Wikipedia actually translated SHINee’s “누난 너무 예뻐 (Replay)” as “Older girl, you’re so pretty.”  Awful. 
  3. synonymous words/phrases:  A lot of songs tend to use different words or phrases that mean essentially the same thing but carry different nuances.  Obviously, this is not unique to Korean but that nuance is often hard to translate into English without sounding awkward.  For example, 가슴 and 마음 is often used interchangeably in Korean and both can pretty much mean “heart” in English, depending on the context.  But if one song uses 가슴 sometimes and  마음 other times, it’s heard to denote that difference in English (you can’t really use “chest/breast” for 가슴 – it sounds unromantic.  So I end up using “heart” both times.  Is this an important distinction?  Maybe, maybe not.  Depends on the song.)  Sometimes there are A LOT of synonyms for one word and it’s really hard to get the nuance correct when you’re still learning the language.  (For example, how do you distinguish when to use “shining,” “glittering,” “glowing,” and “radiant”?)  More often than not, the song ends up sounding repetitive in English because you use the same word over and over again.
  4. missing pronouns:  This is usually something you can figure out if you pay attention to particles and the context but sometimes it’s not so easy!
  5. idioms, expressions, slang:  Kind of a given.  If a string of words sound a little odd next to each other, it’s usually an expression or idiom.  I usually just type the entire thing into the Naver or Daum dictionary and try to figure out the meaning from the examples that show up.
  6. words that sound awkward in English:  There are some words that do, technically, have definitions in English but sound just plain weird when they’re translated literally.  Because English doesn’t use certain words in certain contexts “naturally.”  I cringe whenever I see words like 욕하다, 설레다, 괜하다, and 서툰.   “욕하다” especially gets on my nerves because so many netizens translate this as “to curse” which sounds odd to me.  No one really says “Don’t curse/slander/speak badly about me” in English.
  7. ideophonic words:  I LOVE THESE WORDS.  (I want to do a separate post about these words… maybe in the future.)  So these kinds of words describe or evoke a sensation.  Korean has A LOT  of ideophonic words while English doesn’t have as many (the ones that do exist aren’t really used in daily conversation) so it can make translation a little difficult.  I usually end up substituting a nonideophonic words for an ideophonic one.  Examples include:  반짝반짝 (“glittering”), 두근두근 (“heart pounding”/nervousness), 짤랑짤랑 (“jingling”), 알랑알랑 (“with flattery”), 둥글둥글 (“roundly”/harmoniously), 꿀꿀 (“bubbling, gurgling”)
What about you guys?  What are some challenges you’ve faced while translating Korean (or any other language) to English?

Book Review: KLEAR Integrated Korean

About three weeks ago, I was super excited to finally get my new Korean textbooks!  I’d heard a lot about the KLEAR Integrated Korean series from a number of Korean learners online so I was curious to give it a try.  I know a lot of people have already reviewed this book but just thought I’d throw in my two cents.  Tons of pictures ahead…

Continue reading “Book Review: KLEAR Integrated Korean”

Interview with Jung Il Woo (Marie Claire)

Since I’m kind of obsessed with 49 Days‘ sassy Scheduler, I wanted to try my hand at translating an article about Jung Il Woo that I found in the April 2011 issue of Marie Claire Korea.  Well, clearly I bit off more than I could chew.  This was my first time attempting to read (and translate) a rather lengthy magazine article and I think I got the gist of it but there were A LOT of words I did not know.  I would say I had to look up about 10-15% of the words (around 170 words out of a total of 1200).  I would say I’m about 65-70% percent confident in my translation.  There were many things I was unsure of and probably could have phrased better… but this is only for my own personal practice.

Again, I cannot guarantee the accuracy of this translation.

Continue reading “Interview with Jung Il Woo (Marie Claire)”


Yesterday, I finished watching Devil Beside You – which, quite possibly, might be the last Taiwanese drama I’ll ever watch.  For reasons I won’t go into here.  Heh.

Anyway, I watched DBY with little to no knowledge of Chinese, other than basic “A is B”-type sentences so I was intrigued by the way the characters addressed each other.  Why did everyone call Jiang Meng “Ahmeng”?  Why was Yuan Yi so offended when Ahmeng called him “Ahyi”?  Why did Qi Yue’s friends alternatively call her Qi Yue and Xiao Yue?  Why was Yuan Yi the only one who called Qing Zi “Xiao Zi”?  You see what I’m getting at.

Well, I kind of figured out through context that ah (阿) and xiao (小) were diminutives, basically forms of words (usually names though they can be other nouns) that are used to signify either smallness or endearment/intimacy.  In fact, in Chinese xiao (小) actually means “small.”  What is interesting is that some languages, like English, do not have a strict way of forming diminutives while other languages, like Chinese, Korean, and Japanese do.

A lot of diminutives for proper names English (i.e. nicknames) end with an “-ie” sound.  Examples:  Christine = Christie; Samantha = Sammy.  Some other nouns follow this pattern as well, like cat = kitty.  But English doesn’t really have set rules for forming diminutives of proper nouns (nicknames just are what they are, I suppose).

Indian languages (e.g. Hindi, Marathi, Tamil, etc.)
Of course, I can’t forget to address my own native language…  Most Indian names have diminutives ending in a u (or sometimes ee or ya) sound, unless they are very short.  Since Indian names are usually quite long, the nickname is most commonly the first syllable + u.  Examples:  Ramachandran = Ramu; Ashwini = Ashu; Namrata = Namu.  BUT names like Satya, Puja, Meera, don’t usually change.

I have to say, however, unlike English, Japanese, Chinese, and Korean, Indian diminutives are almost always reserved for very close family members and sometimes very very close family friends.  Of course, a degree of familiarity is a prerequisite for nickname use in all cultures… but I just feel that most Indian people would not have even their closest friends call them using their diminutive nickname.  It’s almost always reserved for parents and grandparents; and once you get older, people tend to leave it off anyway.  (As an example, my mom and dad call me by my childhood nickname but my aunts and uncles do not.  Incidentally, you might be able to guess what that nickname is from what I’ve said here!)

Suffixes like kun (くん) and chan (ちゃん) are usually added to male and female names respectively to make them diminutive.  Sometimes ちゃん can be added to other nouns to make them sound “cute” (e.g. 猫ちゃん = kitty)

Like Chinese and Japanese, Korean has a pretty standard way of forming proper name diminutives – add 아 (ah) at the end of names ending in a consonant and 야 (yah) at the end of a name ending in a vowel.  In the case of Korean (though not in the other languages I’ve mentioned), this diminutive is also the vocative case – this is basically the form of the proper noun that you use to call a person.  In most languages, the diminutive and can be used either as the vocative case or not but in Korean, the 아/야 diminutive MUST also be the vocative case.  Korean also has a diminutive that is not vocative –  for names ending in consonants, you can add 이 (i).  This is how I understand it:

  1. 혜원가 김밥을 먹는다. (O)
    [Adding 이 to 혜원 makes it diminutive but it’s still nominative – meaning, it’s the subject of the sentence and therefore marked by the subject marking particle]
  2. 혜원,  김밥을 먹어라. (O)
    [Adding  아 to 혜원 makes the diminutive now vocative – meaning you are calling Hyewon to come eat kimbap.]
  3. 혜원, 김밥을 먹어라. (X…?)
    [Now that I think about it, I wonder if this is really wrong?  It sounds odd to me and I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say something like this.  Hm.]
  4. 혜원 김밥을 먹는다. (X)
    [This is definitely wrong because you only use 아 when you’re calling someone, not when that person is the subject of a sentence]

Whoops, sorry for the grammar overload.  I just find stuff like this interesting.  One of my favorite things to watch in Korean dramas is when 2 characters go from addressing someone as “so-and-so 씨” or by the full name  to the diminutive.  I remember feeling all giddy at the end of Full House when 영재 addresses 지은 as “한지은.. 지은아…”

Just another thing I enjoy about the Korean language, I guess.