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.

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.

Drama: Biscuit Teacher & Star Candy

I like watching two dramas at the same time – a new one that’s currently airing and an old one to watch while I’m waiting for episodes/subs.  In the middle of Dream High, I started watching 건빵선생과 별사탕 (SBS 2005), which is literally translated as Biscuit Teacher and Star Candy but is often also known as Hello My Teacher.  Oh my gosh.  I love this drama so much.  I can’t even articulate how much I love it, especially the adorable, happily-ever-after ending.  It’s easily one of the best dramas I’ve ever seen!

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Movie: Cyrano Dating Agency (2010)

So I finally got around to watching 시라노 연애조작단 (Cyrano Dating Agency)! I’m not really into Korean films as much as I am into K-dramas but I really wanted to give this a try because of the awesome cast and the cute plotline. And, of course, I made my vocabulary list as I was watching!


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