Korean Wife Camp: Learning Hangeul & the Korean Language

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Learning Korean

In school, I studied French and Italian, and did well. Knowing some Italian made it easy to get around Mexico. I have a good ear. And I’ve always been curious about the challenge of learning a non-romanic language, and wanted badly to learn one… but learning a language without a readily available practical application for it seemed like a waste of time and energy. It would be too hard to keep up, and it wasn’t like I was going to change careers to make that language a new path for myself. Basically, learning a more exotic language, just to be able to say I did so, seemed like a fruitless exercise in ego. Can you imagine?

“I speak Aramaic, you know.”

“Oh cool, what do you use it for?”

“Um…” *crickets*

Then I met Paul. And BOOM. A reason to learn Korean came crashing into my life. As I mentioned in my first KWC post, Paul and his mother speak almost exclusively Korean when they’re together. We’re spending about 2 weeks in Seoul during our Honeymoon. And we definitely plan to raise our daughters to be bilingual from birth. I’ve picked up a few conversational words here and there… mostly from Paul and his mother, going out to eat at Korean restaurants, and watching K-dramas on DramaFever. But in order to get to a point of fluency, which is my end-goal, I had to get into a class. So I’ve plunged headfirst into the wild and wacky world of Hangeul: the Korean alphabet.

I started by enrolling in a class at the King Sejong Language Institute at the Korean Cultural Center of LA. Korean Cultural Centers all over the world offer language and culture classes at extremely affordable rates because they’re subsidized by the Korean government. So for a 12-week class, the cost was only $80, which is unheard of! But, the class pace was too slow for me, and the drive to Koreatown during rush hour was brutal. So, I looked for a more privatized option, and Tabitha from Winston and Main recommended I check out iTalki.com, which she was using to brush up her Japanese.

iTalki allows you to search for teachers based on the language you’d like to learn, and has detailed profiles for them including photos, credentials, student reviews, and even videos. You can buy trial lessons to sample up to 3 different teachers before settling on one, and take your lessons via skype or G+, allowing you to tap into teachers anywhere in the world. You can also find conversation buddies if you’re just looking to practice your language skills, or meet other people who speak the languages you fluently speak. The rates are extremely affordable for private lessons (usually $15-$25/hour, depending), and you can schedule as many or as few as you like per week, or sign up for a package deal.

I found my teacher, Zeanie Yoon, on iTalki, and she has been a total game-changer in my learning. Her ability to teach Korean with mnemonic devices, analogies, humor, and common sense really appeals to the ways I learn best; and having her full attention, rather than sharing it among a group, allows us to move much more quickly and focus on what will help me most practically, the fastest. I feel so lucky to have found her.

If you’re interested in learning a new language, or brushing up an old one, iTalki is running a special in the month of July – so if you use this link to go find a teacher, you get $10 in free credits to use on the site.

And if you’re curious about the basics of Hangeul…. here you go!

To break it down: Hangeul was developed by Sejong the Great, 4th King of the Joseon Dynasty. Han (한) meant “great” in archaic Korean, while geul (글) is the native Korean word for “script.” Unlike general phonemic writing systems such as the Roman Alphabet, it was uniquely designed to combine consonant letters and vowel letters into syllabic units. Hangeul is a very logical approach to the alphabet, because the consonant letters are based on the shape of the speech organ used to create the appropriate sound for it, such as the tongue, teeth, throat, lips, etc. It’s not an exact science, but knowing those correlations has helped me. The vowel shapes are said to be based on the 3 “elements” of fire, earth, and human. I find this to be far less helpful in learning their letters.

Consonant letters:
ㄱ ㄴ ㄷ ㄹ ㅁ ㅂ ㅅ ㅇ ㅈ ㅊ ㅋ ㅌ ㅍ ㅎ ㄲ ㄸ ㅃ ㅆ ㅉ
Vowel letters, dipthongs and thiphongs.
ㅏ ㅑ ㅓ ㅕ ㅗ ㅛ ㅜ ㅠ ㅣ ㅐ ㅒ ㅔ ㅖ ㅘ ㅙ ㅚ ㅜ ㅝ ㅞ ㅟ ㅢ

Until next time, 안녕히 가세요 (goodbye!)

Korean Wife Camp: Welcome!

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Welcome to a new column that I’m very excited about: Korean Wife Camp!

marrying into korean family

I’ve never had much of a culture of my own. I come from a Greek/Euro-mutt background, if you trace my blood lineage. I don’t belong to any one religion. And I’d say that culturally, I relate most to having been a born-and-bred Chicagoan. And believe you me, I had a thrilling time indoctrinating Paul into my world via Italian Beef sandwiches, Chicago-style hot dogs, deep dish pizza, and a city/skyline tour when we spent 2 weeks in the ole windy city last summer. (and gained about 10 pounds each! So. Worth. It.)

But Paul is first generation Korean-American. His parents immigrated here just before he was born, with no family or friends in Los Angeles to rely on. And after his father abandoned them both when Paul was just a baby, his mother Michelle had to work multiple jobs, while trying to learn English, to support her in raising Paul all by herself. And she did a BOSS job of raising him, by the way. She is a true hero of a woman and mother.

As a result, Paul’s primary language growing up was Korean. And to this day, when he and his mom get together, they speak Korean to each other. Michelle does speak English quite well, but it’s clear that she’s much more comfortable speaking in her native tongue, and spends most of her free time with Korean friends (when not spending time with her Argentina-native husband, Edgar). Fun fact: Michelle is an amazing ballroom dancer and scratch golfer – both skills she took up after Paul left home for college, to distract her from her sadness that he had moved out. She often stays out dancing until the wee hours, partying it up with her girlfriends in Koreatown. So cute, you guys.

Koreans have a huge amount of pride in their culture and it’s preservation and legacy, after having defended against many years of Japanese occupation and attempted assimilation. As well they should!

I have great respect for the Korean culture, so it’s very important to me that I learn as much as I can about it, to support the cultural legacy through our growing family by learning the language, preparing their foods (oh my god, the yummy foods!), teaching our future children about it, and taking them on trips to get to know their extended family there. My first trip is coming up this October, when we spend 16 nights in Seoul as part of our honeymoon! I can’t wait!

Over the past year, I’ve been learning, researching, practicing, exploring and trying as much as I can to become more schooled and comfortable in my position as the wife and daughter-in-law in a Korean family. And as the future matriarch of 1/2 korean children. And I figure, I’m not alone in this world… so I’ll share my journey, resources, and (best of all), recipes here. Thus: Korean Wife Camp was born!

Stay tuned… the first installment is coming up shortly!