Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Taking on a Second Asian Language - Help or Hurt?

My time studying Korean language at Sogang University has been everything I hoped it would be. Just as I was told by many of my friends, Sogang University’s Korean language program is intensive and focuses heavily on speech. Throughout the four hours of class a day we were constantly forced to get up and immediately use what we had been taught. Because of this, my proficiency has grown by leaps and bounds, and I am truly grateful to have had the chance to dedicate my time and energy to Korean language learning once again.

Having lived in Korea for almost a year back in 2005-2006, boarding the plane bound for Seoul at Dulles International Airport felt like I was heading back to my second home. At the time, I had a number of questions in my mind regarding my ability to study Korean effectively. After all, I’d spent the better part of the past four years studying Mandarin Chinese and I was unsure as to whether or not taking on a second Asian language would help or hurt the other. I’m happy to say that my knowledge of Mandarin has only been a tremendous aid in my Korean language learning.

A lot of people have asked me how East Asian languages, namely Chinese, Korean and Japanese, relate to each other and if studying one will help with learning another. As I have since proved for myself that it is beneficial, I’ll outline some of the similarities and differences that the Korean language shares with the other two and why knowing Mandarin has helped.

One major aspect of the Korean language that sets it apart from Chinese and Japanese is its unique alphabet. Yes, it has an alphabet. While Korean elites originally wrote using Chinese characters, a uniquely Korean writing system was created by scholars in the 15th century. This has been credited for drastically cutting down the number of headaches on the Korean peninsula! As opposed to cramming Chinese characters through rote memorization for years, the Korean alphabet can easily be learned in a day and it is possible to begin reading in less than a week.

However, while ties to Chinese in the written language have drastically diminished, it is said that up to 60% of contemporary Korean vocabulary is derived from Chinese and Chinese characters. This is where I have truly benefited. Time after time when I look through a new vocabulary list I can immediately recognize which words have come from Chinese based solely on how they sound. Any time I make this connection with a new word, I’m able to effectively skip my normal memorization routine. The words just stick and stay there. On top of this, there have been numerous times when I’ve been in conversation in Korean with someone, and I will be able to understand certain words I’ve never heard before because of the given context and the similarity in sound to Chinese. What a relief!

While Korean grammar is completely different from that of Chinese, Korean having a Subject à Object à Verb order (quite different from English), Japanese grammar and certainly word order is extremely close to Korean. Japanese also uses Chinese characters to a great degree in addition to their uniquely Japanese script. Who knows? Maybe I’ll put Japanese next on the list!

At any rate, I highly recommend both Sogang University’s Korean language program, and taking on a second (or third!) Asian language without reservation!

Caleb R. Dependahl

Double B.A. Asian Studies and Chinese Language & Literature 2012,

Sigur Center 2011 Korean Language Fellow, Sogang University, South Korea

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