New Language Challenge Begins: Fluency In Korean

  • Donovan Nagel
    Written byDonovan Nagel
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New Language Challenge Begins: Fluency In Korean

안녕하세요! 🙂

It’s just about time to officially commence another ‘Eastern’ immersion experience.

In less than 2 days I’ll be boarding a plane to what will be likely be my new home and travel base for the next 12 months – South Korea.

This is a country I’ve never stepped foot in and a language that is unrelated to any that I’ve ever studied so I’m really excited to take up this challenge!

Even though I announced my intention to start learning Korean a few months back, I haven’t given it a lot of time because I’ve been really focused on Irish so even though I can read the alphabet and know how to say a few basic things I am pretty much starting from the beginning with this one.

Of course I’ll be sharing a lot over the coming months here about the Korean language and culture, my progress and plenty of interesting HD video too.

Korean Language

I’ll be journeying around a bit to meet up with various people who you might recognize as well so stay tuned for that 🙂

UPDATE: I succeeded in my mission to learn Korean after less than a year. See here.

Where in Korea am I going?

When I wrote about getting the most out of an immersion trip before, I talked about how it’s a good idea to avoid major metropolitan areas if you want to really better your language learning experience. Stick to smaller places where the locals find you to be more intriguing and are less likely to speak your native language fluently.

I’ve never been a big city person.

I love visiting those places but living mid to long term in a concrete chicken cage packed into a densely populated metropolis would never be my ideal and my experience tells me that building good relationships with the local community is far less likely to happen there.


I’m heading to a small town called Gumi, right near the center of the country in the Gyeongsangbuk province (about half an hour out of Daegu).

It’s not a village by any means though as the population is around 400,000 (I’ve lived in smaller places like Rustavi, Georgia which had a population of 120,000 and El-Fashn in Egypt with only 60,000) but it’s small enough and the central location means that cities like Busan, Daegu and Seoul aren’t too far away.

I’ll be moving into my new apartment there this weekend if all goes according to plan and will be shopping around for a new motorbike or scooter so I can move around a lot easier. 🙂

How I intend to tackle the Korean language

The number one complaint I’ve heard about Korean from other learners is that its grammar is very tough.

Korean’s an agglutinative language with a very different word order to English and an honorifics system that tends to worry a lot of people.

The FSI (Foreign Service Institute) places Korean in its “superhard” category along with Arabic, Mandarin and Japanese for native English speakers.

I don’t place a lot of faith in FSI however because as I’ve already pointed out, its categorization of Arabic is absurd (UPDATE: Korean is way easier than I thought).

From what I’ve seen so far, the Korean alphabet is as logical and straightforward as the Arabic script is so this categorization surely can’t be based on reading difficulty alone. I’m sure that Korean grammar would be a mammoth challenge for people to overcome but this is only going to be the case for people who actually take a grammar-based approach to learning a foreign language in the first place.

I do not.

Grammar study is entirely unnecessary in the early stages and in fact I’m convinced that it’s the worst thing you can do if all you want is to learn how to become conversationally fluent.

I’ve just demonstrated success with Irish in only 10 months of learning at home (despite minimal practice) having never really studied its grammar at all (in fact the only time I did study grammar was two weeks ago at an immersion course in Ireland where I had no choice).

My approach to Korean will be no different.

Rather than sit around pulling my hair out over speech levels, complex grammar rules, memorizing lists and making little progress toward conversational fluency, I’ll be tackling Korean the same way I’ve tackled Irish over the last year but this time I expect to make much faster progress for the obvious reason that I’ll be able to step outside my front door and practice whenever I want to.

I’m sure that a few veterans of the Korean language and critics will raise the issue of the honorifics system (the various degrees of formality depending on the social status of the subject). I don’t doubt that it’s difficult for learners.

I’ll talk in detail about this soon but for now my response (as with any language) is simply:

1. Learn formal forms first.

2. You’re obviously a foreigner learning the language so peoples’ tolerance for your formality errors is always going to be much higher than it would be for a native speaker regardless of where you are in the world.

I’ll be making regular updates both here and on the Facebook page about the Korean language (with video) and as always I’d love to hear any experienced input and advice from people.

If you’ve got suggestions on books, films, places, people, etc. that I should check out or review, fire off an email to me or share it in the comments section below.

Korean resources

To be honest, I haven’t got a lot to say about resources at this stage as I deliberately held off on buying books to avoid weighing my luggage down.

Quite a few people have suggested the Sogang series which apparently has less of a grammar focus so that will be the first one I check out.

The only book I have armed myself with at this stage is Essential Korean – Speak Korean With Confidence which is the clearest, most detailed phrasebook I’ve managed to find so far (it cost me $9).

I’ve become a fan of the website Talk To Me In Korean which is a phenomenally good, free resource run by fellow polyglot, Hyunwoo Sun. I’m hoping to meet up with him and the others at the LanguageCast polyglot meetups in Seoul and Busan while I’m there to learn more about the great work they’ve been doing.

Edit: Just found this online Korean course to be really comprehensive.

Any further suggestions of excellent quality Korean resources would be most welcome. 🙂

Other huge language goals for my time in Korea

The next 6-12 months will be absolutely critical for my Arabic as I need to sit an advanced level exam when I get back to Australia (my employability actually depends on this). I’ll be taking regular time out over the coming months to invest heavily into polishing up my Arabic skills (mainly MSA but also acquiring a lot more dialect vocabulary).

If any of you reading this know of an Arabic-speaking community in South Korea (I’m sure there is such a thing!) let me know. 🙂

As I’m hoping to make it back to the Gaeltacht next year, I’ll be working hard on my Irish as well while in Korea through regular Skype lessons and chatting with friends.

I’d like to at least be ready to sit a B2 exam for Irish so I’ll continue to improve as much as possible for that (although I don’t think the next available exam date for me will be until January 2014 so I’ve got more than enough time :)).

I’ll also be taking occasional time out to work on my Georgian and French, hopefully getting in some good practice at the LanguageCast meetups I mentioned above.

As for other East Asian languages (particularly my dormant, abandoned Mandarin), we’ll see what opportunities arise over the coming 12 months.

Now… I’ll close this one off with some Kim Sarang (김사랑)

Any suggestions on Korean bands of this style are also welcome 🙂

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Donovan Nagel
Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
Currently learning: Greek


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I am so jealous! I’m learning Korean now from home, using Integrated Korean for grammar, Skype with people I’m met through, and the Hippocrene Korean Standard Dictionary (the only one organized by Hangeul that I could find, but I don’t like the font). I’m absolutely loving the process of learning this language. Not being in a position to travel and living in a small town with no Korean population, it will take me longer than I would like, but I hope to make fast enough progress to start learning Vietnamese within the next few years.

I am learning languages based on places I want to travel to in the hopes of having a better experience if I know the language, not knowing how much time I will have in each place since I cannot know what the future holds :)



Hi Theresa :)

It’s definitely more of a challenge when you’re isolated from the target language community but thankfully I’ve found Koreans to be really enthusiastic about helping people (both the ones I’ve met here in Korea and back home in Australia). It’s great that you’ve been able to find Skype partners.

I’ve only been here for a few days and I love this place already.

I’ll be uploading lots of video over the coming weeks and months about the Korean language and culture so keep checking back :)



Hi again. I forgot to add that I can’t recommend enough that you learn Hangeul. I hate hate hate the Romanization of Korean. In my opinion, the two traditional methods of Romanizing Korean don’t reflect the real language in any meaningful way, the pronunciation is confusing at best, wrong at worst, and it’s very difficult to look things up in a Romanized dictionary. Also, Hangeul is cool! :)



I agree with you on that one. I can’t stand reading transliterations in any language. I’m quickly getting better at Hangeul because of all the signs here :)

Elizabeth Gray

Elizabeth Gray

Hello Donovan,

I’ve been following your blog for a while, and I’m excited to learn that you’ll be moving to Korea. Personally, I live in Seoul and I try to make it to the LanguageCast meetings as often as I can. I hope I get a chance to meet you at some point. I’m American, but I certainly wouldn’t mind talking to you in French (that way we both get some practice in).

Have a safe trip,



Thanks Liz.

It’ll be great to meet you. Looking forward to it :)

Polyglot Link

Polyglot Link

I don’t have any tips, but Korean is definitely on my hitlist (I have a fascination with different language scripts), so I’ll be following it with great interest!

If you find any good music, please share.

But most of all good luck!



Thanks, mate :)



Hey Donovan,

First of all, thank you for all your great posts! I really agree with the idea that you’re trying to inculcate - Don’t focus too much on grammar, focus on getting used to the sound and HEARING the language.

I was born Chinese so Mandarin is my first language, and when I immigrated to Canada I picked up English relatively fast. With hindsight, it DID seem like you are right! I never learned English grammar or took any grammar lessons, I just kept speaking and writing the language, making plenty of mistakes along the way, eventually going from speaking broken to fluent English. My parents ask me “how did you become proficient in English grammar? We’ve been studying English grammar for years!” I shrugged and smiled at them, “time does wonders.” Also, I spoke more than I studied the language. However, I did spend a lot of time acquiring vocabulary, I think that is essential to learning the language as a non-native speaker.

I am currently learning Japanese on my own, and heck, is it hard! Japanese is somewhat similar to French in terms of complex conjugations, and I’ve studied French in middle school. I don’t know, but sometimes I really wonder how do Japanese children learn the complex grammar? I mean I tried really hard to recall the way I learned Mandarin as a child, but in my opinion Mandarin is just too easy compared to Japanese! It has no grammar! It has no verb conjugation! So I was never faced with such problem in the first place, and thus I absolutely have no experience learning a language with a extremely complex grammatical system. English has some conjugations, but not to the extent of “conditional“, “provisional”, “subjunctive” and things like that. Plus Japanese also has honorific which makes it twice as hard.

I would like to know, how do French kids, Japanese kids, or kids whose first language requires heavy conjugation learn the language? Is it still by mimicking adults that they manage to do this? But it just seems too intimidating and a little hard to believe that KIDS can pick up SUCH complicated grammar without ever learning grammar.

Please enlighten me,





Hey Lilly!

Sorry for the late reply. Thanks for the compliment on the posts :)

It is exactly the same no matter what the grammar’s like. Grammar complexity is irrelevant. The Japanese kids learned Japanese the same way you learned Mandarin - they just repeated what they heard their parents say, making lots of mistakes and over time became native speakers. There’s no difference in the way they learn.

Forget about the honorific system and all the complexities - just focus on one formal style of speaking and repeat content exactly as you hear it from native speakers (and the dialogues on your course books). Over time, everything else will work itself out.

This is my approach to Korean (which is as complex as Japanese). I arrived here in Korea less than 5 days ago and could only say a few basic phrases but I’ve already absorbed huge amounts of the language (with limited time because I’ve been busy starting my new job and organizing my apartment).

I’ll post videos every couple of weeks so you can see the progress I’m making without grammar study.

Hopefully I’ll make it to Japan soon too :)



Hey Donovan, sounds like a cool new adventure. I taught English on that little Japanese island just SE of Busan called Tsushima (you can see it from Busan) for a year. It’s a beautiful little island and there is a strong Korean influence (many of the Japanese students learn Korean in addition to English and there’s always loads of tourists form Korea visiting). When I was living there there were ferries (2 hour one-way trip I think) that go from Busan to Tsushima so you should try to hop on one if you get a chance to check it out. And if you make it out to Jeju island, I’d love to hear what you think. Always wanted to go there, but never made it out. Good luck with your new mission!




I’m definitely planning to head to Jeju although the locals are telling me that the Jeju dialect is so different to mainland Korean that nobody here understands it. Apparently it’s heavily influenced by Japanese. Should be a nice weekend trip though :)



Japanese has a reputation for being very difficult and, as you noted, it’s ranked by FSI as being in the ultra-hard category along with Korean, and I completely disagree with that, at least as it concerns spoken Japanese. Written Japanese I could see, because of the writing system, but the language itself uses very simple grammar and it doesn’t have any phonemes that English doesn’t, so it’s actually really easy for an English-speaker to learn to speak because you don’t have to learn to make any new noises like the “r” in French or Spanish. From what I understand Korean is somewhat related to Japanese and if the grammar is at all similar then I don’t know what the hell this “Korean grammar is crazy hard” crap is because Japanese grammar is among the simplest in the world.

I’ve heard the Koreans can be very xenophobic, and you’re going some place other than Seoul (Seoul’s the only city where they’re at least somewhat used to seeing foreigners, from what I hear) so this should be might do well with the girls, though ;)

Looking forward to hearing your reports.





I haven’t experienced any ‘xenophobia’ or mistreatment so far. People seem lovely. Georgia was probably the most ‘xenophobic’ (I don’t like that word!) country I’ve been in but I loved it there.

Japanese and Chinese writing is difficult and there’s no way around it because they’re character-based. Korean on the other hand has an alphabet which is really easy to learn.

Looking forward to sharing my experience with you too :)




I’m jealous!! What an amazing opportunity.

I’ve got to focus more on setting up my life so I can spend most of it moving around, studying languages. I’ve been in the same city now for a year (although had 3-4 months of total travel time) and I’m getting anxious.

Congrats on setting this up,




Thanks Jared.

Just got in last night and already loving the place. :)

Have you made any plans yet to head to Italy for some practice?

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