The thread was mostly a debate about whether or not Korean was the hardest language in the world for a native English speaker, or at least whether it’s harder than Japanese and Mandarin. I always felt that Japanese and Mandarin must be harder than Korean, but I knew many forum members thought otherwise, particularly a number of those who had studied Korean, so I used the desire to find the answer to this question to help me learn the language. The thread gave me a lot of motivation and I’m grateful for that.
I just reached a level roughly equivalent to B2 in Korean. It took me 13 months. I don’t want to make it sound like it was a piece of cake. There are some major caveats. I put in 2300 hours in the first 12 months at home, followed by a leisurely month in Seoul. I’ve reached B2 in Japanese and Mandarin before. I’m an experienced learner with 9 languages under my belt, etc. But still, it only took 13 months, and I wanted to reply to this interesting thread since I finally feel qualified.
Kitchen.Sink wrote: I am highly amused by how you not only cherry pick my words and phrases to conveniently leave out the ends of my sentences, the part where I state that Korean is not difficult for those reasons though they might seem to be to the outsider, but I am also highly amused by how pedantic your tone is without even having studied Korean yourself.
IronFist wrote: There are too many posts in this thread that begin with "I've never studied Korean, but [I don't think it is as hard as people say]."
IronFist wrote: the people who haven't studied it really can't comment about how it's "not that hard" because it's basically the same as people watching UFC on TV and acting like they would be able to beat the guy who is fighting. On paper it all makes sense and is easy to analyze. Armchair quarterbacks.
Point taken, but now I’ve studied Korean to a B2 level, and my opinion hasn’t changed.
Kitchen.Sink wrote:After months of thinking about it, the reason why I find Korean so difficult is not the complex grammar or the massive list of vocabulary -- it is how Korean is spoken. I cannot identify word boundaries. This is a subtle point that most language learners overlook because it comes to us naturally. "Je m'appelle Francois", to hear this spoken in French is not difficult. Even a man who knows no French can hear the word boundaries, and by that, I mean, even if he does not know what "je" or "m'appelle" means, he can identify them as words.
With Korean, however, words blend into one another and sounds, very important sounds, get stifled under the breath of speakers who can mysteriously hear through all the mumbling. I have listened to hundreds upon hundreds of hours of Korean radio. Literally, I am not exaggerating this claim one bit. I have been listening to Korean news radio nearly everyday for three or four years. And even after all that time and effort I still can only make out a few words per day. That's right, a few words. Not sentences, not excerpts: mere words. I have listened to Japanese and Mandarin news radio for a fraction of that amount and can occasionally pick out sentences and can get the gist of what is being said overall. Not so with Korean. With Korean, I am almost as clueless as the day I started learning the language, so many years ago.
IronFist wrote:The problem with Korean, at least for me, is that it is spoken so quickly and in such a way that my brain, for some bizarre reason, just does not process precisely what is being said. Even with ample amounts of exposure. I have never encountered a language where I can listen to a sentence two dozen times and still not be entirely sure of the fundamental sounds that were spoken. It's bizarre, and it's something you cannot understand until you try to learn Korean for yourself.
Although they aren’t as distinct as Japanese word boundaries, I don’t find Korean word boundaries to be particularly problematic. I think the problems above can be solved by the same things that improve general listening. For example lots of normal listening and intensive listening while concurrently practicing all the other skills.
Kitchen.Sink wrote:With Korean, however, the mind has no foundation to settle on. For instance, the phrase "jaedongeul arabwa" can be emphasized in a seemingly endless number of ways, especially as one word bleeds into another without the slightest shift in emphasis or tone.
Balliballi wrote:the lack of intonation makes it hard to work out when a word ends and a new one starts. A typical Korean sentence sounds like a row of twenty-odd syllables that sound exactly alike in rhythm, stress and inflection. English is different because there is quite a lot of intonation in the language. In Korean, every syllable is given the same weight. So the effect is rather like a computer speaking - there is a staccato-like quality to the speech. Think of robots talking and you will know what I mean. The speech sounds very flat.
Balliballi wrote:News broadcasts are the worst. The newscasters speak in a very unemotional and even tone which makes the problem of distinguishing separate words even more problematic.
Because of the lack of intonation, you only know they have finished the sentence when they have actually finished it. With many other languages, there are clues that the sentence is coming to an end - a rise or a drop in pitch etc.
As in any language, there are prosody, rhythm, stress patterns at the sentence level that change the meaning or nuance of the sentence. Korean isn’t unusually difficult in this aspect imo. In the beginning, one should learn pronunciation at the sentence level by listening to and repeating lots of sentences.
Kitchen.Sink wrote:This does not even include the inexplicable shifts in sounds that Koreans like to perform as the whim strikes them. For instance, the "bwa" at the end of that sentence (봐) will sometimes get pronounced as "bwa", others times as "ba" (바). There is not necessarily a dialect that does this change consistently, there is no rule that you can learn, it's just something Koreans do, where if it's easier for their tongue to say it that way, they say it that way. To a native Korean speaker, the mind can intuitively figure out the irregularity. To someone studying Korean, it's a nightmare. The Koreans do this all the time. When women try to sound cute, they will sometimes pronounce "do" (도), meaning "also", as "du" (두), which could mean any number of things, depending on what came before it. They don't always do this consistently, sometimes they will even use these different forms in the very same sentence!
Balliballi wrote:The word for "prisoner" in Korean is "죄인". I thought it was spelled as "제인" just from the way the word was pronounced, and I, of course, could not find the word in the dictionary, which was annoying as I wanted to know how the word was written in Korean and not only how it was pronounced.
Another word I had this problem with was "귀신" (ghost). I thought it was spelled "기신" and I spent many frustrating minutes trying to find this word in the dictionary, which I ended up not doing.
Whenever there is a complex vowel that starts out with what would be a sort of “w” sound in English, it often gets reduced to drop the w in colloquial speech. For example, 와 – 아, 외 – 에, 위- 이, etc.
From what I’ve been told by tutors, there was some sort of spelling revision a while back, and many words that used to contain 우 got rewritten using 오. Many of these words still get pronounced 우 in colloquial speech.
Although these are annoying at first, they are very widespread, and our confusion resolves itself over time. I wouldn’t call it a nightmare.
Bao wrote:As far as I can tell, the m has roughly the same sound value each time in 'Moi, je m'appelle Armand', whereas the Korean m changes a lot depending on whether it is between vowels, a vowel or a consonant, at the beginning or end of a word group; and whether it is spoken quickly or slowly. When it's spoken quickly or between vowels, it is so short that it gets a nasal quality that sounds very much like a b to me. I can tell apart and produce m, b, p' and bb, but to me that's a four way distinction of sounds that do not match the phoneme inventory of any of my other languages, neither in their boundaries nor in their interaction. And that's just one group of sounds, there are several.
IronFist wrote: When you say something in Japanese, they know what you said. There aren't 4 consonants that all sound the same (to you, not to them), a bunch of other consonants that change into other consonants depending on where they are in a word or because the speaker just feels like pronouncing them differently, and there aren't 20+ vowels that just get slurred together any which way or dropped entirely.
These consonant problems are very manageable, provided you learn pronunciation at the phoneme level, and at the word level you understand the rules of thumb for change in pronunciation due to position. If you do this, listen a lot, do a lot of production, make an effort to always follow the rules when you produce then it will all work out.
Regarding the vowels getting slurred together or dropped, sure it happens, but to characterize the whole language that way, or to even call it a major problem for the learner is an exaggeration imo. I’ve done intensive listening and dug down into the reason I can’t understand stuff and can honestly say this issue has never made me miss the meaning of an entire sentence. It’s usually a word or two, sometimes a clause, but the sentence is still understandable. Granted there are some speakers who do this a lot, but most speakers do it infrequently.
galindo wrote:I've watched a few music videos in Korean with phonetic subtitles, and it's amazing how what I hear doesn't match up with what I see at all.
That’s a Romanization problem. Learn how it’s Romanized to solve this, although you’re better off not using it imo.
oolong tea wrote:You think that's hell, consider this: I purchased a novel, Alice in Wonderland in Korean. Now, it was translated from the said original but whenever I glance at the original, I'm stunned to see how little I understood. Plus, it's a book about nonsense, when it does make "sense", it never did. (Think about it)
That’s a reading comprehension problem. Vocabulary and grammar review are in order.
GREGORG4000 wrote: Vocabulary is killing me."강장", "건장", "정종", "공장", "전공", "간장", "조간", "존경", 등
IronFist wrote:Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that half of the language will sound like homonyms to you
Imo that would be inaccurate. If you learn the pronunciation up front as I suggested above this problem is greatly reduced, context and getting accustomed with the language does the rest.
IronFist wrote:Good luck looking it up in a dictionary because it's not even spelled that way.
There are only a few ways to spell a word phonetically, so this is not a big issue. It’s much easier to spell than Japanese, for example.
IronFist wrote:So the people here who say Korean is hard aren't idiots who just "don't know how to learn a language" or "don't have a good strategy."
Nobody is calling anyone an idiot. Based on the items you brought up I believe your strategy is flawed.
IronFist wrote:taking a break from Korean means forgetting what you know.
This could be true of any language depending on how low your level is and how long the break is.
IronFist wrote:listening to Korean TV doesn't help comprehension
I disagree. It takes a very long time to notice progress, but it certainly happens.
Balliballi wrote:Koreans tend to speak fast - very fast.
No faster than any other language, imo.
Balliballi wrote:Korean is very very hard on the ear. It is a grating language very different to say French or Farsi which have very soothing and elegant sounds that draw your ear to it. Korean is even more harsh sounding than German - actually that's not a good comparison - I like the sound of German, it is very pleasing to the ear - there are very nice sharp precise sounds that make it easy to listen to, a bit like the Japanese language which has these sharply defined syllables and a delivery which is precise and rhythmic.
crafedog wrote:Try saying 영화 to a native. They'll try correcting you as 영와
Imo, this is extremely unlikely. If you pronounce it 영화 they’ll understand you and probably leave you alone. If they feel the urge to make you more native like for some reason, they’ll probably tell you to say 영아.
IronFist wrote:N's and D's sound the same. For months, I thought the word for "yes" was "de."
This is just a nasal issue, one that most students get used to very early on.
IronFist wrote:For most of Pimsleur Korean I, I would have bet money that the word for "weather" was "dal-si" (dal-shi). Nope! It's "nal-ssi" (nal-sshi).
This is one of the reasons why I recommend using a transcript with Pimsleur, even if you have to make your own.
IronFist wrote:there are no rules, or that rules are extremely vague and anything goes.
I agree that there are often optional ways to pronounce things, but the options are limited, and you get used to them. I suspect there are rules for almost everything, but sometimes they are hard to find, and sometimes they are complicated enough to not bother with. As long as one studies and is diligent about pronunciation, these difficulties disappear with time. They aren’t a big time draw, just more of a temporary frustration.
IronFist wrote: It wasn't until the early 2000s that I found some Korean learning materials that were decent
These days Korean resources are excellent.
IronFist wrote:Many people say "Japanese is harder than Korean because of the kanji!!!" I guarantee you they have never studied both languages.
I have, and this statement is certainly true for me, and I believe it would be true for most westerners.
Kitchen.Sink wrote:leosmith wrote:I've had several friends who have studied Mandarin and Korean. They have said that Mandarin is harder all around, and especially in the beginning, citing much harder pronunciation. Actually, this forum is the only place I know that thinks Korean is the hardest language.
Your friends are free to have their opinions, but Korean being the hardest language for someone of a Western background is not at all a claim relegated to people on these forums.
Here's an interview with Barry Farber. Third question.What's the hardest language you've ever attacked? For two different reasons, Finnish and Korean.http://meadowparty.com/farber.html
Read what Professor Arguelles, a polyglot who used to post on these forums had to say.http://how-to-learn-any-language.com/forum/forum_posts.asp?T ID=10
The Defense Language Institute.Korean is the hardest language here, apparently it is 75 weeks long now, and they are trying to make it a Cat V language.http://usmilitary.about.com/cs/education/a/dliarticle_5.htm
Here's a scientific study done on how it takes native Korean speaking children longer to absorb certain aspects of their grammar (up to five years of age) than the children of any other language.
--->Lee, H. and Wexler, K.: 1987, 'The acquisition of reflexives and pronouns in Korean', Paper delivered at the 12th Annual Boston University Conference on Language Development.
Another polyglot on Korean.
The average person, normal people who haven't dedicated their lives to being language and martial arts study-monks, would imagine that learning Chinese is about the hardest things someone could do. But two weeks into my study of Korean, I began to suspect that Korean was harder. Six months later, when I could read and write with ease, and possessed thousands of vocabulary words, and countless grammatical structures, but still couldn't order off a menu, I was convinced, Korean is the hardest of the ten languages I have studied.
There's plenty more of this out there on the internet. Korean is considered to be the hardest language there is, not just by polyglots, but even by language learning institutions. It is not at all isolated to these forums.
Thanks – you make me feel superhuman!