Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Integrated Korean: Beginning 1 (Review)

This book is part of the University of Hawaii's Klear Textbooks series for Korean. There are so few good books teaching Korean and even fewer that teach at upper levels. My criteria in finding a series that would help me review my Korean was one that built up to an advanced level. The Klear series has 10 books with 2 books per level: beginning, intermediate, advanced intermediate, advanced, high advanced. There are also some good auxiliary texts that look really nice. All in all, it fit what I was looking for. The first book has 7 chapters. That doesn't seem like much but each chapter is 30 to 40 pages long and covers a lot of material. I was actually surprised at the amount of stuff introduced in the first book and I was happy with my choice. Now for the bad. The authors explanations are a bit muddled in some places and barely adequate in others. The mix of advanced linguistic terminology, cases of bad punctuation, and putting too many words in one explanation while not saying enough for another makes this a sometimes annoying read.

Example: "When a plain plosive consonant or the fricative consonant ㅅ is preceded by a plosive or fricative consonant, it is reinforced to become a corresponding tense consonant....."

I'm sure that there is a much clearer way of saying this. Grammar and such should always be explained in a clear and easy to remember way. In any case, this book could have used some more editing to make the explanations clearer. Since my Korean is pretty decent in the first place, it didn't bother me much, but I'm having a hard time imagining a beginning student being able to get through it. If I didn't already know what they were talking about, I'd be at a loss.

Anyways, for my own purposes of filling up some holes and reviewing my Korean, this is a good book that has a lot of potential to be better.


Learning Korean: Confessions of a Cocky Bastard

My Korean is pretty good. Some might even say fluent. But the fact is that I still have a long way to go. When I was studying, the problem was that often times, I let my pride get in the way. My excuse? I was young. I mentioned before that I was born in Seoul and am half Korean so there was a lot of extra baggage there and it was difficult for me to approach the language like other students who don't have Korean blood. For example, if someone used a word that I didn't know, I would often pretend to understand and try to figure it out through context. I just didn't like to appear like my Korean was second rate, even if it was. Another example is that it really ticks me off when someone tells me that I should speak English or that it was unnecessary for me to learn Korean; these comments are especially insulting to me since the implication is that being half Korean is the same as not being Korean at all. Anyways, it always seemed like I had something to prove and it affected my studies. I didn't study as much as I should have because I didn't think I needed to; I'm half Korean, isn't that an automatic B, at least? I didn't pay much attention to words I thought were unimportant like business, economic, government, military vocab and literary grammar. I was far too busy hanging out and drinking/clubbing/gambling with my friends and speaking 'real' Korean (keep in mind I was in my late teens/ early twenties). Actually, I still enjoy those activities, but I feel like kicking myself because I had an opportunity to significantly expand my knowledge of Korean and I blew it because of pride. I'm a young professional now and me not knowing all those 'unimportant vocab/grammar' looks really bad since I am supposed to be a 'fluent' speaker. Don't get me wrong. My Korean is good, but when the conversation goes up a notch towards ROI's and investment planning to correlate to recent government legislations, I tend to stumble a bit.

Anyways, I'm older and wiser, so I learned to put my pride on the back burner. But the damage is done. I gotta go back and start from basics all over again and fill in those holes in my Korean. Especially my honorifics. Of course, living in Japan for the last three years and not speaking Korean all that often didn't help matters. I decided to work with the Integrated Korean (KLEAR) series from the University of Hawaii. Seems to be the best of the bunch out there and includes some great accompanying materials. There is one good thing that came out of this, though. I learned to appreciate my opportunities because the cost of wasting them is high.

Genki I: An Integrated Course in Elementary Japanese (Review)

I just finished the first volume of Genki Japanese. This book was published by the Japan Times and I still haven't found a series that matches it in quality....but then again, I haven't been actively looking for any other series. The best thing about this 2 book series is that it introduces the kanji from chapter 3. There really seems to be some unspoken (well, sometimes spoken) belief that foreigners can't learn kanji so a lot of materials out there don't even try. Billions of Chinese and millions of Japanese use characters so it can't be all that difficult to learn. It just takes the right approach. It doesn't say much for any book that claims to teach Japanese, but think kanji, a PILLAR of the language, is too difficult for a student to grasp. The grammar explanations were very clear and easy to understand. Also, I really enjoyed the reading materials at the end of the book. There was an ever increasing amount of kanji introduced, but I never felt overwhelmed. I started to get this warm fuzzy feeling from reading and comprehending all the reading passages and it only encouraged me to keep studying more. Yeah yeah. I know it is a beginning book and the materials weren't all that hard, but I still enjoyed it enough to give myself the proverbial pat on the back for getting through the reading. Another aspect I enjoyed was that this book seemed to focus on the more mundane and common situations a student might find him or herself in. There were no chapters about going to a tea ceremony or flower arranging (that might come up in the 2nd volume). Instead, we had sections on getting pictures developed and words needed to get around the train system. Good stuff.

I mentioned in a previous post that I never learned Japanese in a school, but through actual immersion (not being able to order food was a great motivator to learn). I wanted to fill in the gaps of my Japanese by going back to the basics through the Genki series. For my purposes, this was a great book and I have no complaints.

Sunday, December 17, 2006


I can finally get around by taxi without having to repeat myself several times. Woo hoo. I no longer need to get from point A to point B by means of point Q.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Unique Challenges

Studying Cantonese has turned up some unique challenges. I decided to start with "No Sweat Cantonese". It is not as structured or complete as some other books out there, but it offered more practical info that I could use right away like ordering food, asking/giving directions, and using money/making purchases. The biggest challenge for me so far is that the romanization system being used for the characters is kinda clunky. Just looking at the romanization won't always give you the correct pronounciation. How would you pronounce 'neuih'? That means the cd is absolutely essential for the novice. Just having the book won't give you the right pronounciation so you need the cd. When listening to the cd, it is sometimes hard to 'transcribe' the pronounciation and nuances in your head since there is no alphabet you can relate it to. All you have is a romanization system that tries to put you within spitting distance of the correct pronounciation but not always succeeding. This goes for all Cantonese textbooks, not just "No Sweat Cantonese". In comparison, Korean and Japanese both have an alphabet with comparably simpler phenomes than Cantonese. Even Japanese uses hiragana to accurately portray the sound of kanji-based words. Because of the simplicity of the Korean and Japanese sound systems and their use of an 'alphabet', it is quite easy to review with just a book or just a cd. Cantonese has some unusual sounds coupled with the use of tones. Therefore, you need the book and the cd at the same time always in order to match the meaning, character, and pronounciation correctly. You can't do one without the other. That puts me at a slight disadvantage since I like to listen to the cd while I'm out jogging or on the MTR. Also, I won't be able to just pull out the book to look over some words. Once I (hopefully) get better and am more familiar with the sounds and tones, this will no longer be an issue, but in the here and now, I'm just a novice and this is proving to be a pain.

Saturday, December 09, 2006



Why Learning Two Language at the Same Time is a Bad Idea

My Korean is pretty good. But when I started living in Japan, my Japanese was getting better and my Korean was getting worse. But the funny thing was that I DIDN'T NOTICE. In case you didn't know, Korean and Japanese are very similar in terms of grammar and vocabulary. For example, bag: krn) 가방=kabang; jpn) かばん=kaban or newspaper: krn) 신문=shinmun; jpn) 新聞=shinbun. What started happening was that I started to seriously mix up my Japanese and my Korean into one nonsensible mess. It got to the point, that when I thought of a word, I couldn't remember if it was Japanese or Korean. Here is one of the worst cases. A friend of mine asked me if i could eat something. My response was going to be 'I can eat.' In Korean, this would be, 먹을 수 있어 (muhgel soo isuh). In Japanese, this would be, 食べられる (taberareru). What came out of my mouth was 'tabel soo isuh.' Of course this was met with looks of, 'Huh?' On my really bad days, whether the person I'm talking to is Japanese or Korean, they only understand half of what I'm saying and think the other half is just bad and unintelligible pronounciation.

Another problem was the style of speaking. Most of my Korean, I learned when I was young. Hanging out with friends and going to bars or what not so my korean is very down and dirty. For Japanese, I learned in an office environment (and bars) so my formal Japanese is much much better than my formal Korean. Japanese in a formal environment is very roundabout and indirect. In English, we might say, 'I don't think this is a good idea.' In Japanese, it would be more like, 'I slightly think that perhaps it would be nice to maybe consider this other alternative to see how it goes, if that is okay with you, but of course your idea is good and i'm fine with it.' Alright. I'm exaggerating, but I sometimes feel like that. Anyways, I had a three month biz trip to Korea and this was the first time I was in a Korean office environment. But since I was not great with formal Korean, I spoke Korean using the Japanese style of being roundabout. Turns out, formal Korean is much more direct than Japanese and and I just sounded weird and wussy like I left my backbone at home.

To make things worse, half the employees in the company I work for are Japanese while the other half is Korean and the majority speak both languages. This means that even when i screw up everybody understands what I'm saying and I have no idea I was mixing things up again. Anyways, I'm trying to be more careful and making sure I'm putting the right words with the right grammar with the right language. The pitfalls of being multilingual.

Thursday, December 07, 2006


Learning a language is probably one of the most unfulfilling endeavors one can go through. The fact of the matter is, no matter how good you are in the language, you never feel like you are good enough. No matter how long or how hard you study, you will come across a word that will throw your game so far off and leave you wondering how the hell you got this far without knowing it.

But here is the thing. The ones who think that their abilities are not good enough are the smart ones. They strive, they work harder, they push themselves to get better. The ones who think they are great are the ones who drop the ball, slack off, and care more about their ego than their ability to speak. Besides, it is good to stay humble because no matter how good you are, there will be someone out there who is better, including millions of native speakers.

Language learning and retention is like a girlfriend. If you don't put in any effort and just ignore it, it will go away. In any language, there are so many things to learn outside the basics. Economic terms, business vocabulary, government lingo, high school slang, historic grammar, surfing words. It is a long, hard, endless road to language acquisition and to think you can master it all is a serious flaw in reasoning. But if you keep working at it, you will be better than you were the day before.

Language learning is unfulfilling because there will always be some aspect of the language that is slightly out of reach. It is also one of the most worthwhile things you can do. Now, excuse me while I find out how to say 'oxymoron'.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Language Proficiency Tests and Why They Suck

UPDATE: It came to my attention here that my comment regarding test expiration dates may be incorrect. If anything, it would probably be more accurate to say a FEW of these tests have expiration dates. However, when applying these tests to some end such as a university, the school or institution may require that the test be taken within a certain period from the time of application.

The whole idea of the language proficiency test is completely beyond me. Honestly, what are the benefits? Most will tell you that it is necessary for getting a job. Not true. Whether or not you put your score on your resume, the true test of your language abilities takes place during the interview when they can see for themselves whether or not you really speak the language. Besides, in more cases than not, if you are not a native speaker, no one really expects you to speak their language. If you write down that you are fluent in something, they'll probably roll their eyes and give you a condescending smile until you whiplash them with your linguistic snake-style kung-fu. Just write down you speak whatever language at whatever level and let the interviewer judge for himself your abilities.

The second excuse: I just want to know how good I am. This is the dumbest thing I've ever heard. The language that is taught, the language that is tested on, and the language as it really is are all completely different. In your day to day life, you can easily measure how good you are just by walking outside your door. If you can grab a cab, order food, and tell your buddy you wanna meet that night, you're probably doing ok. If you have trouble finding toothpaste at a convenience store, well, you are probably not doing ok. Also, most of these tests are divided up in levels. In the case of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, there are four levels with four being the lowest and one being the highest level. If you take test three and get a great score, what does that say? I'm great at speaking Japanese at a mediocre level? How can that possibly be useful to anybody with an IQ higher than one? Besides, I've seen plenty of ESL students with fantastic toefl or toeic scores that can't speak for the life of them and fantastic English speakers with poor toefl or toeic scores. Just goes to show, these tests are a poor litmus test for ability.

For me, the only real reason to take any proficiency test is if it is required to get into a school or class that is taught in the local language. And even then, only if they put a gun to your head and make you. Outside of that one reason, these tests really have no value. In fact, in my humble (yet probably correct) opinion, these tests are just another way to squeeze some money out of the populace. Think about it, multiple level tests to test proficiency?? Shouldn't it be one test that starts from the dummy questions and goes up to Einstein questions? Yet, some people insist on taking each level test and dishing out the cash. This can get expensive, especially if that person sucks and has to redo these tests. Wouldn't it be cheaper and smarter to study until you feel you can take the highest level test? Another thing, most of these test scores have an expiration date. This means you would have to retake it after a couple of years. Kinda useless for a guy that is fluent, I would think. The JLPT, the HKS, the KLPT, the TOPIK, the JETRO are all a waste of money and time. The thing is, if you are fluent in the language, there is absolutely no reason to take these tests. From what I can see, most people take these tests so they can brag about how much better they are to other students. In any case, the only thing that can truly measure your ability in a foreign language is yourself. As for me, I don't need to take a test to know how much I suck. I already know.

note: HOWEVER, books and study materials made for people who plan on taking these proficiency tests are, for the most part, pretty fantastic.