Proficiency in a Language. The Importance of Words.

Words. Lots and lots of words. These past several months in 2017, I’ve been putting new Korean words I encounter into three separate vocabulary lists on Naver Dictionary. The first vocabulary list named 어휘 includes ~3331 words from studying, the second list 생활 한국어 has ~942 new words I’ve encountered as I go about my life and talk to people or read signs/posters outside, and the last list has ~513 new words I’ve learned while in my school  (either through the documents and messages that I happen to see, words related to teaching, or words students have told me).

Generally people who haven’t learned a foreign language unrelated to their own native tongue don’t think of vocabulary as one of the more difficult aspects of language learning. Instead the foreign language’s exotic, alien sounds or an intimidating looking writing script, or the complexity and/or irregularity of a language’s grammar will be the first to deter someone from picking up a new foreign language or will come up first in a discussion of a language’s difficulty. Those things can indeed be difficult, especially in the beginning stage of language learning, (as I am still new to Japanese I’ve started to face these early challenges in learning a language again) but once a solid foundation is built in the language they become considerably less difficult and less discouraging.

However, to reach an advanced proficiency level in a language one of the biggest, if not the biggest wall to climb, is vocabulary. One can simultaneously be fluent in a language while lacking advanced proficiency. What is proficiency and how is it different from fluency? Proficiency is how much you can understand and how much of the language you can use. One can be very fluent in talking about everyday tasks and occurrences in their mother tongue, yet be unable to understand and/or communicate in a multitude of other topics. Jokes, colloquial expressions, slang, and 신조어 (literally “newly made word”) might fly over their heads. I will always be in a way more fluent in Tagalog, my mother tongue, than I will ever be in Korean. I innately know its grammar, can hear the subtle differences in sounds, instinctively know what sounds natural or awkward, and moreover, someone speaking as fast as a bullet train is generally not a problem as long as they don’t use difficult words. On the other hand, in some ways I am more proficient in Korean, although less fluent. There are many words that I know in Korean, and as such, my Korean reading skill is better than my Tagalog reading skill by leaps and bounds. Consequently, I can listen and understand to varying degrees someone  speaking clearly about politics, racism/prejudice, the economy, 헬조선, (“Hell Joseon” look it up hehe) energy, and the universe (this came up in one encounter with a cult lol…), yet be at a loss when an ahjussi taxi driver shouts a jumble of words at high speed at me in Korean or uses 사투리 (dialect).

What makes learning Korean vocabulary more difficult than most other languages?

The combination of native Korean and Sino-Korean. Through many centuries Korean has taken lots of vocabulary from Chinese, aka Sino-Korean. Depending on the source, around 50-65% of Korean words are derived from Chinese characters or hanja. Usually, Sino-Korean words make up the bulk of the more difficult and technical vocabulary in Korean. Sino-Korean and native Korean feel a bit different too. For example, many native Korean words repeat after themselves like 오글오글, 빙글빙글, 섭섭하다, 말똥말똥, 답답하다, etc. and native Korean words tend to look and sound more unique in my opinion e.g. 곱다, 아름답다, 나비, 무지개, 목소리, 여우, 지렁이, 소나기, 고요, 씨발, etc. In contrast, Sino-Korean words may tend to be more compact, dense, formal sounding, (these are not hard rules though. In fact, it can be difficult to tell sino-Korean and native-Korean words apart if you don’t have the hanja 한자 knowledge) and each syllable/hanja has some meaning e.g. 진지 (眞摯) = serious, earnest, sober.

  •  참 “진” truth, honest, sincerity
  •  잡을 “지” catch, hold, keep


Of course every language exposed to other languages through interactions between civilizations and people have taken foreign words and adopted them as their own, but well, Chinese is difficult. The plus-side of Chinese is that since each syllable/hanja has a meaning, knowing the meaning can help in learning and remembering a word. The downside is that hanja can be combined in a seemingly endless number ways, thus spawning words  with very specific definitions and some that words would practically never be created or used in English. And a lot of these words are found and used in day-to-day life as well as in one’s work in Korea. To make matters worse, native-Korean is no slouch either and many things can be said in many ways (see colors e.g. words black: 검정색, 까만색, 검은색, 흑색 [sino] from ). (may add to this point later when I’m not lazy lol)

Update 09-07-17: 어휘 4549 words 생활 1164 words 학교 610 words total: 6323 words since 2017

Song recommendation: Saigo no Iiwake (Last Excuse): I first heard this song on my last night in the Philippines. I went to a Yoshinaya Restaurant by myself (my younger brother had already left a couple of days before) and the first thing that struck me about the place was in their choice of music. I entered the restaurant with Perfect by Ed Sheeran already playing, then ate to First Love by Hikaru Utada, and this song, until another Japanese song  started playing. Despite being in the restaurant for only a short time, waves of emotion and memories associated with the first two songs surged through me, and the passion and sincerity I felt in this new song had a similar effect. The fact that I was alone again probably made me more sentimental haha. Before I went out the door I asked the two employees by the cash register who had been singing along for the name of the previous song that had played and they happily wrote it down for me an a piece of paper. “Saigo no Iiwake”. As you can see, I’m a sucker for rock ballads.


Homestay family update



A few months ago near the end of my first semester teaching in Korea I was feeling wholly unsatisfied with my homestay. It felt like a waste of time for me and them. The homestay experience was one of the things I was most looking forward to in my grant year in Korea and the fact that it didn’t meet my expectations was disappointing. It was something that felt more and more dissatisfied as the end of the year was approaching. Spending Christmas alone in the house, while the host family was gone and missing my own family didn’t make things any better.

Now, however, I’ve come to appreciate my homestay situation. I’ve gotten a little bit closer to my host mom. She’s the person I talk to the most in the host family even though it’s not that much. It’s kind of interesting how our relationship developed considering the fact that she was the most awkward family member around me in the beginning. I guess being partially responsible for me and our somewhat daily dinner conversations, however short they may be, has had some effect. Even though she doesn’t seem that concerned about me most of the time, I can see her trying to make the homestay situation work and appreciate the fact that she does things like making me dinner everyday.  On the other hand, I no longer feel as close to my host dad. He was the one most excited to talk to me during the first few months, but I guess the time made my novelty wear away. Also, the fact that we rarely talked to each other due to his schedule and mine not matching up has made us feeling more alienated with each other.

I think the freedom offered by my homestay situation is what made me accept the fact that it’s okay if I’m not close to my homestay family. I am free to stay in my room and do my own thing or to travel during the weekend as I much as I want. In any case, I don’t think I have a negative relationship with anyone in my homestay. I think things are a bit less awkward with Sohee in school too. I think not walking with her everyday to school might be partly the reason why.

Pani, the cat, still loves me as always though.

Korean song recommendation: 


Walks & Talks


A long walk

A month or so ago one of my favorite co-teachers (who I’ll call coteacher A), who is unfortunately leaving after this semester, introduced me to two other teachers from Yangcheong High School. Yangcheong high school is a school not terribly far from where I live and is still in Ochang. Before meeting these teachers from Yangcheong, I decided to take a 45-60 minute walk (Ochang is bigger than I thought) there one afternoon when I was felt like exploring  areas of Ochang still unknown to me, and to expand my mental map of the area a little. The street on the north boundary of Lake Park in Ochang is generally as far as I go, although I had crossed that boundary once during a jog earlier in the semester when I was also trying to expand my mental map of the area. When I decided to cross that border again the first noteworthy thing I saw was Yangcheong Middle School, the other middle school in the area besides Gakri. I sometimes see Yangcheong Middle School’s students on my walks around town and I used to confuse them with my students when I was new to OChang until I realized their difference in uniform.

During the walk I discovered why Ochang is also sometimes referred to as 과학단지 “science complex”. In between my regular area in OChang and Yangcheong High School was a large area filled with tech and R&D companies. Past that area and nearer to Yangcheon High School was a side of Ochang that looked quite different from what I had known.  It wasn’t developed, there was trash laying on the street, a stray dog was scavenging around for food, and the only people I saw were two ahjummas working on a small field, and two old men. I wondered if this was really the place where a large high school was located, but following the maps app on my phone I eventually found it.

Yangcheong High School. It’s good to know where many of my students will be going after graduating.


Walks & Talks

Although the aforementioned above is an extreme example, I’ve spent many days like this in Ochang. Just walking alone. It feels liberating to walk around and it’s also how I keep myself sane. My encounters with my students while walking around Ochang have also brightened my days on more than one occasion.

But go out enough times alone and it becomes lonely. Ochang is such a beautiful place but I often find myself thinking that I wish had someone to enjoy it with. I rarely go out with my host family these days and besides the one trip to Taean back in September, I’ve never gone with them on their trips outside of the Cheongju/Ochang area, and it doesn’t seem like the kids would be interested in me taking them out. In fact, how I currently feel about my relationship with my host family is probably deserving of its own post. Gakri Middle School, as a few teachers have described it, is a very individualistic school and teachers are relatively less conversational and also rarely meet up. Even as a relatively quiet person, I wish I could talk more to some of the teachers. One of my goals for the grant year was to make Korean friends as this is not only the best way to learn the host country’s language, but also because I felt as though my experience wouldn’t be authentic if I didn’t. But living here for a few months now I need to add another reason, loneliness.

The Yangcheong high school teachers that coteacher A introduced to me was the first time in three months that someone wanted to meet up with me aside from the other ETA in Ochang (who I also didn’t see for 3 months at one point, but she has an excuse haha) and my host sister’s English tutor.  I’ve had a few language exchange meet ups with them and I appreciated their company and the fact that they wanted my company. All this is not to say that I have a bad relationship with teachers in my school. In fact, when we finally had our first real 회식 (when people in the same company or school go out and usually eat and/or have a few drinks) I was surprised by how many teachers actually wanted to talk to me. They just needed the courage of soju. There are also a few teachers that I can always talk to in English or English and Korean in Gakri and it’s always a joy talking to them. I wonder how my relationship with teachers will develop in the coming semester as they come to know me a bit better. In the meantime, I think I’ll need to find another way to increase my interactions with Koreans outside of school if I want to keep my goal of making Korean friends. I’ll see how that goes after break.


(Also, finding time and motivation to self-study Japanese is harder than I thought…)

Korean song recommendation: I first heard this song in one of my free semester classes when the students wanted to see this MV. The girls freaked out about Gong Yoo. Gong Yoo is a good actor though and I’ve seen him in Train to Busan and 밀정 so I understand.

A new challenge!

“(Korean) GO! Self-study Japanese. First Steps.

So with my recent plan to go to Japan with a few other ETAs in January, I’ve decided that it’s finally time to self-study a bit of Japanese! While at the main bus terminal in Gyeongju a couple of weeks ago, I was drawn to a table filled with books in Korean for learning Japanese and ended up buying the book shown above. About a year ago, I “learned” Japanese kana (Japanese uses 3 different character types: The two kana, hiragana and katakana, and kanji which are adopted Chinese characters) but never absorbed them. If you don’t use it you lose it right? I only wanted to learn the characters back then because I thought the kana looked nice, but I never actually learned anything about Japanese grammar nor have I ever written a sentence using the kana. So before I started studying from my new book tonight my knowledge of hiragana was mostly recall at best, save for the vowels, and my memory of katakana was almost nonexistent. However, after reviewing some of the hiragana and katakana characters tonight I noticed that the shapes, strokes, and visualization of the kana were coming to me much easier than when I had first studied them. Also, you may be wondering why I’m using a Korean book. Three reasons. One, it was an impulse buy. Also, I’m already in the habit of studying Korean, so using a Korean textbook might psychologically compel me to get into the habit of studying Japanese. Most importantly, Korean’s grammar and sentence structure are much more similar to Japanese than English so using it as a base to learn from can be useful.

It was nice to have the feeling of studying a new language, which is quite different from studying a language one has been learning for quite a while. Although learning a new language can be frustrating in that one practically understands nothing, there is always the sweet feeling of progress as decreasing marginal returns has yet to apply. Every grammar point is new and interesting. Most new vocabulary words are simple, more practical, and useful. However, I am still determined to improve my Korean skills and will probably drop Japanese after my trip. This may be the most motivation I’ll ever have to learn some Japanese for a long while so I’ll try to learn as much as I can.

The book also caught the attention of my host sister Sohee who is eager to learn about different languages and cultures. Tonight while the two of us were eating together, we talked about Japanese, other languages, and Japan for a while. Just a month ago or so there was an awkward period of time between us during which I noticed her avoiding me at home and at school. Surprisingly, things got immediately better after I sat down to have a talk with her. I asked her if anything was bothering her and told her that I wouldn’t get upset no matter what she told me, but she said that nothing was bothering her. After that she started talking to me again like we used to. But tonight was especially nice because I rarely ever have a conversation of decent length with my host sister. It’s good to be reminded that we both geek out about something!

Korean song recommendation (A student showed me one of his favorite Sung Si Kyung songs, which was a nice break for the barrage of requests to play TT by TWICE):

My changed attitude in using Korean in and out of the classroom

Ever since I was first ratted out by a fellow English teacher to a couple of students about my knowing how to speak and understand spoken Korean, I have changed my stance on pretending not to know any practical amount of Korean with my students. I have a few reasons for this. After more than a month and a half of knowing and talking to some of my students I had found that some of our conversations had reached an impasse. And so, sometimes our interactions had been limited to a simple hello. More importantly, using Korean can be a useful tool to build rapport with students, especially with those who are not comfortable with English.

I’m actually quite surprised myself that I’ve only recently started using Korean with my students. When applying to Fulbright I thought that knowing Korean was one of my selling points, and that as a language learner myself, I could better understand the sorts of struggles my Korean students would go through. Yet I bottled up my Korean partly in order to satisfy the misguided thoughts of some teachers that I should never use any Korean with the students and also because of the fear that letting students know about my Korean language skills would decrease participation in English during class.

In reality, revealing that I know Korean hasn’t decreased the will of students who wish to speak to me in English at all. But now I  can easily spurt out a word they don’t know if I already know the word in Korean. There’s also the flip-side of the coin. Those students whose English skills are quite below a conversation level. Should I just not talk to them at all and restrict our interactions to a mere hello? For many students I am their door to learning about America, but some students haven’t quite crafted a key  yet, but I have one I can give to them. Perhaps also, seeing the effort a foreigner like me puts into learning Korean and speaking it imperfectly may encourage a few of them to use English or at least decrease their fear of making mistakes while talking. No small amount of English conversation or “immersion” with me will realistically lead to great improvements in a student’s English conversational skills. However, I can be a low-risk conversation partner for them and a stepping stone for later.

Even if I don’t use full-on Korean with my students I’ve realized that I can still downplay my Korean so that students will speak in English, yet I can come to the rescue more easily if there’s a word or phrase that they don’t know or can’t think of. In the past, in class I would only explain new vocabulary words with a combination of smaller words in English, acting, and gestures. Now, I write the corresponding Korean word for harder vocabulary words to explain and I think that has helped some students. The good thing is I can still demand that they to explain to me in English what a word means. Students have also found it entertaining when I randomly say a Korean word they think I don’t know in class.

On another note, it’s always fun to see the shock in students’ faces when I finally say a sentence in Korean to them or when I tell them in Korean that I’ve understood everything students have said in class. Yes, I also understand when you use swear words. However, I haven’t spoken in Korean to many students and I was quite surprised to see how well those I’ve told have kept it a secret. I’ll continue to tell more students though, while simultaneously telling them to keep how much I know on the down low.

Korean music recommendations:

Facebook posts

I’ll put my long Facebook posts here for the sake of continuity.

September 28, 5:29pm

Dang, when a fellow teacher exposes you lol. So I was walking back to school with some teachers after an event that the middle school 1st graders went to. On the way back, a student who I will call marriage girl (because she says she wants to marry despite me pointing out the age difference) and marriage girl’s friend/translator were following behind. Another English teacher, who I will call Lee Sun Hee 쌤, was talking to me in Korean, but I was answering back in English on purpose since they were close by. Marriage girl caught me responding back to Korean and she says “What? Does teacher understand Korean?”
I’m thinking to myself, please don’t tell them. However, Lee Sun Hee 쌤 then responds, “Of course he knows Korean. You two didn’t know? He understands everything”.

EXPOSED. Cue the look of shock on marriage girl and her friend’s faces when they realize I have understood everything they’ve said, including things they asked others to translate in front of me and a few swear words. “욕 했는데” LOL Then they ran away. The jig is up, at least with these 1st grade girls. Although, now this means I won’t let them get away with 욕 (swears) anymore haha.


September 6

School Moments of the day:

This week I’ve been fitting 3 lessons in one class period in order to prepare the grade 3 classes for their midterms. In one of the boy’s classes it was going better than I had expected, except at one point during class two boys almost fought each other. I tried to get them to calm down and luckily my coteacher was there to help, but unfortunately they had to be taken away from class. But later one of the boys came to a later class of mine and apologized which I found quite touching.

Also, it’s a weird feeling hearing students swear in Korean and understanding them, but yet continuing the facade that I don’t understand Korean lol. I just tell them to be quiet.

A different group of female students approached me today and tried speaking to me in English. The girls told me to call one of their friends ‘potato’ or 감자은 (gamja-eun) which I thought was mean, so I asked for her real name. I misheard and called her 남자은 (man + eun). I’m sorry. ;; However, now I won’t forget her name amongst the hundreds of students, along w/ her friends short hair Ji-min and long hair Min-ji.

A teacher was kind enough to invite me to her 교무실 (teacher’s office) and offered me coffee. It was nice to have someone initiate an interaction with me, instead of having to always purposely approach teachers and speak to them in Korean or going out of my way to visit various offices myself. I had a nice conversation with her and the other teachers in the office mostly in Korean, except when they wanted to practice some English. A couple of boys also came into the office and practiced their English a bit, and even forcibly dragged one of their friends who they thought was good at English into the office.

Also, I’ve been teaching some kids the School of Rock handshake lmao. They seem to like it.

On people’s opinions of me


It was only two or three weeks ago that I finally felt comfortable with my host mom. The slight awkwardness between us finally melting away. The funny thing is during the last week of September, also the week of my students midterms and my birthday, I was paranoid that my homestay didn’t want me anymore. The previous week I had overheard some teachers (a few of them came from different offices) talking in Korean in our office about, from what I understood, something concerning trouble in a homestay and how unfortunately a homestay just doesn’t work out sometimes. I was too afraid to ask my co-teacher what it was about. That same week I remember my homestay mom looking at something that looked like the utility bill and making a remark of disbelief. I immediately thought that it was because of me. My homestay family members don’t use water or take a shower nearly as often as I do. I take a shower every morning, which helps me wake up. As a sort of self-defense mechanism, I remember thinking to myself, well I could take really quick showers if I could actually control the shower’s water temperature well. The water is always either too hot or too cold . But since that day I  noticed that the hot water had completely disappeared and so I stopped taking a shower every morning due to the cold water. I must have been right that it was because of me.

All these hints combined with my host mom being stressed out and not paying me any attention at all, because of having to watch over and help Sohee study for her midterm, made me a bit anxious about not being wanted anymore. I kept thinking to myself did I not try hard enough to make a good impression? Am I too much of a burden? Am I costing them too much money? Am I not benefiting the family in some way? Are my host sisters, especially Sohee, even getting better at English with me here? Am I useful? Yet somehow the ice finally broke in October. Maybe it was just time that allowed my host mom to feel comfortable with me or the fact that Sohee was done with her midterms made my host mom less stressed. My efforts to strike up a conversation in Korean during lunch time about teaching and my students probably also helped. Or maybe I was just overanxious about the whole thing.

I’ve been anxious or rather have been caring too much about people not liking me. For a few weeks leading up to midterm week, I noticed that a fellow teacher, who I will call teacher E, in my office (which is the 1st grade teacher’s office btw except for me and my coteacher Sujin) seemed to grow to not like me. It couldn’t have been stress due to midterms, since the 1st graders didn’t have midterms coming up. She would avoid my gaze and also seemed to ignore my attempts to say hello. However, she was initially quite friendly with me  in the beginning of the semester. Then the day before the 2nd/3rd graders midterms, the 1st graders, 1st grade teachers, Sujin, and I went to Ochang’s Lake Library to see a show/talk about an author who visited and her book. While watching the show, I initially tried to make small talk with teacher E in Korean, but that failed. But later after the show another teacher who I will call Lee Sun Hee teacher asked me if I understood the talk, I said I understood about 20%, which actually amazed her and teacher E. I said that while watching I looked up the words that I didn’t know in the dictionary, which helped fill in some of the gaps. I think that reminded teacher E that I’m not actually fluent in Korean and that I’m still struggling to adjust and her attitude towards me seemed to make a complete 180.

I think that with this opportunity in Korea, I felt that my introverted self had to try extra-hard to be friendly to people and make a good impression to everyone I meet. And so, if someone ends up not liking me despite the effort I put in, I would feel even more disappointed. For example, I also struggled with caring too much about getting all students to like me, which is a near impossible goal. Someone told me one weekend this October that if everyone likes you, you’re doing something wrong. With that advice, maybe I’ll still make an effort to be likable, but if that doesn’t float people’s boat, I should also remember to do right by myself.

P.S. I’ve gotten quite used to limiting my showers to only a few times a week! Now I just wash my face and hair daily.

Non-Korean music recommendation: