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.
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 黑). (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.