Sunday, July 19, 2009

"Is the Korean Language Scientific?"

It is often said that Hangeul (한글) is one of the most scientific alphabets in the world, but I do not think I have ever heard that the Korean language, itself, is one of the world's most scientific languages. Nevertheless, in a Korea Times article, columnist Jon Huer asked the question, "Is the Korean language scientific?" His conclusion was essentially "No." Read the article HERE.

Jon Huer wrote the following:
In truly scientific systems, there are no inner and outer circles. But the Korean language is generally considered the most secretly-guarded code system among the world's major languages. There is no way an "outsider," who is not born into this circle, can crack the code of the Korean language, no matter how long one devotes oneself to its mastery. Its grammar and syntax are capable of so much situational variation and impromptu adaptation that only the native can get the feel of the language. Anyone who is encouraged by the scientific claim and tries to learn the language soon finds that he is merely scratching the surface after years of devoted study.
Koreans used to say quite often that the Korean language was too difficult for "foreigners" (outsiders) to learn, much less master, just as Mr. Huer has said in the above quote, but I never believed that and still do not believe it. Yes, the Korean language has been difficult for me to learn, but I think the main reason for that was that most of my Korean teachers did not know how to teach the language to foreigners and did not really expect me to learn it, anyway. Plus, I was a slow learner.

You cannot expect foreigners to "crack the (Korean) code" when Koreans, themselves, are still trying to crack it. When I started learning Korean, there were not many good books explaining the language to foreigners, teaching techniques were poor, and Korean teachers, themselves, did not really seem to know enough about their language to explain the problems foreigners were having. Moreover, it seemed that Korean teachers had low expectations for foreigners' learning Korean and seemed to teach accordingly. I often got the feeling that I was being taught as if I were a young child.

My very first Korean language lesson started with the Korean instructor pointing a pointer at animals on a chart and pronouncing their names in Korean. I do not remember their being anything written under the pictures, and even if there was Korean written under the pictures, we had not yet learned to read it. We were just supposed to memorize the names of the animals by repeating them one or two times after he pronounced them. The teacher taught with little or no enthusiasm, and discouraged questions. We were just supposed to follow his instructions. Children may be able to learn that way, but not me, nor many other adults, I would think.

When I first started speaking Korean, Koreans tended not to correct me. They would just smile, nod their head, and say in English, "You speak Korean very well," even if I had only said, "Annyeonghaseyo?" With such low expectations for foreigners, is it any wonder that so few of us ever became fluent in Korean?

These days things have changed a lot. Good books are starting to come out, Koreans are learning how to teach Korean to foreigners, and Koreans are expecting more from non-native Korean speakers and are correcting them when they make mistakes.

There is nothing especially difficult about the Korean language. Foreigners can learn the language if they and their teachers are motivated and have the right teaching and learning materials. In regard to Jon Huer's claim that foreigners are incapable of mastering the Korean language, I think Mr. Huer will be eating his words in a few years.


  1. Jon Huer says "Its grammar and syntax are capable of so much situational variation and impromptu adaptation that only the native can get the feel of the language."

    To the extent that this is true of Korean, I would argue it is equally true of English. And probably any other human language.

    Some languages are more difficult for native English speakers to learn than others. But all are learnable. That being said, adult learners will never have the same level of ability as native speakers. This fact should not frustrate second-language learners, who can still achieve near-native fluency with time and diligence. I believe that you, Gerry, are an excellent example of this. I also agree with your point that as more high-quality language learning resources become available for studying Korean, it will cease to appear as arcane and impenetrable as it apparently has for Mr. Huer.

  2. I agree, Lance. I do not think the "code" for the Korean language is any more difficult than the code for the English language. Older-generation Americans probably have just as much trouble understanding the rap of younger-generation Americans as older-generation Koreans have understanding the rap of younger-generation Koreans. If a Korean adult can achieve native or near-native fluency in English, then a native English-speaking adult can achieve native or near-native fluency of Korean.

    I do not have native fluency of Korean, but I believe it is possible for non-native adults to achieve it by simply retracing the steps that Korean children used to learn their language.

    I have been told by a linguist that it is extremely difficult or impossible to achieve native fluency after adolescence, but I consider that more of a theory than a fact, and I do not believe the "impossible" part of it.

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  4. Yeah, I'd have to agree that Korean is definitely learnable. BTW, if you ever feel like you want to contribute some of your vast Korean knowledge, feel free to head over to the Korean Wiki Project. We've recently had a big push to expand Chinese roots so you'll be able to click on any root and see all other words with that root (it's a work in progress of course).

    Just in case you have some extra time =)

  5. 안녕하세요? 한국은 여러기관에서 외국어로서 한국어를 가르치기 위한 인재양성 및 교육방법을 개발중이지만 아직은 많이 부족한 것 같습니다.한국어에 관심을 갖는 나라가 점점 늘어가는 것은 기쁜 일이지만 그 나라의 특성에 맞추어 효과적인 한국어교육방법을 연구해야하니 앞으로 한국인이 해야할 일이 많은 것 같아요. 저도 열심히 노력을 해야하겠습니다. 한국어에 열정을 가지고 계신것 같아서 매우 기쁘고 반가웠습니다. 좋은 하루 되세요.

  6. Koreans say that their language is too much difficult for foreigner and foreigner can't reach to near-native or native fluency.I think it applies in course of learnig all the other foreign languages.
    I've just been here for 2 yrs and I will show them I can also crack their so called "Korean code" within a reasonable time.

  7. Hi Gerry, I recommend to watch the following video if you have time.

  8. I love everything in Korea. I really tried my best learning their language. Although I find it hard to read but I know someday I will speak fluently and I will definitely understand them.