Learning Cultures and Languages in the Year 2012 (Almost 2013): A User’s Experience

For reasons I will write about later, I have decided to learn the Korean language and culture. More specifically, I have decided to pack as much useful Korean phrases as possible into my head (and know how to say them in context) in the next few weeks.

I didn’t think that open source courseware from universities was the way to go. I love using online resources such as Khan Academy, Udemy, and Coursera, but they don’t really specialize in languages and cultures. In addition, with the timeframe I was giving myself, I didn’t want to feel like I was taking a class.

To my surprise, it wasn’t easy to find good online courses that teach Korean, perhaps because a lot of Korean people already speak English. Still, I believe that learning a people’s language is one of the best ways to understand them. When I lived in Barcelona, it was only when I started learning Spanish and Catalan that the locals started opening up to me. (Not that they weren’t nice to me before, but you get the idea.)

Learning a new language and culture always gives me what I refer to as a “brain massage”—I can feel my cerebral cortex almost groaning under all that cognitive load. Incorporating language classes into a busy schedule isn’t easy, and it was important to find learning material that were easily packaged into digestible pieces that are easy to recall.

Looking at the relatively small landscape of Korean culture and language videos, here are the two that are keeping me up at night (both from Youtube):

1. Professor Oh and Friends (SweetAndTasty on Youtube)

I’ve never come across better styled and more entertaining language and culture videos than those of Professor Oh’s. Her first video caught my eye, and I remembered her because her mnemonic for Korean consonants was to sing them to the melody of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. This was something that we used to do in high school, but to remember all the Chinese dynasties. (It’s quite a versatile song, yes?) It’s also really helpful that she points out common mistakes in pronunciation. She’s come quite a long way from that endearingly shy first video, and now she’s morphed into several characters. As someone with many alter egos as well, I totally relate to her. Keep going!

(Also check our her other alter ago as Ramona Champion.)

Professor Oh and Friends: Making the Korean language unforgettable. No kidding.

Professor Oh and Friends: Making the Korean language unforgettable. No kidding. (Photo from their Facebook page)

Because desperate times call for desperate measures, my Korean language notebook has frantically wriitten notes in the five languages I know, to highlight similarities and make me learn faster. Some Korean consonants were very similar to Mandarin, for example. It’s also funny that some words were the same in lots of languages. Banana is, well, pretty much banana in several countries.

2. Eat Your Kimchi with Simon and Martina

It’s impossible not to talk about Korean culture blogging without writing about Eat Your Kimchi. Canadians Simon and Martina Stawski came to South Korea in 2008 to teach English and started doing video blogs about their experiences as expats. They blog about the K-pop industry, but it’s their videos on culture that’s helping me. Now hugely popular, they have more than 260,000 subscribers on their Youtube channel. They even surpassed their Indiegogo goal to register EYK as an actual business.

Simon and Martina of Eat Your Kimchi. Prepping expats for Korean living (and K-pop) since 2008. Whatup, nasties!

Simon and Martina of Eat Your Kimchi. Prepping expats for Korean living (and K-pop) since 2008. Whatup, nasties! (Photo from the Eat Your Kimchi Facebook page)

From what I’ve learned from both Professor Oh and Eat Your Kimchi is this—having that human connection where the speaker is looking at you is a plus. Having well-defined characters or personalities allow for more contextualization, and when I remember the words and phrases, I hear the characters speaking them in my head together with their idiosyncracies. It also helps that they seem to be genuinely nice people with normal lives. Thoughtfully written scripts also work well in helping me remember. I switch back and forth from these channels because it’s great to have both Korean and non-Korean perspectives.

These people all feel familiar to me, and I might instinctively give them high fives if I ever see them. Seriously, thank you, for making this process wonderfully entertaining and useful.

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