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​How a Reggaeton Song Helped Me Understand Korean

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Several months back, while listening to reggaeton mixes, I found this song I really liked. Being me, I listened to it on repeat for a few hours. This is how it turned on a lightbulb for me about the Korean language.

korean cafe menu 17 dossi hongdae seoul

A tip: practice reading Korean using menus that already have translations, because sometimes the word is literally just English written in the Korean alphabet.

Trying, and Floundering

Having danced around my room for long enough, I started to absorb the meaning of the lyrics and sing along, wondering the whole time what a “diña” was. What in the world? So I typed some of the words into google and it popped up with the name of the song: Dígame usted. With the chorus going something like “dime si eres niña buena o tu eres niña mala; angelito te habla…” Not “diña,” but “niña” was the word! Upon further listening, it still sounded like a d, but I tested it out, smoothing my tongue just a bit further towards the front of my mouth to test the difference between the letter. It was subtle, but obviously there.

Fast forward a few months.

I’m sitting in my apartment in rural South Korea, frustrated at my apparent inability to pronounce anything longer than a few words with a good Korean accent. I am failing at Korean.

Unlike my little English students, nobody in this still-new country is grading their language to my baby level; they all simply repeat their rapid-fire Korean over and over in response to my blank stare. I look around for anyone to help translate even a few words, but we are studiously ignored. Okaaaay. So much for my hundred or so Korean words helping. Unfortunately none of those few words I know are “eggs” or “paper towels,” and my phone is dead. Well, I didn’t need those paper towels and eggs anyway. I leave the grocery store, hands empty.

So I’ll just be over here eating this American-style school lunch for the next few days, instead.

The Art of Pronunciation

For days, I wondered why people kept telling me “de” instead of “ne” when they said “yes” in Korean. Not every time, but about half the time. I think back on my preparative brushes with foreign languages, and I thank my lucky stars that at least some part of my brain was taking notes. Korean is a language of imprecise pronunciation. P is the same as B; D is T but is sometimes actually N; G is just like K; R is L… half the consonants can sound like a T if it’s in the right spot. Korean is exhausting, and my brain has to be turned on all the time, but my grasp of it is getting better. I can speak and type simple conversations without having to once again pull out my signature blank stare.

Musical theatre forced into me the importance of properly pronouncing each word, and learning Korean is simultaneously reinforcing that need and challenging its validity at every turn. You must pronounce every work perfectly, slurring it into the next word at proper pace with your conversation, and don’t forget the honorifics!

Speaking Korean is an art, and I am merely just starting to study this form of expression. I’m learning words very slowly. They’re all conjugated very simply, so it’s hard to recognize them in conversations, when they have particles attached to the end. Everyone around me speaks to me like I’m a Korean adult— fast and loud and unforgivingly so— but that’s fine.

Eventually I’ll do that right back at them, though that is a very far-off eventuality. It has been hammered into me at this point that even once you know a language well, there is always more to learn. Sometimes I feel like I’ve conquered a mountain when I successfully communicate something in Korean, and then I look out over all the rest of the land, whose end is not in sight. So I try not to take everything in at once or take myself too seriously in Korean, intricacies and all.~

gangneung cafe chocolate truffles vienna coffee

Paydirt from a cafe I was styudying Korean in– they sell chocolate truffles! Study break time.

What’s your number one tip for learning Korean?

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