The Allure of Reading in Korean

(Cross-posted on 한국어 공책.)

I’m not sure why I chose “Read 1,000,000 Jaso” as a new year’s goal this year, but I am happy that it gave me a push to really read in Korean.

I have studied, to varying degrees, Swedish and Spanish. Although I am apparently competent in Spanish due to my college studies (ha!), I have never read a book in Spanish. I tried reading a few books in Swedish, but I got caught up in all of the words I didn’t know. I would stop at every unknown word and look it up in a dictionary. Bad idea. It was time consuming, discouraging, and boring. I subscribed to the idea (probably influenced by the never-ending intensive reading done in Spanish class!) that I had to understand every word.

Of course, this was untrue.

When we planned to go to Korea, I decided to ramp up my study efforts, primarily by building my vocabulary base and writing. The studying improved my Korean (or perhaps just my confidence?), but a side effect that I wasn’t expecting was that not studying Korean at least a little bit every day felt…strange. Now doing something in Korean daily is a habit.

Around the beginning of the year I read about a project to read one million words in a foreign language over on Language Fixation. I thought, ‘Well, I can do that. It’ll be a challenge though.’ I had been reading a bit and my speed was slowly picking up. I knew that committing to that much Korean reading was meant excluding most fun reading in English for the year, but I wanted to try it. I hoped that reading would increase my vocabulary, my comfort with Korean, and my understanding of Korean grammar.

I immediately realized that Koreans are loosey-goosey with spacing and I wasn’t sure how to count a word. Good Man told me in Korean each character is counted rather than each word. I decided it was fair to go for 1,000,000 characters.

Learning to Read so I Can Read to Learn?

Part of taking on the challenge of reading 1,000,000 characters in a year was to see if the old saws I rattle off to my students are true. “The best way to improve your reading is to read at home daily for at least thirty minutes.” “You should be making pictures in your head as you read.” My grad school profs told me that, and Fountas and Pinnell said it, so it must be true, right? Another teacher line? “We learn to read so we can read to learn.”

When I started reading extensively in Korean, I carried my intensive-reading habits with me. I would get frustrated when I couldn’t understand a sentence or paragraph perfectly. Finally, I realized that I had to relax and just read.

Practicing reading near-daily led to a cascading series of events.

  • Fluency. When I first started reading more (before I started the challenge), I read so slowly. I was embarrassed by how often I was reading syllable by syllable. (I do remember when I was reading Korean letter-by-letter, so I’ll give myself some credit!) But after some practice I start reading full words. And eventually phrases came.
  • Endurance. At first I could only read for 10 or 15 minutes at a time and then my brain would turn off. Now I can read for extended periods of time. More than thirty minutes, if I wish.
  • Self-Correcting. I started correcting misunderstandings. I’d read something, realize it made no sense, glance back and correct myself.
  • Visualization. At some point, pictures started forming in my head instead of English. I remember realizing I was making pictures in my head after reading Korean. I was so excited.
  • Predicting. Soon I started making predictions as I was reading. I could often figure out what word would come next. Pippi would 외치다. She always does, that Pippi!
  • Vocabulary. I am figuring out words from context. Words with multiple meanings? I used to run through the meanings in my head. Now I can usually predict or figure those out from context, too.
  • Grammar. I hated studying grammar in school and couldn’t tell the difference between a verb and a noun until I was a sophomore (seriously), but I usually knew what sounded right—probably because I read so much. I don’t enjoy memorizing grammar rules in Korean either, but I’m starting to get a better sense of what to say, when. I can more easily pick out the parts of speech in a Korean sentence. Using the topic/object/topic markers is getting easier.
  • Thinking in Korean. This one is coming along slowly. Sometimes my predictions or thoughts are in English, but sometimes they’re in Korean. With more and more practice, this will come, too!

And this is where the allure comes from. I don’t recall learning to read in English. I just recall devouring books. Now I am learning how to read all over again. And it’s fun!

There is a deep sense of excitement and joy that comes with understanding a passage immediately. I am excited when I figure out a word in context and then see it in other contexts that prove I was right. I love finding a word in a book I just picked up for the first time—a word that I just learned from my previously read book! Most of the books I picked up in Korea are favorites from my childhood. Even so, these books spark something some magic inside of me. Part of this could be rereading the books as an adult, but I think more of the magic comes from discovering a new word or way to phrase something in an old favorite. 아바마마 is so much more delightful than “my Father, the King!”

I have read seven books in Korean so far this year. Now I feel like I can continue to tell my students that reading books for fun daily improves your reading. It’s absolutely true.