So. I read one million characters in Korean this year. Did it do anything? Was it worth my time or was it a complete waste of time?
Before I start though, I want to point out that knowing the Korean alphabet is not knowing how to read in Korean. I have heard more than one expat claim they can “read Korean” because they know the alphabet. Some expats use that as a weird defense mechanism. “I don’t have to study Korean! I can read!” Knowing the alphabet is not reading Korean. That’s why I used to clarify “I can read Korean but don’t have the vocabulary needed to understand it.” I’ve never seen anyone claim they can read Spanish just because Spanish uses a Latin-based alphabet.
My goal this year was to truly be able to read in Korean. I didn’t care about the level, but I wanted to be reading, not calling out words.
When I read in English, my eye glides, I repair misunderstandings, and I enjoy the story. That’s what I wanted to do in Korean. I also wanted to read like I did when I was a kid: voraciously, ignoring what I didn’t understand.
Have I learned how to read?
I remember my first full day in Korea I sounded out “Cocoa Balls
” cereal. When I first learned Korean, I had to read each letter, and then form each character, and finally…maybe…form…the…word.
After a while, after a lot of practice (sitting on the subway, street signs seen through the bus, walking around my apartment—I am a natural reader, I have to read things around me), I quit reading letter-by-letter and started reading character-by-character (syllable-by-syllable).
In January, excluding some extremely common words, I was still mostly reading syllable-by-syllable. I clearly remember doing so because it made reading a lot of text on a page (like in the Pippi books) tough. I’d lose track of the end of the beginning of the sentence by the time I got to the end of the sentence.
Now, however, my eyes tend to glide. If the text is too hard, I get caught up in unknown words, and that stops me, just like in English.
Generally speaking, I recognize whole words and phrases now. And like in English, my eyes slide over the word, looking for anchor letters. For verbs, I’ll pick up a few characters and/or letters to nail down the word and simply skip to the end of the word to find out the conjugation.
It reminds me of very young children learning to read. First they sound out “c-a-r-p-e-t,” and then “car-pet” and finally good readers recognize and know “carpet” when they see it.
Predicting and Repairing
I’ve read so much Korean now that I am getting better at making predictions. I can predict a general idea (sometimes in English, sometimes in Korean, sometimes in mental images&mdashlthat’s my best description) or even the next word or phrase. 깜짝? Next up is 놀라—whichever ending they want.
Now, I also recognize when I misread or misunderstood something. I go back, re-read, and correct misunderstandings. I knew I’d reached another level in Korean when I was finding typos and errors in Korean!
Enjoying the Story
In January, I was mentally translating most sentences. Now I’ve gotten much better at understanding the gist of the story without translating. In January, I’d get so lost I’d look at an English translation to keep myself on track as needed. Now? I don’t need it.
There was one full page in the Obama book I read that I simply didn’t understand. I knew it was about a bug pounding against the sides of the glass jar, but I didn’t get what the point of it was. I figured it must not be too important to the storyline and went on with my life. And although it came up at the end of the book again, I was able to enjoy the book without understanding that part. And that’s OK.
There are still times I ask Good Man for help, but often it’s to make sure I understand a plot twist.
It’s a good feeling.
So. Can I read? I think I can now claim that I can read in Korean. I might be reading at a fourth grade level, but I’m reading!