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October 24, 2015

Speaking the Same Language

Check out this fascinating interview with Hyunwoo Sun (선현우).
ttmik logoSun is the founder of Talk to Me in Korean, an ever-expanding Korean-language-learning site produced by Koreans living in Korea. In addition to podcast lessons and pdfs, which are free, the site offers videos, books, and every other language aid or service you can think of. Sun also opened a cafe in Seoul in 2014.

I started listening to the TTMIK podcasts about three years ago. The lesson topics seemed somewhat randomly ordered, and I listened to the first couple of levels repeatedly without retaining much, since I had no Korean speakers to talk to. However, when I had a Korean email partner for awhile, I found the downloadable pdfs that go with each lesson to be extremely useful.

Sun is interviewed by Colin Marshall, an American (as far as I can tell) with a website of his own on international urban cultures, who has visited Korea several times.

A map of Korea with the city of Gwangju in the southwestern region circledDuring the free ranging hour long podcast, Sun describes the way his personality shifts depending on the language he is thinking and speaking in, explains why Koreans avoid conversations with native English-speakers, and reflects on events in the Gwangju area around the time of his birth, an unsettled era of government repression and civil unrest which crops up in many dramas (the opening episodes of Love Rain, for instance, or the 4-part KBS Drama Special Amore Mio).

Sun also explains how Koreans become English teachers without actually being able to speak English. His examples of English as it is taught in Korea by these teachers are illuminating.

In fact, I was reminded of this interview when I was watching an appearance by Korean-American singer Ailee on Yu Huiyeol’s Sketchbook last night. She said something in English with her typical American accent at the host’s request, and when he looked blank, lapsed into a version of the same English phrase as English is commonly (mis)pronounced by Koreans, thanks to the above-mentioned inadequately trained Korean English teachers. I thought it was interesting that Ailee – who moved from the U.S. to Korea in 2010 – had evidently heard so much of this form of English that she shifted into it automatically, as if it was a third language.

Logo for the TOEIC English certification test, with the tagline "Know English. Know Success."Political support for English instruction in Korean schools fluctuates, but high scores on English certification exams have long been considered advantageous in a highly competitive job market. This assumption has come under question in recent years, but a great deal of money and time is still spent on lessons that don’t prepare students to communicate effectively in English, Sun points out.

But returning to the podcast: How Korean vs. American concepts of time impact conversation, high school elites, the progression of Korean friendships, and the impact of Korean group identification on elections are a few more of the topics it covers. Both host and guest e·nun·ci·ate ver·y dis·tinct·ly throughout the interview (for different reasons, I suspect, but the result is amusing, since the precision of the speech is at odds with the informality of the conversation).

I found this podcast on XiiaLive Pro, an internationally popular music app based in China, on a station called KoreaFM1. I haven’t figured out exactly what is going on with the station, but I think it broadcasts the same podcast nonstop for days (or weeks?), then rotates to another one. English-language resources about Korea from a Korean point of view are still few and far between, so in-depth, candid discussions like this one are a real treasure trove. Don’t miss it!

Related Links:

Talk to Me in Korean website
Hyunwoo Sun’s staff page on TTMIK
Hyunwoo Sun’s personal site – at first glance, seems pretty light on content, but check out the videos, especially this whiteboard cartoon story of his life, which really deserves a post of its own.
Hyunwoo Sun’s Korean-language blog, Why Be Normal
About page on Colin Marshall’s site
Marshall’s page describing (and linking to) this podcast

October 22, 2015 Up and Running

Graphic of a figure throwing a piece of paper that says arvixe web hosting into a trash canI have changed webhosts, and am cautiously optimistic that the many technical issues the site has had recently are a thing of the past. Sorry for all the hassles, and thanks for coming back!

I did move all of the website files, so if you find anything that isn’t working or doesn’t look right, you can post a comment to this message, or go to the orange section at the bottom of any page and click on “report broken link” (even if it isn’t a broken link).

If you haven’t heard, I am very happy to report that the 가족상봉 are in progress as planned. I’ll post about other developments in Korean politics and culture soon.

October 15, 2015

Korean Word of the Day: Family Reunion (가족상봉)

Photo of woman embracing crying elderly man
The international community hears a lot about the excesses of North Korea, whether it be the executions of former administration favorites, or candy bar economics. But an ongoing story we hear less about is how reunions between family members separated by the division of Korea in 1953 have become a political football.

A typical scenario is that North Korea starts making conciliatory overtures a few months before the annual South Korean – U.S. military exercises, which opens the door to scheduling family reunions. However, once preparations are underway, North Korea threatens to cancel them unless the military exercises are called off.

They have to know perfectly well by this time that the exercises will not be canceled, so the the whole call for reunions is a sham from beginning to end. But families who have been separated for half a century can’t help but hope. Surely this is the cruelest thing one set of Koreans can do to another, given the strength and importance of family ties.

Reunions are scheduled once again for next week. I am keeping my fingers crossed that the families will not be disappointed at this late date. Many of the participants are very elderly, and have not seen their relatives since they were children.

To give you some idea of the scale of the schism caused by the Korean division, there are 66,000 South Koreans on the waiting list for family reunions. 600 were selected by lottery for this round of reunions, and screened down to 100, with those who are least likely to survive to the next reunion taking precedence. Two of the South Koreans selected are 98 years old. More details.

This real life wound to the heart of Korea (the whole Korea) may shed some light on why the theme of lost relatives is so common in Korean drama. It’s an everyday truth etched into the family history of many, many Koreans, on both sides of the DMZ.

Getting back to the term for the reunions, regular visitors will recognize 가족 (kajok, family) from my earlier post. 상봉 (sahng-boeng) means reunion or reunited. Another word for reunion, 재회 (jay-wheh) is also sometimes used, so family reunion is 가족상봉 or 가족재회. Thanks to 귀선 for helping me with these terms.

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October 11, 2015

KDrama Word of the Day: Compulsion (강제)

A clenched fistI came across this word while I was browsing a fascinating site by a Korean attorney. He explains Korean laws in excellent English, with full details, such as example scenarios, current cases, and the Hangeul terms that are used. One of those terms was 강제 or compulsion, forcing someone to do something with intimidation or violence.

My Korean language studies could not be called diligent, but I do try to sound out Hangeul words when I encounter them, and this one sounded out as “Kang Jae.” Wait, thought I. Where have I heard that before?

Actually, that’s just artistic dramatization. I immediately recognized it as the name of Lee Seo Jin’s character in Lovers. At least, it sounded the same. I searched high and low for a cast list that included the character names in Hangeul. I didn’t find one, so I don’t know whether the name of Kang Jae-the-lover was actually spelled the same way in Hangeul. But even if it wasn’t, I’m sure the sound-alike effect was no accident. Word play is common in Korean drama, and it just fits too well to be a coincidence, right?

October 2, 2015

Mobile Mihansa is Back!

OK, I think I got the issues with the mobile version ironed out. Mobile users, if you are still seeing the desktop version instead of the mobile site, please leave a comment below.

Likewise, desktop users, if you see the mobile version, (pictured below), please let me know in a comment. Thanks for your patience, my friends!


September 29, 2015

Korea, Women, Money - 한국, 여자, 돈

On Saturday, Park Gun Hye, Korea’s first female president, announced that South Korea would spend $200 million in 15 poor countries to launch a “Better Life for Girls” initiative.

A hand holding Korean paper money, with a low denomination bill on topI am all for improved education, health care, and autonomy for women everywhere, but the timing of this announcement was a tad ironic in the wake of an Associated Press article published the previous day. The article describes how hundreds of Korean women in their 60s, 70s and even 80s, unbeknownst to their families, prostitute themselves on the streets of Seoul to make ends meet.

In 2013, South Korea came in last in an Economist magazine ranking of the best countries for working women. Korea’s support for women abroad would be a lot more credible if it showed the same support for women at home.

September 25, 2015

미안해, Mobile Users

Some changes I made to recently are playing havoc with the mobile version of my site. Desktop users may have seen the mobile site and vice versa, or both users may have seen my site stripped of formatting. Rest assured, this is not a hack issue, but it may take me awhile to get it straightened out – in the meantime, the desktop version will be available to everyone.

I know this is not ideal on a small screen, so here is a 사과 for my mobile users :)

A red apple

September 24, 2015

Korean Word of the Day: Computer Hacker - 컴퓨터 해커

A frowning man's face with his tongue sticking out to one side in effort and his arms coming out the side of the monitor to type on the keyboard below itThe Korean term for “computer hacker” is such an obvious loanword from English that I just had to share it with you. If you have learned the Hangeul alphabet, you’ll know that
컴퓨터 해커 is pronounced kum (or kawm) pyoo tuh (or taw) heh kuh (or kaw).

(If you haven’t learned the Hangeul alphabet yet, check out my Games to Learn Korean page).

A “loanword” is a word one language has “borrowed” from another, that sounds a lot like the word in the original language. English is full of them, especially loanwords from French. Korean has a very high percentage (estimates vary) of loanwords from Chinese, but when you start getting into terms for technology and popular culture, you find more English loanwords. Korean also has English loanwords for things that don’t have an exactly equivalent Asian concept, like 뱀파이어 (vampire).

Some Korean words that sound like loanwords from English are actually loanwords from the same language that English borrowed it from (for example, 레스토랑 – restaurant, which is, of course, a French word).

You may be wondering what the difference is between the three Korean g/k-ish letters, ㄱ, ㄲ, and ㅋ. You are not alone! Here’s the best explanation I’ve found, not only for hearing the differences, but for speaking them.

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September 22, 2015


The word HACKED in red in the middle of several lines of binary computer has been hacked, and I’m still ferreting out all of the back doors the hacker left on my site. The hacker has made several attempts to post ads. So far, I’ve been able to nip this in the bud, but I wanted to warn my readers, as there is a major international hack attack on WordPress sites happening right now in which hackers use websites to spread malware.

There is no advertising on the site placed by me at this time, so if you see any ads, they were placed by hackers. DON’T CLICK ON THEM. They may just be ordinary ads, but why take a chance. Plus, let’s not help this person make any money off my blog!

If you do see an ad, and have a minute to send me an email
letting me know what page it appears on, that would be a big help in keeping one step ahead of the hacker.

Word to the wise: If you find yourself thinking “I really should change that password” as you log in somewhere, DO IT! NOW! Being hacked is a huge pain in the… neck.

September 3, 2015

Korean Politics: Fair Wind from the West

Korean politics is (are?) complex. While issues may seem similar to those found in other modern industrial cultures, positions and affiliations are often rooted in ancient conflicts and alliances. But even a Korean political novice like me can tell it’s significant when Park Gun Hye goes to China to attend the 70th anniversary celebration of their WWII victory, and Kim Jong Un doesn’t.
The Chinese and South Korean flags side by side connected by a short chain
This follows an unprecedented (in my paltry 4 years of Korea-watching, at least) apology from the north for crossing into the South Korean side of the “demilitarized” zone between the two countries – which is, of course, bristling with weaponry on both sides – and planting land mines. Two South Korean soldiers were maimed.

Of course, the north promptly turned around and denied that expressing “regret” constituted an apology. Um, OK. But that is not the only sign of diminished belligerence from North Korea. MORE…