My brain is lazy AF: learning to read Hangul (한글)

Learning Korean has given me a fascinating sense of perspective. I’ve learned other languages: I did a double major in French and English in university and I took a year of German back when I thought a master’s degree in Comparative Literature would be a hoot (actually, it probably would be a hoot, but that’s another story). But those languages had similar (ish) roots and grammatical structure and used the same alphabet. I didn’t realize what an advantage that was…until I started learning Korean and didn’t have it anymore.

All of a sudden, I wasn’t just learning a different pronunciation and vocabulary, I was starting from zero, learning entirely different characters and the sounds they make. And it was, to put it crudely (as I so often do) a mind-f*ck.

As I began learning Hangul, I found it hard to look at something like 안녕하세요! 반갑습니다? (“Hello! How are you?”) and remember that it was something decipherable. My brain would see it and just go, “Oh, well that’s not letters. I can’t read that!” and try to skip over it. I vaguely (and I do mean vaguely) remember going through this when I was learning to read English. My brain would get intimidated by a page of what, let’s face it, were squiggles that someone decided should mean something, and it would just…give up: “Nope, that’s not something I can understand. Let’s move on!” (Confession: deep down I worry that this isn’t a universal experience and that my brain is just especially lazy…).

An aside: I imagine that this text-overlooking tendency is the reason why romanization is so popular among beginner/casual learners of Korean. Our brains naturally skip over the Hangul and go for the romanization: “Anyeonghaseyo! Pangapseupnida?” Unfortunately, the only way to really know how to pronounce words properly is to read them in their original language with their original characters. There are pronunciation rules that just don’t translate into romanization. Plus, the sounds of the Hangul characters are subtly different than their romanized counterparts. Sometimes (OK, most of the time…OK, probably all the time) romanization is downright misleading and counterproductive. It took me several months to truly appreciate this. BE WARNED, FELLOW STUDENTS OF KOREAN.

So, Mission One was to get to the point where my brain stopped messing around and started realizing that Hangul characters are letters that make actual words. And, just like my 4-year-old is currently doing with English, that meant learning the shapes of the letters and the sounds they correspond to (unlike Chinese or Japanese, which have characters for individual words, Korean letters represent sounds like ours do). I practiced and practiced and cursed my stubborn Hangul-ignoring brain and then practiced some more…

…until my brain sighed in frustration, went “FIIIIIIIIIIIIIIINE. I’ll learn how to read these weird squiggles” and things got easier. Now I only forget I can read Hangul about 1/3 of the time instead of most of the time…unless I’m looking at a paragraph of solid text, in which case my brain just throws up its metaphorical hands and I have to force it to pay attention again. One word at a time, brain.

So now I’m at the stage where I’m sounding out words…and not knowing what most of them mean. I’m kind of like a first grader who knows their ABCs but doesn’t know how the letters go together most of the time. I have the added benefit of being able to understand grammatical principles and use a dictionary—both things that a six-year-old wouldn’t be able to do—but the idea is the same. I guess I should be happy that I’ve graduated from a 4-year-old to a 6-year-old in this comparison.

On to Mission Two: learn more vocabulary so I can get past the point of recognizing sounds and start recognizing more actual words. 

The moral of the story: brains are funny and lazy and like to take short cuts…but when we push them past that and make them try something new? That’s where the growth happens. 감사합니다 for your attention!

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