Language is not a writing system!

Okay, so this subject has been on my mind recently.  There’s so many simpletons out there that proclaim that Chinese and Japanese are much harder to learn than Korean. Sorry. You’re wrong. Korean is far harder to learn.

Korean does have the simpler writing system. That’s true.

But the reality is, that the sounds of Korean will set you far back than any writing system. Language is about sound and meaning. If you don’t have that covered first, you’re going to have trouble understanding what you read anyways.

Japanese on the other hand is extremely simple to learn. The sounds of Japanese only have a few real trip ups here and there. The Grammar, however is a lot more complex and is very similar to Korean in many respects.

Also, Japanese has many different registers (how you talk, what words you use depending on your relationship to the person you’re speaking to). Korean also has many registers and some verbs change completely (not just morphed) depending on the register. That’s quite tough.

I got really angry one time in my Korean class when a student said in an example that Japanese is much harder to learn than Korean. And while I agree that it’s hard to learn Japanese in Korea, their reasoning was the writing system.

NOPE! That’s not the language! That’s a representation of the language.

If you learn to pronounce the Hangeul in a week, you still won’t be able to understand Curious George in Korean.

A writing system is not a language! A language is a collection of sounds and meaning. Noam Chomsky would also point out that it actually developed through the evolution of human thought, not just for communication.

But, I didn’t want to seem like an old grump and argue with the class or the teacher who agreed with the student. To no fault of her own, she’s not learned Japanese and therefore doesn’t really know. Also, she doesn’t have a point of view from a native English speaker. And most teachers don’t teach phonics or barely remember how the mouth produces sounds from their university courses.

Japanese only looks hard from the characters. But the characters are not the language. Pick your fights, right? One thing I did learn in Korea was not to embarrass people even if they are dead wrong or simply don’t know better.

Did you know that you can teach without a textbook and through speech and context alone?

So why not use that? Learning just like you learned to speak English first (or your other mother tongue). You didn’t learn to write or read first, did you?

Textbooks are far easier on the teacher, and those methods of speech and heavy CI are very intensive for the teacher. With texts and books, the teacher can just say “Do this page for homework.” Speech and CI take lots of preparation.

Pimsleur CD’s took a lot of hours to make and that’s an audio only method. The method is also quite effective.

Now, where was I?

Ah, Chinese!

Yes, Chinese is even harder than Japanese with many more ideograms than Japanese.The Chinese characters fit together logically. But again we are talking about the writing system.

Also, the sounds of the language are more different from English compared to Korean. So in those respects Chinese is harder.

You know why Chinese is easy for English speakers?

The grammar is quite similar to English. More so than Japanese or Korean. And this is a huge help in getting into the greater depths of the language. However it is also different in many areas, so it’s not like Chinese has no grammar learning curve.

Anyways, that’s my venting for the day. Try to calmly explain to people why Japanese and Chinese aren’t really that hard to learn even though they say you can read Korean “In a morning.” That of course is true of a focused student, but you won’t remember how to read it unless you practice for a good month. And you’ll be slow as beans until after another 3 to 6 months. And even then, you won’t have acquired much vocabulary to make sense of most things you’ll see that are longer than a few sentences outside of a textbook.


Sitting at the kids table


During my short trip to Japan, I realized that my Japanese has gotten much stronger. However, I’m still sitting at the kids table.

sitting at the kid's table

The kid’s table is the difference between being fluent and being bi-lingual. It’s also the foreigner speak. It’s the foreigner mistakes. And honestly, it’s the huge chunk of vocabulary and grammar that is missing.

When I arrived in Japan, I felt a strong pull in my head as I engaged with the language community.

Boom! The gears of my rusty brain clicked and clacked as I started to understand what was going on around me. At times I  put the brakes on to think and grab that long lost word that lives in the deep reaches of my memory. And that caused me to skip over what was being said as the Japanese bursted out in waves into the air.

And then I realized that I still have a long way to go. I need to understand the fine details in Japanese so I can leave the kid’s table. But alas, my Japanese is still half-baked.

On my trip, my Japanese was at its strongest. And even so, I was quite humbled.

I knew exactly what I didn’t know. I looked at the newspaper and said… well… there’s something I can’t do effortlessly yet. Reading an article might take me an hour or two.

Eavesdropping and listening to talk radio…

Yep, I can’t do that yet without intense focus. Even if I focus with all of my might, I couldn’t get any fine details out of it. The processing speed of my Japanese is far too slow right now.

A good solution is more reading of things such as kid’s science books. Explanations in Japanese for children have been helping. But I need to keep going.

Also, I need to study intensively from vocab and grammar books. There’s really no way around that. There’s too much to know that I must explicitly learn through constant practice and memorisation. I’ve realized the gains from such study before. But it is very tiring and hard work.

I’ve also been reading more and more these past few weeks in Japanese. It’s been quite a treat, and I’ve felt myself improving. It’s quite exciting to discover new things. Each time, I find a new way to express something. And most importantly I understand people speaking. And I get it faster.

Listening and being engaged in the language community will bring a tremendous change in my abilities.  I have to work hard to become an insider, not an outsider.  That means lots of drilling and proper studying in preparation as well as getting out of the books participating in society. With these experiences, I will reach the adult’s table.

photo credit: birthday party at the gymnasium via photopin (license)

9 Reasons why they didn’t understand the words that were coming out of your mouth.

Ever have trouble with this?

You say something in a foreign language to a native speaker and you’re sure that it’s right. You made sure to hit all of the right tones, and put your mouth in just the right way… but…


If you’re lucky, you’ll get some sort of feedback like this. At worst, they will just ignore you or quietly nod their head. Yeah… they didn’t understand you. Or you said something strange.

WHAT?! I said something strange!?

Well… maybe…

There are a few things that could have happened.

1. The listener was expecting English out of your mouth.

Yes, that catches people off guard. Especially out here in the Korea. I live on the outskirts of the city. So, sometimes people just don’t expect foreigners to know any Korean.

Though, I’ve been experiencing that less and less here in Korea. Lots of westerners have appeared in k-dramas, the news, movies, and TV. That’s a step in the right direction. Such globalization shouldn’t be restricted to the benefit of business only. Society benefits from a globalization of ideas and understanding. In these days of high speed internet, those ideas have been getting around the world more frequently.

For example, I’ve had the luck of my students showing me this Youtuber who does videos in English and Korean. His Korean is very good! Actually, I would say he could pass for a Korean if he didn’t look so English. So he is almost bilingual. That’s a tremendous achievement. But this guy has lived abroad in China and Korea since he was young. Pretty cool kid. Check out some of his vids if it’s to your liking.

2. What you said was too good or too smooth and you failed at delivery.

Some people just aren’t expecting you to be so smooth. What else can I say? Maybe you learned this cool term from a movie or TV show. And you are just aching to use it on a native speaker.

I remember watching Star Trek in Japanese. Worf was going off to fight in a battle to defend his father’s Honor. So Captain Picard said “Kouun wo inoruyo.” Which translates to “I’ll pray for your good fortune.” It’s kind of dramatic isn’t it?

I said this to my Japanese friend the day after and then… yeah it just wasn’t the right thing to say instead of goodbye. If they had left to go back to Japan, then that would be appropriate, but… I just tried to be too cool and it made me look like a fool.

3. The way you said it was too polite, or too rude.

Yep… guilty here! I’ve usually made the mistake of being too polite, but once or twice I’ve made the mistake of being too casual. When being asked if I would like a bag at the super market, the polite response in Korean is not, “Ani!”

“ANIYOOO!!!” said the cashier as she slammed her fist down. She was also having a bad day. When you hang out with kids all day, it’s hard to hear the polite form used much. :/

4. Your prosody was strangely American/British/non-native etc.

I went back to America with my wife’s family. We were at the airport as the gentleman attempted to welcome the Japanese passengers. And he did… in the most vile horky dorky American accent I’ve had the pleasure of hearing. He knew all the right words… just not how to say them.

My brother in law couldn’t stop laughing. And that was when I realized that I was in America. Who hired this guy to work at the airport!? At Narita airport in Chiba there are at least some people that can speak many different languages helping people get in and out of lines. Unfortunately not many of them could speak Korean (I had to help an elder Korean woman one time who didn’t know she had to fill out a card for immigration processing.)

Just imagine! You would crap your pants if you had to speak in only Japanese to the immigration officers. But… I’m thinking the money isn’t there to hire skilled language workers sometimes. And on top of that, those people need to be managed, and would work at weird times. It’s not a perfect system.

5. You think that you’re making the sounds when in reality you are morphing it too much.

Yep! You’re changing those vowels so much, the native speaker doesn’t understand the new word that you’ve just made. Your native tongue has a lot of influence on this. Also if you’ve studied other languages before, those will also have an influence. Whoops!

6. The listener is a little hard of hearing.

Sometimes I think that I’m hard of hearing too. Or perhaps my mind is off doing something else. It happens. Especially when you have a lot of things on the mind. Just realize that the listener might not have the best ears. Especially with all of this modern technology blasting into our tiny ear holes.

7. It’s just too loud, man. It’s too loud!


Turn the music down, man! It’s too loud!

When listening even to our friends who are from our same language community, if there are many distractions or other interfering things it’s harder for the mind to process messages. Some people do well in loud rooms. However, others do not. Either get out of the room, or move closer to the listener.

8. The listener isn’t interested in what you have to say.

Let’s face it, if you’re an adult, most people will have very little patience for other adults that can’t speak their language fluently. That is unless you have something of value to offer. A give and take, as you will.

They don’t really want to talk at all. They are just making polite conversation as not to be rude. It happens. It happens to me a lot here in Korea.

Sometimes what people have to say is fascinating, but other times… not so much. As a teacher, I have a lot of practice in patience with non-native speakers. But when I’m not working, I don’t always want to be a free English teacher for everyone. Sorry, I’ve got things to do!

9. The listener is too proud of their English, or jealous of your ability

“Oh no no no no, this is impossible!” they think. Or “Wow! Your _______ is very good!”
It’s strange for me to meet Korean looking Americans who live here in Korea. “Wow, she must have went to school in Canada.” And then after I hear them talk and watch them act for a few moments “Nope, she was born and raised in America! Don’t I feel silly now!”

I feel for those people. They face discrimination all the time here in Korea. However, they can also blend in, which is nice to be able to do once in a while. A double edged sword, though. Ugh, social problems… :/

I’m not a huge K-pop fan, but I vaguely remember something similar happening with the “Impossible that you speak English!” kind of attitude on TV somewhere with some K-pop band…

At least times are changing. Sure, 50 years ago it was a rare event to see an Asian in America with out an accent. Mostly because many Asians weren’t allowed into the US before the 1960’s. In the 1970’s American Bruce Lee had trouble breaking into Hollywood because all the roles for Asians were usually lousy stereo types. That’s why he went back to Hong Kong to make films.

Ah, now I remember where the TV interview is from. Have a look! Skip to 3:50 if you’re not so much into the music.

Yeah, way to do your research, Howie! Some people are multilingual. Some Asian people can even speak English! Imagine that! But I guess you wouldn’t know that being in New York City, right? English isn’t an international language or anything…

Well… there’s a reason why they call it the idiot box. Yeah, there’s some programs that are influential and thought provoking, but most of it is just finely engineered garbage.