Typing in Korean

I’ve been putting this off way too long. It’s time to learn how to type in Korean. I’m using a U.S. English MacBook, which comes with no fewer than five different Korean input methods: 2-Set Korean, 3-Set Korean, 390 Sebulshik, GongjinCheong Romaja, and HNC Romaja. Where to begin?

MacInfo says “Romaja” is another word for “not really typing in Korean.” It just uses the Latin alphabet sounds to try to approximate Korean sounds. It’s very approximate. So, for instance to type:

이름 뭐여요?

I have to actually type:

x-i-r-w-m     m-u-e-x-y-e-x-y-o-?

ㅇ ㅣ ㄹ ㅡ ㅁ    ㅁ ㅜ ㅓ ㅇ ㅣ ㅓ ㅇ ㅣ ㅗ ?

The “proper” way is using 2-Set, which maps each key to a particular component of Hangul characters. The hard part is that unlike the Romaja systems, there is no correspondence at all between the Latin alphabet letters on the U.S. English keyboard and the Hangul components they map to.

What about 3-Set? According to this Quora answer, it’s similar to 2-Set but with a newfangled mapping. In other words, skip it.

How do I type 이름 뭐여요? in 2-Set? Try this:

d-l-f-m-a     a-n-j-d-u-d-y?

ㅇ ㅣ ㄹ ㅡ ㅁ     ㅁ ㅜ ㅓ ㅇ ㅕ ㅇ ㅛ ?

Notice how it takes fewer characters with 2-Set, because there are keys that map directly to ㅕ and ㅛ.

Is the 2-Set mapping the same layout that standard keyboards use in Korea?






My name is Isaac.      이름 Isaac 입니다

What’s your name?     이름 입니다?

I’m 29 years old.      이십 살 입니다

How old are you?      살입니까?

I like to learn languages.      언어를 배우고 싶습니다.                         

I’ve learned Korean for two months.     나는 개월 한국어를 공부했다

I also like to cook, and bake bread.      요리 빵을구워 도싶습니다.      

I work in a bakery in Taiwan.     대만의 빵집 에서 일한다

What do you like to do?     취미 는 뭐니?

January: Korean dialogues, Indonesian marathon

Pitfalls from lack of context

Last month I mentioned how I asked a Korean friend to record some simple, extremely common phrases for me, and how I was listening to them and shadowing them every day. I took it a step further and even made audio flashcards out of them, putting the Korean audio on one side and the Korean transcript and English audio on the other. Unfortunately, after a few days of reps this backfired and I completely lost motivation for a couple weeks, and then finally deleted the cards.

Why was this such a failure? First, I think putting the English audio on the card was a mistake. Putting any English on the cards isn’t ideal, but it seems like somehow having to listen to the English audio recordings when I did the reps was short-circuiting my incipient Korean brain and my English brain, and made it feel like I was getting yanked out of Korea World every time I heard them.

Second, I think it was a mistake to ask for these sentences out of context. Listening to a long list of simple phrases is kind of confusing, and also kind of boring, and I think this prevented the phrases from actually sticking even when I listened to them hundreds of times. My passive listening brain just tuned them out. Contrast this with the level one dialogue from Talk to Me in Korean, which I can still pretty faithfully repeat from memory even though I haven’t listened to it in weeks.

Again, this proves the importance of stories.

Speaking of Talk to Me in Korean, I’ve still been listening to these audio lessons sporadically over the past month. They’re entertaining enough, and what makes them really valuable to me is that I’ve been using this audio comprehension deck that takes the audio directly from the lessons. The lessons help me understand the cards (and give me stronger memories/impressions that make them stick), and the cards reinforce the lessons.

Given the high quality of the material, I really wish they would produce more dialogues. If there was a dialogue showcasing usage of the words or grammar points from each lesson, that would be so useful.

Korean dialogues: Korean Class 101

I got back to Taiwan a couple days ago and this gave me an occasion to try to get back on track with Korean. I found another promising resource: Korean Class 101. I was skeptical of it at first because of how commercial it is, but I think I dismissed it too quickly: it has tons of Korean dialogues of all levels available for download, they come with transcripts (and, if needed, lessons explaining the contents in English), and the voice actors do a good job. The key is to not get bogged down listening to the lessons themselves.

I put a bunch of the dialogue mp3s on my phone for convenient shadowing. The method I’m trying first is 1) listen to the dialogue once, 2) read the transcript or listen to the lesson as necessary to understand anything I didn’t catch the first time, 3) shadow ~5 times a day. At this level the dialogues are all less than 30 seconds long, so I can do several a day and still spend under 15 minutes. I’m started with the very lowest level, which might be too low; I’m wondering if I’ll get greater returns and have more fun if I aim a little higher.

Next language: Indonesian

Some language friends have talked me into trying a 12-hour Indonesian-learning marathon this month, on Saturday the 21st. I’ve been skeptical of these, because it seems like too short a time to actually acquire anything that will last. But these friends have more language learning experience that I do, so it seems likely I’ll learn some interesting things by going along with their plan. Maybe they’ll prove me wrong.

Doing this also gives me an excuse to keep focusing on Korean and German until the 21st, and helps cover up the fact that I neglected to start another language before and it’s now already the middle of January (I was still in the US until the 12th, give me a break!).

Thierry’s class and finding the right audio

Last Thursday I was lucky enough to sit in on a class taught by Thierry Hsieh, the man who speaks 25 languages and founded the polyglot cafe. It’s essentially a language class, but students are learning one or more of French, German, Spanish, Japanese, Korean, Turkish, Thai, or English all in the same class. During practice time they divide into language-based groups. For some of the languages there is a native speaker teaching assistant to help answer questions, for the others Thierry himself fills that role.

The activities in the class are centered around an audio recording from Hippo Family Club in Japan. When I attended, students had already been listening to the first recording for about a month. The recording is a minute-long message from Janet Brown, a young girl in Middle America who is writing to Sonoko, a Japanese exchange student who is coming to stay with her family. Versions are available in every language represented in the class, and students’ job is to listen to it many times a day and try to shadow the sounds as faithfully as possible (so they could understand the contents of the message, at first they were allowed to listen to a version in their native language).

The day I visited, students were finally being given the written transcripts of the message. Their job was then to study the transcript in their target language and try to deduce the meaning of the words and symbols based on their month-long memorization of the audio. Note, then, that in the case of Korean, until that point students had had no instruction in Hangul. They didn’t know which part of each character denoted a consonant, and which part a vowel, for instance. The idea, in other words, is to rely on the brain’s natural pattern matching to learn how to read.

We spent some time transforming the details of Janet’s life into those of our own — translating birthdays, names and numbers of siblings, and hobbies. Then we went around in a circle and practiced speaking these personalized messages.

One student had poor pronunciation, and it was soon revealed that she had been learning Hangul on her own.

“Don’t rely too much on the written words!” the TA reminded us sternly.

Incidentally, this way of memorizing reminds me of how my siblings and I learned our Torah portions when we were preparing for our b’nai mitzvot. Our instructor would first record herself chanting the passages, and our job was just to listen and repeat until we had them memorized. The text of the Torah itself was just an aid in case memory failed.

Does it work? At the end of class, Thierry showed us a graph with two lines: one line increased linearly before plateauing, and another started off slow but increased exponentially and soon overtook the first line.

The first line represents someone learning the normal, “textbook” way, Thierry said. This would mean, for instance, learning the rules of the Hangul writing system first, plus some vocab and grammar, and then tackling listening and speaking using that material.

The second line is the “natural” method, practiced in this class. At first, there is intensive listening, but no explanation of writing, vocabulary, or grammar. The writing system can be confusing. But, Thierry claimed, once one starts to get the hang of it, progress happens much faster than in the traditional method.

This sounds like a way of approximating first-language acquisition. We don’t start to learn to read and write our first language until the words and phrases are already embedded in our minds, right?

I just had one problem with this class. The message from Janet Brown to Sonoko is incredibly boring. It almost seems like the authors were trying to make it boring (come on, Janet Brown?!). Listening to and shadowing it a few days before the class, I actually found myself getting angry at the authors for forcing such insipid material on all of us earnest young language students. What’s the point of designing a revolutionary language course if the material at the heart of it is so repugnantly bland?

When I complained about this to the teaching assistant, she took it in stride. Maybe this material isn’t for you, she said. That’s fine: you can apply the same learning method to material that you enjoy. That’s actually why we spent the time that day in class personalizing the messages, after all.

Recently I’ve been shadowing a dialogue from Talk to Me in Korean, the one meant to test one’s comprehension of the level-1 lessons. It’s about three young people who go out for pizza to celebrate one of their birthdays. On the face of it, it sounds almost as dull as the letter from Janet Brown, but in practice it’s a hundred times better.

It’s full of misunderstandings, questions, doubts, and surprises, like:

“Thanks! Wait what? The present isn’t for me?”


“Happy birthday! I don’t have a present for you. I didn’t know it was your birthday.”


“Huh? Who drinks beer with pizza?”

“Is it weird?”

“Well, no…”

Actually, the communication sometimes sounds stilted, to the point where I keep wondering whether it’s intentionally so. Is this a lesson about Korean culture? In any case, it’s more thought provoking than the sentence “I have a mother, a father, an older brother, an older sister, a younger sister, and a younger brother named Terry.”

Maybe even more important than the content is the tone of voice of the actors. The Janet Brown speech is delivered in a “properly” enunciated monotone, with a classical music background that inspires one to start drifting into slumber as soon as it starts. In the pizza dialogue, on the other hand, the moods are if anything exaggerated. Minsu sounds positively distressed when Mina asks for a beer in the pizza parlor. I don’t know why, but this seems to make the difference between material that I get tired of listening to just once, and material that I can shadow a hundred times without losing my temper.

What about you? What makes the difference between learning material that’s entertaining and usable, and material that’s painful to listen to?

Korean midterm status report

When I started German in August, the month stretched out in front of me, a big, empty space, waiting for me to fill it with anything at all. It was scary. But it was also easy, once I decided to learn German, to fill each day with as much German as I could handle. By the middle of August, I already felt like I’d gone a fair distance.

The days in November were already occupied when I got to them. Yoga, polyglot cafe, making 包子, doing a bit of translating work, and trying to find time to play ultimate and even go out once in a while have meant that I’ve had to kick out the original inhabitants of those hours to make some room for Korean. Or just pack things in more tightly, to the detriment of my health, which is maybe why I’m at home battling a cold right now instead of eating teppanyaki and getting ready to lead the English table.

November is going by fast. What Korean have I managed to learn so far? I spent a few days reading about Hangul, the writing system. In principle, yes, it’s simple as many people claim. But I’ve been finding it pretty difficult to actually memorize the symbols and read Korean. This is partly because I haven’t completely grasped the phonetics. There are about four vowels that all sound like very close variations of “uh” or “oh”, and they don’t look remarkably different either. The basic ingredients of vowels seem to be vertical or horizontal lines with or without certain numbers of lines or dots on either side.

Maybe I just need to spend a couple hours coming up with my own mnemonics and making my own cards to really learn these symbols. On the other hand, so far I feel like I’ve had the most fun and most “success” with learning material that doesn’t include any writing.

Talk to me in Korean (TTMIK) has been useful; the blog itself is entertaining; the hosts are charming and flirt with each other shamelessly, but lessons advance at a crawl. Entire 20-minute lessons are devoted to teaching one or two words. Maybe it’s just because I’ve been listening to the first lessons of the first level. There are a very impressive number of episodes and levels, and it may be worth browsing the later ones.

Luckily, TTMIK also has a dialogue — seemingly one for each level — that’s entirely in Korean. Today I opened this in Audacity, downloaded the transcript, and made Anki cards the same way I did with the Batman story from Der Explikator a couple days ago. Actually, this time I also made reversed cards with the Korean text on the front and the audio on the back, hoping to improve my reading that way.

I also went back to tried-and-true Pimsleur audio lessons, which I used when I first started with Chinese and Japanese. The nice thing is they’re packaged in nonthreatening, 30-minute lessons, no reading is required, and they progress at a good pace and are ordered in such a way as to make memorization easy. The downside is that the content itself is uninspiring, and usually just includes the most formal type of language.

I’ve tried three Anki decks.

The first one, minimal pairs, has been confusing at first. My brain is still frantically looking for any kind of pattern in all these crazy variations of the “t”, “p”, and “k” sounds. But it seems like maybe one is starting to emerge.

The second, about Hangul, has been confusing me even more. Which is surprising to me, since, again, I thought Hangul was supposed to be really simple. I could be wrong, but it seems like the “answers” to the “questions” are actually the names of the symbols, not the sounds they make. Which I feel isn’t very important.

The third one is a deck with lots of example sentences, audio on the front, text and translation on the back. In theory this is fine, but it’s also been a very, very steep uphill battle, since at this point I still have almost no vocabulary with which to make sense of what I’m hearing. I reckon this deck would be more approachable once I’d finished listening to all the TTMIK and Pimsleur lessons.

So that’s it. The good news is I get some satisfaction from the little bits of conversational Korean I’ve been picking up from the audio lessons. So maybe that’s what I’ll do for a while.

Agonizing and starting Korean


I’ve been agonizing these last few days over whether I really have the time to start learning Korean this month. I feel like I barely have enough time for German and French.

It’s partly that I really don’t have as much time as I did before. I started a part-time apprenticeship at a bakery and I’m starting to help organize some polyglot events.

It’s also that I still haven’t “figured out” exactly how I’m working on these languages. This afternoon was language time. I started by listening to a bunch of French videos on YouTube while I cleaned my apartment. Then I did 15 minutes of German vocabulary flashcards, took a nap, and then had a 30-minute trial German lesson on Verbling (I got a free lesson when I made an account). I meant to make some more audio cards from a YouTube video I found that had subtitles, or do some shadowing, but somehow six hours had already passed. Hmm.

Struggling to do all these things I feel like I “should” be doing to keep my language practice working is stressful. It’s even more stressful to think about trying to make all these things happen with one more language on my plate.

It’s not going to work unless I can change my mentality. I do see another option. Instead of telling myself I’m obligated to do X, Y, and Z every day for languages α, ß, and γ, I could just sort of “embrace” that I’m trying to learn α, ß, and γ, and just sort of “trust” that by following whatever learning method and whatever language seems most interesting at any given moment, I’ll continue to gradually get better at all of them to varying degrees. I’m not used to this style of learning, but it seems closer to what a lot of the successful language enthusiasts I’ve met have done.

For instance, for the guy who speaks six languages fluently, it sounds like learning them was more of an obsession than a set of chores that required a lot of discipline. And that’s the way it should be. But I’m starting to understand that it actually takes a bit of faith in myself for me to learn this way.

That sounds like good practice in its own right. So maybe I spend three hours a day on languages, but it doesn’t need to be every single language every single day. I go to Polyglot cafe three days a week, but I can decide what languages I feel like practicing once I get there (they’re starting a German table next week!). I look for conversation partners in all my languages, but just sort of go with the flow when it comes down to who/what/when/how often.


So, Korean. Actually, starting to learn Korean does seem more interesting to me right now than “making” myself study more German and French. That’s what it really comes down to.

And I know I said I’d try a completely phonetics-based approach when I started the next language, but learning Hangul seems fun, and then I’ll be able to read, and, hey, I don’t really believe it’ll make or break my ability to learn Korean phonetics.

Here are the first few resources I’m looking at:

  1. howtostudykorean.com – Second entry in Google search results for learn korean. It claims to have everything I need to learn Korean, including lessons, tests, example sentences, and audio recordings. Yep, what more could I want?
  2. Talk to me in Korean – Recommended by a friend who’s a Korean teacher. They’ve got textbooks and a podcast, and possibly other things.
  3. Anki – Of course. There’s a whole section just for Korean stuff, including a Hangul deck, a phonetic minimal pairs deck, and an audio-containing grammar deck sorted by difficulty.

If these are as good as they sound, they should keep me busy (entertained?) for a while.

Quantum computers, time management & Korean

In the last post I talked about making audio flashcards by chopping up a podcast episode from Der Explikator about… quantum computers. I’m happy to report that after only a few days of reviews, what was previously totally incomprehensible to me has become pretty comprehensible. It’s only the first few paragraphs — the card-making was time-consuming enough that I only got that far — but I think it’s enough to prove the concept.

The problem that’s hurting my motivation is the subject matter. I can barely talk about quantum computers in English. I don’t know when I’ll ever want or need to talk about them in German. In fact, if I go my whole life without ever talking about quantum computers in German, I won’t regret it. Yes, you can quote me on that.

So I think the next logical step is to find some audio material that’s closer to the German I actually want to learn to understand and speak. The catch is it has to have a transcript. Why? Why can’t I just make cards with pieces of audio and no transcript on the back? This might have its own benefits, but as far as I can tell it’s the transcript that allows me to decipher the audio in just a few repetitions so that it actually turns comprehensible.

Usually, it goes like this: I listen to the audio, uncomprehending. Then I stare blankly at the indecipherable German transcript. Then I read the French translation, and get a sense of the meaning of the sentence. Then I look at the German transcript again, and I can more or less figure out what the words mean. Then I listen to the audio again a few times, matching sounds to text, and by this point the sentence sort of makes sense when I hear it again.

I want to learn natural German dialogue, the kind of German people speak on the streets of Kreuzberg. So where am I likely to find natural dialogue with transcripts? I can think of two places: YouTube and movies. There’s actually also the Slow German dialogues, but there are still only six of those.

With YouTube, the tricky thing is that most videos don’t have captions, and the ones that do tend to be something other than what I want to learn. Maybe I’m being too picky. The other annoyance is that the captions are hardcoded into the video, not given as a text file, so that will add an extra step of typing them out when I create the cards. I’ve got to be pretty motivated to make making these cards worth it. Maybe it’s not bad to be picky about the material.

For movies, or TV shows for that matter, the trick is still going to be finding material I want to learn, that hopefully isn’t too much more dramatic than real life, and then finding a corresponding subtitle file that actually matches the audio closely. It sounds doable. It’s just a matter of spending the time to do it.

Speaking of time, recently I’ve noticed that I’ve been repurposing “language time” for other things. I marked out a three-hour language section on my calendar every day this month except Sundays. There are other sections too, like yoga and language cafe. Those are less negotiable, since they either happen when they’re supposed to happen, or they don’t happen at all. But with “language time” it’s too tempting to try to move it around, break it into pieces, fit it into a break or a subway ride, in order to make room for other things I want to do. The result is that “language time” often doesn’t happen, or else it gets seriously curtailed.

On top of this, I’m “supposed” to start learning a new language tomorrow. (Happy Halloween!) I’ve been thinking about Korean, since 1) I can theoretically do a working holiday in Korea while I’m still not quite 30, and 2) there’s a Korean table at the language cafe, so I’ll get conversation practice for free. Might as well take advantage of it. Also, 3) Korean has a different writing system and super different phonetics from other languages I’ve studied.

But how am I supposed to start Korean when I can barely keep up with German and French?

This gets to the other, deeper problem. When I conceived of this mad scheme a couple months ago, of starting a new “language acquisition practice” every month, I imagined that after spending several hours a day for one month, I would be off the hook. I would have a sturdy language acquisition machine that was all set up to carry me to fluency in six, nine, or twelve months. All I’d have to do is turn the crank for thirty minutes a day.

What I’m realizing is that it isn’t so simple. Maintenance isn’t something you just do once and then forget about. For one thing, I’ve been spending more time recently looking for new material and thinking about how to study it than I have on actual studying. Sure, I put on my podcasts or YouTube videos for ten, twenty, thirty minutes a day. I listen to an odd mp3 rip of a YouTube video on the subway. But this always seems inadequate.

Well, let me be more precise. In the case of French, where I already had some background, it may be enough. I believe that my French is slowly but surely improving just by browsing YouTube videos every day, and this is something I have been able to do almost every day. But with German it’s not so clear. I understand almost nothing of the realistic, everyday-style videos I’ve encountered. It’s not comprehensible input yet. Hence the vocabulary cards and hoops I’ve been jumping through to improve my comprehension using those cards.

OK, so what does this mean? This suggests to me that it takes more than a month to get to a point where the language “takes off” and you’re able to get better just by doing things that don’t resemble studying.

So then, what? Do I soldier on anyway, trying to start a new language every month until I collapse from exhaustion? Or do I modify my original goal yet again, maybe from 12 languages in a year to a more modest 4, 5, or 6 languages. Or, maybe I say to hell with fluency, I never said my goal was to get fluent anyway, and just cut back on French and German now to make room for Korean and whatever comes after.

The problem with the last option is that I still want to get better at French and German (and Japanese, for that matter). I’m getting a sense of achievement from this, and it would feel like a waste to stop now, so soon after having started.

On the other hand, I think it’s important for me to start a new language in November. This project was and is about starting new languages, and so far I’ve really only done that once, with German.

Here’s the most optimistic plan I can come up with: I put French with Japanese, on autopilot. I watch videos for fun, converse in it when I have the opportunity, but don’t spend any time making new study material. With German, I narrow down and focus on just vocabulary cards and audio cards, and shadowing (especially shadowing whatever I’m making the audio cards out of). With the rest of the (theoretical) time I get from removing my (theoretical) French obligations and paring down my German routine, I tackle Korean.