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How Korean Music Unexpectedly Revived My Interest in Language Learning

“Are you sure they’re not saying the n-word?”

Freshman year, 2010; I am sitting with my friend Jessica in her dorm as she shows me some of her favorite K-pop groups. I was not familiar with the phenomenon at the time and did find certain aspects of it to be confusing. She showed me her favorite group* at the time and, while I enjoyed the song, I was not a fan of the visuals. And I made what I would later learn to be a common occurrence of mistaking one of the members to be a girl. It was interesting, but I didn’t think I would want to look into this stuff again. But, alas, I was wrong. Later that year I was inadvertently introduced to some pop artists that I would enjoy thanks to YouTube egging on my procrastination on a night I should have been studying. Just so you know, the singer was not saying the n-word. I’ll explain that a little bit later.

While I did end up minoring in Communication and Film & Media Studies in school, Linguistics was probably the next possible choice for me. When I tell you I love words, this is not an exaggeration. I love learning new words, learning how words are interpreted by different audiences, how so many words and phrases can have multiple meanings, and how language evolves over time. Guys…it’s just fun!

My interest in foreign languages doesn’t really stem from anything meaningful. It goes back to my Spanish III class in high school when one of our assignments was to learn two Spanish songs. Looking back on it, I don’t think it was an actual assignment, but probably something to keep us occupied. I was intrigued by how easy it was to learn the song and lyrics; doing so also helped me out with my pronunciation. The language was a big interest of mine, but this is the first time I thought about learning through music.

But doesn’t that make sense? We learn so many things through song: the days of the week, months of the year, the alphabet, and how to spell ‘bananas’ and ‘glamorous’ (Thanks, Gwen and Fergie). Wouldn’t languages be the same way? Don’t misunderstand, if you’re serious about learning a language you should definitely be adamant and use study materials and immersion (aka be around people who speak the language and participate in actual conversation).

With Korean, it started happening pretty naturally. At first, I was interested in the songs that these girl and boy groups performed. Being born in the early ’90s, I’m all about a good girl or boy band. But then I realized that I wanted to learn these songs (because music isn’t as fun if you can’t sing along)! A lot of songs will have “Romanized lyrics” posted online. The problem, however, is that romanizations aren’t always consistent with how a word in the language will actually sound. I’ll use an example. There’s a restaurant in my area called “Oegadgib”. If you’re a native English speaker, you probably pronounced that as “Oh-EE-ga-jib”, “Oh-ay-gad-jib” or “OH-ga-jib”. The word, however, is pronounced more closely to “WEH-Kod-Jeep”….Not even close. Why is an ‘O’ even here right now? This shows how inaccurate a ‘Romanized’ Korean word can be in comparison to its actual pronunciation.

I thought to myself ‘Well, this won’t do. Guess I should look into learning how to read Korean if I want to learn these songs’. Before I made that decision, the only way I could learn is if I listened to a song non-stop for several days. And, as you can imagine, I would get sick of a song before I could even learn it all the way through!

Teaching myself to read Korean wasn’t nearly as intimidating as it sounds. Luckily, the Korean alphabet or ‘Hangul (한글)’ is actually pretty simple to learn in comparison to other Asian languages. And with many resources on the internet, apps, libraries, and bookstores, it’s easier than ever to start learning the basics of a language on your own. With a workbook I bought from Amazon, I was able to learn the letters in a couple of days. I’m still not a fast reader and I haven’t made much effort to improve my spelling (curse you, diphthongs), but I can recognize the words just fine. Which was really my only objective at the time.

Of course, listening to these songs over time, I began picking up some words and phrases. A lot of songs that I listen to center around love, so I was bound to hear some recurring phrases. Looking up the English lyrics to a song is one thing, but being able to pick up phrases and the overall meaning of a song was completely different. I found myself looking up the Korean lyrics, reading them, and testing myself if I can figure out the overall meaning with what I had learned thus far. It was also interesting to revisit older songs I listened to and be satisfied in hearing ‘words’ rather than just ‘sounds’. I essentially made a nerdy game out of it.

It was a domino effect fueled by curiosity. ‘Oh, what does that word mean?’….’Oh, this is something you say when this happens’…..’So they pronounce this English word that way because that letter doesn’t exist in their alphabet’…..Oh, so that’s a term they have to use because the other person is older’, etc. Eventually, I was introduced to different aspects of the language such as formal/informal speech, mannerisms, titles, dialects, and English loan words. Loan words are words borrowed from a different language that has little to no modification. I was surprised to find out just how many loan words Koreans use in place of the native language. Staff from Asian Boss, a media company that strives to challenge the way people think in regards to cultural stereotypes, even challenged South Koreans to speak without using any English loan words. This video shows several of the challengers finding this task to be more difficult than originally expected.

So my interest in the Korean language is literally based on: “Hmm…I like how this sounds!” And my interest in pursuing fluency is based on the fact that I’ve gotten this far… so why not?

Let’s be clear: I am nowhere close to being fluent in Korean and will not claim to be until I’ve actually reached that point. Don’t ask me to translate anything (people have tried it) or urge me to apply for jobs that require a business level of fluency (people have tried this as well). While it’s definitely a goal for me to formally learn Korean (as well as re-learn Spanish), I still have some things I need to prioritize first before indulging in my nerdy hobbies.

And just to bring this full circle: the quote I started this post with seems to be a common misunderstanding, one that I fell into as well. Basically, there are these words, 내가 (neh-gah) and 니가 (knee-gah). When said slowly, it’s not so bad. However, at a normal rate of speech, these words can easily be mistaken for the n-word. Just so we’re clear…it’s not the n-word. The former means “I” and the latter means “You”.

This is post was made mainly because I get asked about this a lot, so I thought I’d share!


*Originally published on October 22, 2018

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