A lot of people I know profess a desire to learn a foreign language - in most cases, they are keen on learning French, German, Italian or Spanish - for a variety of reasons (work, travel, romance etc.) Some actively pursue this dream, for others it remains one of the items on their long to-do-list. Language learning takes time, effort and dedication. While none of the aforementioned languages are particularly easy to learn and they certainly can initially prove to be a challenge for language enthusiasts to master (German, in particular, can be a tough nut to crack with its cases and other grammatical peculiarities and French pronunciation and spelling are tough to get right without a fair bit of practice and memorisation), what about more complex languages, such as Chinese or Korean? Is it possible for a foreigner to gain a good enough command of an Asian language to be able to comfortably hold their own in a conversation with a native speaker and read news/literature in that language?
My lovely polyglot friend Marta shares her experience below. Marta is a native Italian speaker and she is also fluent in English and Korean and conversant in Japanese.
Multilingual Blog: Hi Marta. How many languages do you speak?
Marta: I speak Italian, English, Korean and a bit of Japanese.
Multilingual Blog: How long have you been learning Korean? Where did you study it?
Marta: I have been learning Korean for 14 years now. I started learning alone first. Then, I enrolled in a bachelor's degree in Oriental Languages and Cultures, and I took Korean language as my major. My high grades gave me the chance to study one year in Korea University in Seoul for one year, which made a significant difference. I improved my Korean more in one year in Seoul than three years in university.
Multilingual Blog: What was the most difficult part of learning Korean for you?
Marta:The most difficult part was memorising vocabularies. Being Italian, if I decide to learn Spanish it could be easy for me because many vocabularies are similar. You do not have the same luxury with Korean, as many words come from Chinese characters and personally I do not know Chinese. It is easier to remember words that you use every day. But more technical ones can be tricky, if you do not have the chance to use them, you risk to forget them easily.
Multilingual Blog: How did you find the experience of learning the Korean alphabet and how difficult was it to learn to read and write in Korean?
Marta: It takes some time to learn the alphabet, and they have 21 vowel combinations which can be quite confusing. But once you master the alphabet, reading becomes easier. You need to put dedication and passion. I was largely interested in the Korean culture so I was eager to learn.
Multilingual Blog: You lived in Korea for a while. Do you think it is essential for language learners to spend some time living in a country where that language is spoken in order to attain perfect fluency?
Marta: As I said before, living in Korea made a huge difference in my learning curve. When you learn a language it is very helpful to immerse yourself in that culture as well, talk with different people of different ages and put yourself in every kind of situation. If someone is really interested in perfecting a language, living in a country where the language is spoken is necessary.
Multilingual Blog: Do you have a favourite Korean word or expression that does not have an equivalent in English or Italian?
Marta: One of my favourite expressions is: "mong teryosso". Literary it means: "hitting the bruise". But its real meaning is: "staring vacantly into space, without thinking about anything". It makes me laugh everytime I hear it because its literary meaning does not have any relationship with the real one.
Multilingual Blog: What is your favourite thing about Korean culture?
Marta: Korea is really a dynamic country. The capital Seoul is in constant change, people constantly moving. It is incredible how this part of their culture can be observed in their language. Korean always creates new expressions and new vocabularies. Like a fashion item, some words may be "cool" today but not tomorrow.
Multilingual Blog: What about Japanese? Did you find it easier or more difficult to learn, compared to Korean?
Marta: At the beginning, I found Japanese a little bit more complex than Korean, as you have to learn two alphabets and kanji (idiograms) on the side. Japanese is a combination of all three. However, Korean and Japanese share the same basic grammar and some vocabularies which it made it easier for me to study.
Multilingual Blog: What advice would you give to those who are keen to learn an Asian language but do not know where to start?
Marta: If you want to learn an Asian language it is a very good point of start enrolling to language course. The first impact is important. It is really important you learn the basic correctly from the beginning or you will continue to struggle to have even day to day conversations. Also, because Asian languages work completely opposite to Western languages it helps a lot to receive the right learning support at the first stages.