Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Talk to Me in Korean

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Vital stats:
Format: lessons in the Korean language, Q&A segments, photographic vocabulary sets, explanations of how to say and how specifically not to say certain things, lessons on Korea’s many dialects, interviews, casual conversations, and even English-language discussions of Korean life
Episode duration: 1-25m
Frequency: weekly regular grammar lessons, with all that other material interspersed

매일 팟캐스트를 들어요. 매일 한국어를 공부 해요. 우연이 아니에요. 팟캐스트 듣기를 시작하기 직전에 한국영화 보기를 시작 했어요. 그때에 대학교를 이미 졸업한 상태이었는데 아직 대학도서관에 접근할 수 있었어요. 거기에서 무수히 많은 한국영화를 발견했어요. 사실은, 거기의 거의 모든 재미있는 영화가 한국영화였어요. 보면 볼 수록 한국문화에 관심이 많아졌어요. 결국에는 제가 한국어를 배울 수도 있겠다고 생각 했어요. 처음에 몇년 동안은 혼자 교과서로 공부했어요. 그리고 선현우와 최경은의 Talk to Me in Korean이라는 팟캐 스트가 [iTunes] 나왔어요. 이제는 로스 앤젤레스의 한인타운에 살고, 한국어 수업을 듣고, 한식을 먹고, 한국책을 읽고, 한국텔레비전을 보고, 한국친구가 많고, 한국인 여자친구도 있고 한국에 이사가기로 했는데 아직도 현우 선생남하고 경은 선생님한테 배우고 있어요.

And the aforegoing paragraph, basic though it may sound to any native Korean speaker, should stand as some evidence of the abilities I’ve developed listening to this podcast. Not that they came immediately, or even quickly; Talk to Me in Korean launched in 2009, and I subscribed the next year. Since then, I’ve listened to every one of the over 250 grammar lesson episodes they’ve put out, at least three times each. I’ve even reached the point where I put in an hour or two per morning transcribing their 이야기, or natural conversation episodes, to improve my listening and writing skills. I do still feel more than a little ashamed that my Korean, over six years after I began studying the language, sucks — but hey, before I picked up my Talk to Me in Korean habit, it blew chunks. Journey of a thousand miles, first step, etc. But why, you ask, would I take that first step at all?

The story I’ve long pawned off on bemused friends, involving a chance encounter with Korean film (and if you've never seen the films of Hong Sangsoo yourself, do), begins this Podthought, but I don’t know that it adds up. “I must obey the inscrutable exhortations of my soul,” as Calvin once said to Hobbes. Fourteen years ago, in the summer after ninth grade, I took a video-game programming class. “Don’t worry, guys,” said the instructor on day one, “I won’t expect you to learn to program in C in a week, just like I wouldn’t expect you to learn to speak Korean in a week.” Korean? I thought. Why on Earth would I want to learn Korean? It struck me as an example unsuitable in what I imagined as not only its punishing difficulty but its total irrelevance. (Ironically, I did have a girlfriend with a Korean mom at the time, which perhaps shows the seed already sown.) How did I get from that life to my current one, where I — as I said above, albeit in Korean — live in Los Angeles’ Koreatown, take Korean classes, eat Korean food, read Korean books, watch Korean television (had to get a second satellite dish installed for that), have many Korean friends, and plan to move with my Korean girlfriend to Korea itself? Some of it comes down to a tale of two countries, and interesting ones, in East Asia.

Like many Americans of my generation, I grew up fascinated by Japan, that cornucopia of movies, music, video games, animation — culture and technology of all kinds, really — that just seemed so much cooler (and seemingly so much less audience-insulting) than what my own country put out. But even then, the economic bubble that had turned Japan outward in the seventies and eighties had already burst. In the following years, Korea would come to engage with the wider world as Japan withdrew from it. I hasten to add that Japan remains a country of vast cultural wealth with much to recommend it, and one whose language I also pursue. But for a study of this contrast, we need only compare the most popular Japanese-learning podcasts with the most popular Korean-learning podcast, i.e. Talk to Me in Korean. Not only do the former not match the consistency, production value, and comprehensiveness of the latter, I don’t even think they have the same conceptions of consistency, production value, and comprehensiveness. Though in this framing a representative of Korea’s new era of cultural outreach, the show hardly comes as an official project of the Ministry of Language Promotion or whatever. It and the whole operation of videos, textbooks, and sentence-correction services that has grown around it began as the brainchild of that fellow 선현우, or Hyunwoo Sun, mentioned earlier.

A voracious language-learner himself, Sun one day discovered — or so I gather from his interviews — the dearth of online resources available for those wanting to learn his native language. His initial response to this vacuum took the form of Talk to Me in Korean’s early episodes, where he and his teaching partner Kyeong-eun Choi, the 최경은 above, would go over various basic phrases, grammatical structures, and sample sentences. You probably know that format well if you’ve ever listened to a language podcast before, and the show’s core lessons retain it today. But now they find themselves sharing an RSS feed with an abundance that probably surprises Sun and Choi themselves: Q&A segments, photographic vocabulary sets, explanations of how to say and how specifically not to say certain things, lessons on Korea’s many dialects (for which watching so many EBS documentaries about the countryside has, I feel certain, only partially prepared me), interviews, casual conversations, and even English-language discussions of Korean life.

I see Sun (not to mention his now-many collaborators) as representing not just a new Korea eager to share itself with the wider world, but the autodidact’s equally new empowerment by way of the modern internet’s facilitation of teaching and learning. (It may not surprise you to hear that I’ve found no better medium for this than the podcast. Never underestimate the convenience the ability to study while on your bicycle.) Apart from a persistent tendency to say “let us” instead of “let’s,” he’s attained a truly astonishing level of English for never having spent serious time in an English-speaking country (Kyeong-eun speaks a slightly less advanced and therefore much cuter version), to say nothing of the Japanese, Spanish and French he also mentions speaking. He thus sets an inspiring example both as an unconventionally studying student and an unconventionally teaching teacher.

I don’t expect to get as proficient with Sun’s native tongue has he as with mine through only his podcast — hence my balanced daily diet of Korean reading, Korean writing, Korean viewing, Korean meetup groups, Korean language partners who correct my mistakes (고마워요, 미영 씨), upcoming trip to Korea, and upcoming life in Korea after that — but listening to it gives you a clear idea of what a small country like Korea, a new technology not quite yet taken seriously like podcasting, and an untraditional way of doing something as traditional as language teaching can accomplish. So why study Korean, anyway? The fact that a podcast like Talk to Me in Korean exists seems, at least to me, reason enough. Today, as I end my journey as a Podthinker, one that has gone on nearly as long as my continuing journey toward some kind of competence in the Korean language, I leave you with words I couldn’t say had I not taken it: 여러분, 읽어 주셔서 감사합니다. 인터넷하고 해외에서 뵈요.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall, who hereby officially retires, also hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture [iTunes] and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men's style. He's working on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Contact him at colinjmarshall at gmail, follow him on Twitter @colinmarshall, or like his Facebook page.]