How I Learn Languages · Life in Korea

Stellar Teaching: The Art of Breaking Down a Language

In my previous post, I quoted a language-learner who said that fluency in “a language cannot be taught; it can only be learnt.” That said, there are many other aspects of language that CAN be taught, and this semester, I was fortunate to have one of the most amazing teachers ever: Koh-seonsengnim (lit. “Koh-teacher,” hereafter “Koh-ssn”), featured below.


Here, I would like to reflect on his teaching techniques. Although I don’t want to become a career language teacher, I do want to get better at explaining things to my friends learning English. Further, learning to break down a foreign language in a way that makes logical sense to learners has also made me more conscious of what kinds of questions I should be asking as a language-learner.

Two of my favorite things about Koh-ssn were:

1. He was so good at explaining everything.

Here I’ll focus on how he explained vocab. In my last post, I wrote about how I generally focus my self-studying on grammar and syntax as opposed to vocabulary. Part of the reason is because it is simply less efficient to learn vocabulary on one’s own, especially when we’re talking about languages like Japanese and Korean that have relatively little overlap with English. And I’m not talking about “high-level” words like “democracy” or “computer,” which are easy to learn, because they have just ONE meaning. I’m talking about the so-called “easy” words like “hang.” Imagine how much of a nightmare it must be for English-learners to distinguish between “hang up,” “hang out,” “hang clothes,” “hang on,” “hang tight,” “hangover,” “hang around,” “to be hanged.”Imagine how much time it would take an English-learner to look up such words and idioms.

The same goes for Korean. Further, some words don’t even have a dictionary entry, or the dictionary has the word but not the exact definition you’re looking for. Assuming you do find the word and the definition you’re looking for, you might not find helpful/correct example sentences. For example-

1424599841Then if you’re diligent, you look up the etymology or try to figure out mnemonics or other ways to remember the word.

Now imagine if someone just told you all of that information. That was Koh-ssn! Although the level we were in (Korea University Level 5) focused mainly on words with one meaning, such as “noise pollution,” and “management philosophy,” Koh-ssn made an extra effort to explain the mundane words–the words we take for granted–whenever they came up in the textbook (or whenever he thought of a fun one!). He also knew that simply learning a word is not enough; you must understand it and all its intricacies in order to make it your own. And here’s how he helped us do that:

  • Explain the meaning of the word: duh
  • Explain the etymology: 잔소리, which is usually translated as “nagging” or “nitpicking,” comes from 잘다, which means “small” or “finely” (e.g. 고기를 잘게 썰다 chop meat into small pieces) and 소리 which means sound. So basically “petty sounds”!
  • Explain Hanja etymology: Koh-ssn’s rare ability to recall hanja, the Chinese characters behind Korean words, from memory made sure that students from the 漢字文化圏 or “cultures that use Chinese character”/”Sinosphere” (China, Japan, Taiwan) got the word’s essence right away. Considering that around 70% of Korean vocabulary comes from Chinese AND that the majority of people learning Korean are from the “Sinosphere,” it is surprising how few Korean teachers know their hanja.
  • Explain it in English: Sometimes when I listen to Korean, I just unconsciously skip over words I don’t know. This is bad, because those words can be quite important! So it was extremely helpful that Koh-ssn would explain them without us asking. For example once he once said 밑줄, which I would have totally skipped over had he not said in English, “underline.”
  • Explain other meanings of the word: For example, in the textbook, we learned the word 모 나다, which means “difficult to get along with.” Rather than just moving on, he explained that 모 나다 comes from 모 which means “angle,” e.g. 네모 means “something with four corners” (e.g. square/rectangle). If you are have a round personality (원만하다), you don’t easily conflict with other people; you can “bounce” off of them. If you have an “angular personality” (모난 성격), that means you don’t get along with other people well. (While we don’t have such expressions in English, this way of thinking exists in subtler forms. E.g. why the animators of the movie UP gave Russell a round face and Carl Fredrickson an angular face.)
  • Explain other usages of the word: Just as words such as “hang” have a lot of usages, so do a lot of Korean words! For example, the Korean word 두르다 roughly “to do something around” is also used in “둘러보다” (“to look around” as in “I’m just looking around” 둘러 보고 있어요), “기름을 두르다” (“to spread oil around a frying pan”), “목도리를 두르다” (“to wrap a scarf around one’s neck”). Knowing all these meanings and how they are related helped me understand the general feeling or connotation of the word.
  • Play Charades or Pictionary: Koh-ssn also happened to love drawing on the board and acting things out. It’s easy to see how this would be helpful for vocabulary, it was also surprisingly helpful for one specific grammar pattern, 더, that is extremely difficult for non-Koreans to understand. In English, for instance, 더니, a derivative of 더, it is translated into “since,” “but,” “and,” “so,” depending on the context. I had asked at least ten Korean people about this grammar and still didn’t get it. Koh-ssn drew a picture like the following on the board, and then explained it a bit… and something in my mind clicked!


Often times when you ask a native speaker (sometimes even a teacher!) to explain why a word sounds the way it is, they’ll say, “I don’t know. Just memorize it.” But actually almost all words have a raison-d’etre and conveying that to a learner will make it way easier for them to learn (i.e. remember) the word. And it’ll also enrich their learning experience! I’ve had so many “aha!” moments in class this semester that made me love learning Korean so much more.

2. He helped us sound natural.

This was going above and beyond. A lot of teachers don’t feel the need to help their students sound natural. Their logic goes, “You’re a bunch of foreigners anyways! You’re supposed to sound awkward.” There are also very few foreigners who speak languages like Korean naturally (partly because it’s not related to any other language), so these teachers probably don’t think it’s possible.

But if it’s possible for many Koreans to speak near-perfect English, then it is also TOTALLY possible for us to do the same, and Koh-ssn taught us a lot of tricks to help us do just that.Here are some examples I can think of off the top of my head (note these were NOT in the textbook):

  • Whereas in English, we say “there is a difference,” in Korean, the correct idiomatic expression is차이(가) 나다 or literally, “a difference occurs.” If you directly translate the English, 차이가 있다, it sounds a little awkward, although you’ll still get your point across. After learning this, I’ve been actively listening for the word “difference” 차이 whenever I watch TV or talk to people, and I have found that 100% of the times, Koreans say 차이 나다. (Then Ko-ssn made one of his corny jokes about how 차이나다 sounds like “China-da!” which means “It’s China!”)
  • Once Koh-ssn asked what characteristics we want in a future spouse. One girl replied, “요리 잘하는 것이 중요하다” (It’s important that my husband cook well). Ko-ssn then explained that in Korean, the more natural way to say this is, “요리 잘하는지가 중요하다” (It’s important whether or not my husband cooks well). After learning this, I noticed more examples of how “whether or not” grammar is employed in Korean, e.g. “사람들이 실제로 어떻게 말하는지 위주로 공부한다” (I focus on how people actually speak [or don’t speak.]), 어떤 모임인지에 따라서 (It depends on what kind of gathering it is [or it not]), etc…
Yes, both of these are very, very minute differences, but by teaching us these differences, he helped us wrap our heads around how Koreans think in their language. I find such differences fascinating and they have helped me love learning Korean even more. And helping students love what they’re learning is part of what makes a teacher AWESOME.

While one of the pitfalls of language classes in general is that you don’t have many instances to make your own original sentences and get corrected, I thought it was an acceptable trade-off considering how much I learned during Koh-ssn’s lectures. I also supplement my lessons with language exchange sessions where I can practice the things I learned.
Lastly, besides being a remarkable teacher, he was also all-around hilarious and made an effort to befriend all his students. During class, he shared personal stories, from his efforts to quit smoking to his daughter asking him if he liked Elsa or Anna better. After class, he joked around with us on our class chat room on KakaoTalk (the Korean equivalent of Whatsapp or GroupMe). And on field trips he took photos of all of us like we were his kids.

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