“What’s headache in Korean?”

“두통.” [pronounced like doo-tong] The sixth graders shouted. They love shouting…

“두 as in 두 for two?” I asked because Korean is mostly phonetically spelled but not always. Plus my ears are still being tuned to similar sounds and thirty masked twelve year olds yelling at the same time doesn’t help.

“No,” they shouted with conviction, “두 as in 頭 for head. The Chinese 두.”

I don’t know Hanja but I had some idea where this was going so I asked one student to write it in Korean for me. The spelling?


That’s right— I asked if the spelling was 두 and they said no, the spelling is 두.

Why on earth they would think I’m asking about the etymology of the syllable is beyond me, but hey at least I learned something. 두 (particle for two) and 두 (Chinese descended word for head) are homonyms!

Here’s the same situation in English:

“How do you spell ‘bat’? B-A-T as in baseball bat?”

“No, B-A-T as in bat like the animal.”

“Those are… exactly the same. B-A-T!”

Another fun homonym that my German classmate pointed out when we attended level 3 Korean class is 차례 which can mean ancestral memorial rites or… a sequence.

I’m glad that Korean also has homonyms, though. They’re kind of fun!

Chuseok Extra

Rachel recounted to her cousin as we were en route to the mulli fields how sometimes Korean men start using casual language* with me from the start which we both find incredibly rude and disrespectful.

I imagined the cousin going pale in the backseat— he had been using casual language with me from the start.

However, I barely noticed since I had presumptuously done the same. He was an easy person to be around so I never thought of it as assumptive like certain Seoul men.

I actually started using casual language with Rachel this week at her suggestion and it carried over when I met her cousin. I used casual language with both of them, which was probably incredibly rude of me since the cousin is older and a stranger, but Busan seems to operate on a more casual setting in general. As a result the three of us spoke in casual language from the start.

I switched back to polite language toward the end of the second day feeling embarrassed at my bad manners.

We pulled into a coffee shop later and while Rachel was in the bathroom, he asked me a question, then remembering our condemnation of bad manners, clumsily tacked on a “yo” in an afterthought. It’s something I’ve only seen in a drama and I laughed to myself then took pity on him.

“You can use casual language with me.”

The cousin is a nice person who is a lot like Rachel and I never perceived him as being presumptive. In fact, I appreciate his attempt to be polite after hearing about my bad experiences. We support good men. And manners.

*Korean has various speech levels which can read about here. In brief, casual language eschews all verb endings (요 yo is basic polite ending) and is the most informal level which is reserved for use between people of the same age or older to younger people. When meeting a stranger or in professional settings, one never starts with casual language and among new friends permission must be gained before “lowering” language.


Current Korean language headache:

외국인 is translated as “foreigner” or “international” and literally means “outside country person”. However, the real meaning is “non-Korean” which poses some problems if you’re attempting to talk about foreigners in your own country.

For example, to talk about international students at my home university posed some real challenges during my writing segment today. If I write in Korean, “there are many international students” and use the word 외국인, the Korean reader will assume I mean there are many non-Korean students. Not quite the point I was trying to make, eh?

The definition for “foreigner” in English is location dependent. If I’m in America talking to my American friends and mention something about foreigners, which is unlikely and also a bit rude but we need a parallel example, then it’s assumed the people in question are visibly non-American (as in, style, accent, obvious tourist tendencies). But if I’m out to eat with Americans in Korea and I say, “oh look! Some foreigners came!” I am in fact talking about visibly non-Korean (non-Asian) people who might even be American like me.

However, for Koreans the meaning does NOT change depending on location. Koreans will come to America and call Americans “foreigners” because in Korean, “foreigner” means non-Korean. Oliver Ssaem has a great video about this; it’s in Korean but you get the gist.

As such, 외국인 obviously doesn’t translate well to English and its definition is built from the assumption that the speaker is Korean. The dictionary doesn’t tell you that, however.

So what’s the best way to say “international” in Korean to mean people not from the country in question?

다양한 국적의 사람들 people of various nationalities
다양한 나라의 사람들 people from various countries

It only took me an excruciating hour of research and peppering my tutor via Skype with questions to figure that out.

외국인 in Korean doesn’t have a contentious, or as contentious, use in Korean as it does in English. Like my tutor mentioned, most Koreans won’t think twice about it.

As I described in one writing assignment to my tutor, America has generally dropped the use of “foreigner” for its negative connotation. I gave the medical example of how “foreign object” signifies something bad that needs to be removed. Americans generally refer to non-Americans by their nationality.

(If you live in a less diverse town in the US, maybe this is not the case. And America’s definitions of citizenship and ethnicity are nebulous and sometimes detrimental to those who don’t appear “American” enough. We certainly have our challenges.)

However, Korea is one of the most ethnically homogeneous countries in the world. Therefore, language around race and identity are very Korea-centered.

South Korea and North Korea are among the world’s most ethnically homogeneous nations. Both North Korea and South Korea equate nationality or citizenship with membership in a single, homogeneous ethnic group and politicized notion of “race.


I am visibly non-Asian and am therefore always a 외국인. If I was born in Korea or had Korean citizenship, this would no doubt play on my pysche.

(Hyunmin is a Korean teenage model, currently the face of No Brand Burger, but as his dad is a very dark-skinned Nigerian, he does not visibly pass as “Korean”. He’s only lived in Korea and only speaks Korean but has plenty of stories to share about his life growing up. However, Korean reality TV seems to have adopted him and panels more often discuss race and nationality with him at the helm.)

But I am not and therefore take things as they come. I certainly face stereotypes born of ignorance rather than malice but I imagine for a Korean living in a homogeneous location in the US, his or her challenges are much worse. It helps that South Korea has a strong relationship with the US and locals generally see America favorably; it also helps that I’m white and this is a feature that unfortunately has been exported as America’s ideal nearly since its inception. It shows up in ways like this: teacher, you look very American. I try to bring in diverse imagery to my classroom so the kids can start to understand that in the US at least, nationality does not equal race as it is assumed to in Korea.

It helps too that if people don’t think I’m American, they usually assume I’m Russian or Western European which brings positive imagery, aside from the problematic stereotype that Russian women in Asia are sex workers.

From the video “Things Chinese People Say” from my favorite YouTube Channel Mamahuhu which directs fantastic satire about life in Asia. Source.

If you recall my drunk coworkers, they said “Koreans think Russians are very beautiful and Americans fat. So people think you are Russian.”

My third graders also guessed that I was Russian, German, or French on my first day because yes, you’re new teacher is definitely not a native English speaker! I would have to do some serious forgery to get my English teaching visa as a non-native speaker (it’s illegal).

There are certainly times when being called 외국인 can be grating, like my friend who dropped her bags at the airport desk and the attendants then loudly shouted to each other “The foreigner’s bags are ready!”. Or when my 외국인 face is used for status points (see, most notably: Busan Boy whose unhinged decline still gives me the occasional nightmare).

Overall being visibly 외국인 is a unique experience and the challenges are comical rather than devastating. It’s fun, being different.

Korean Consonants

Let’s talk about Hangul, Romanization, and why it’s always a bad idea to describe Korean in terms of English sounds.

This all came to me when I was watching a YouTube video of a Korean woman quizzing English speakers about loan words from English. The native speakers kept hearing a /k/ sound even as the Korean hostess was convinced that the native speakers would surely hear a /g/ sound.

I am also personally invested in this topic because every time I order at an American chain in Korea, the cashier corrects my Korean pronunciation of the English loan word.

(At Subway:

안녕하세요. 써브웨이 맬트 주세요. Hello, I’d like the “seo-bu-way mel-tuh” (Subway Melt).

….? Cashier doesn’t understand.

써브웨이 맬트… I repeat, losing confidence in both my English and Korean abilities.

써브웨이 맬트? She asks to clarify, as if that’s not what I think I’ve been saying this whole time. I guess my Konglish wasn’t Korean enough.)

Back to linguistics and not ongoing petty feud with loan words (especially the unnecessary ones like chee-keen mo-she-room puh-let-uh-buh-re-du. Come on, Dunkin Donuts, I know Korean has words for chicken, mushroom and bread!)


Our first stop: What is the IPA?

IPA is the international phonetic alphabet. It uses distinct and separate characters to represent every sound on earth. It even has symbols for languages with clicks!

We are not going to talk about every sound today, just the representations that aggravate me the most!

Korean has rules for how to transcribe Korean to English; this system is called “Romanization” because Korean letters are converted to their closest Roman alphabet English letter…. for better or for worse. Let’s take a look at three consonant families that are written as k/g, ch/j, and p/b in English.

TypeHangulKorean IPARomanizationEnglish IPA
aspiratedkʰ kk
tensek͈ kkg
aspiratedpʰ pp
tensep͈ bbb

You can see that the letters in each language family look similar :

k/g family: ㅋㄱㄲ
ch/j family: ㅊㅈㅉ
p/b family: ㅍㅂㅃ

But wait! Let me explain.

kʰ k with some air
k͈ k with no air
tɕʰch* with some air
t͈ɕch* with no air
pʰ p with some air
p͈ p with no air
*tɕ is not quite the same as /ch/; the tongue is closer to the teeth when pronouncing tɕ but for ease of English speaking readers I have written /ch/.
What is the difference between the following IPA consonants: ʈʂ ...
If you really want a granular view, the tongue placement of English ch is represented by the top picture and Korean tɕ by the bottom picture.

So in essence, the pronunciation of the families is really like this:

k/g *some variation of k* family: ㅋㄱㄲ
ch/j *some variation of ch* family: ㅊㅈㅉ
p/b *some variation of p* family: ㅍㅂㅃ

You can see why my spelling in Korean can be riddled with errors…

In reality, even though Romanization uses g/j/b Korean doesn’t actually have these sounds. This leads to misunderstanding when learning either language. For example, you can see it clearly in this video as mentioned above where the Korean speaker thinks that ㄱ must sound like /g/ to English speakers because that’s how it’s Romanized from Korean. The reality is that ㄱ is actually English /k/.

Interestingly, our studied letters used to be Romanized as k/ch/p until the national revision in 2000.


This is of course an oversimplification; there are additional rules about how to spell these if the consonant is initial or final.

As you can see, there is no English “j” or “b” or “g” in Korean. That’s why my name sounds more like “ah-pee-kell” in Korean; there’s actually no way to get my true pronunciation. And why would there be? It’s a different language.

I think this fact is often lost in language education in South Korea. We can only ever approximate sounds of one language in the other but to learn proper pronunciation we need to think and study in the characters of the language itself.

Let’s keep getting linguistically aware!

An Ear for Accents

Helpful Definitions
phoneme An indivisible unit of sound in a given language.
morpheme The smallest linguistic unit within a word that can carry a meaning, such as “un-“, “break”, and “-able” in the word “unbreakable.”

I spent a lot of time with G and I have the fondest memories. But I didn’t realize I picked up something else of hers: Gyeongsangnam dialect.

Gyeongsangnam region; Busan is considered its own metropolitan jurisdiction and as such is not included on the map. Source

I was working through my tutor’s given Korean homework and reading aloud when I caught myself pronouncing one phrase a peculiar way. And when I thought more about it, I pronounced it this way since working with G.

-ㄹ 요/거예요

ㄹ + = ㄹ +

As you know, ㄲ when it is not the beginning letter (phoneme), is my favorite Korean sound.

고 is a close second, I think because I love the grammar 라고, 다고. In Korean, you must of course use this special grammar suffix for reported speech….

Recall that Korean is agglutinative and English is analytical. In analytical languages. we simply add more individual words to get our point across while in agglutinative language, think of “gluten” and sticking together, grammatical morphemes are attached directly to the verb to convey meaning. That’s why Korean verbs can look like this:


Segmented, it looks like this:

In English I can say: I said he likes you.

In Korean we must use the structure: (he) likes you다고 I said. That’s of course an oversimplification: the reported speech verb, in this case “hates” must be conjugated and attached to 다고: 너를 좋아한다고 말했어요. (Lit: you like(special conjugation)다고 said).

It’s a bit more straightforward for direct quotes:

“I like you,” she said.

“I like you”라고 she said.
“너를 좋아해요”라고 말했어요

Use 다고 when indirectly reporting someone’s quote and use 라고 when directly quoting someone OR quoting only a noun.

The interesting thing about this particle is that it carries meaning on its own. In English, you must use “said” to convey that you are reporting someone else’s quote. But in Korean, repeating the quote and simply attaching the reported speech particle, without adding “she said”, delivers the same meaning.

For example, in Crash Landing on You, the main characters says:

뭐라고 (lit: what라고)

Netflix translated this line just as “what?” but you know the implication of 라고 is she really means “what (did you say)?”. I watched a video recently of an American woman and Korean man going about their daily routine. The boyfriend said, “you said you would be finished by now!” and the girlfriend responded “알았다고!” Lit: knew다고. Can you guess the real meaning?

“I said I know!”

Neat, right?

Back to my favorite sound!

ㄱ in Korean is often romanized as g or k; the sound falls on a spectrum between these two English phonemes depending on letter placement and speaker.

ㄲ is romanized as gg or kk but the sound, when preceded by another phoneme, is what I might describe as a swallowed k. In Korean phonetics it is called “tense” which means no air should escape your throat when speaking. It is very similar to the c in acrobat or the k in Arkansas when said with a neutral American accent.

English also has tense consonants but we don’t distinguish these as different letters:



Notice the t in top has a breathier sound that than the t in top. Korean recognizes these sounds as distinct and separate letters:

ㄱ ㄲ ㄷ ㄸ ㅈㅉ (double means tense)

So I was sitting on my floor, working through Korean homework and reading aloud to myself when I noticed my strange pronunciation. Since it turned around the time I spent time with G, could it be I adopted some of her Busan habits?

I went straight to the source. Busan Boy confirmed that I had not misheard; the to change is a part of the Busan/Southeastern accent. I felt so validated! And since this is a real pronunciation, I feel it gives me license to keep pronouncing it as my favorite phoneme.

for the win!

Just Half – Translation Fun

Let’s take a break from the ongoing situation and talk about translating fun.

When I studied Spanish, one of my favorite things to do was attempt lyrics translation with only a dictionary and my mental index of grammar.

While my Korean grammar is obviously below seven years of Spanish study, translation is still very fun for me. Especially because Korean is so wildly different from Romance and Germanic languages that it takes a different kind of mental gymnastics.

Korean ballads are my favorite “cry in the car while your life falls apart” songs and this one is beautiful. Peep the live version with Jin Minho and a cameo special guest. Again, if you haven’t watched Crash Landing on You you’re missing out.

(My all time “bring on the tears” ballad is Only You by Huh Gak. You don’t need to know Korean to know that it hurts.)

This was a challenge because there were three people talked about in the lyrics (singer, lover, lover’s ex). But Korean doesn’t require pronouns and all verbs are conjugated the exact same way regardless of the subject. It’s up to the listener to understand implicitly from context. Spanish, too, doesn’t require pronouns but Spanish verbs are conjugated specifically to the subject so as to make pronouns redundant.

For example, this line which got my right in the feels:
미안하지 않아도 되
Lit: sorry-not permissible (casual language form)
Possible Trans: It’s okay if you’re not sorry. It’s okay if I’m not sorry. It’s okay if she’s not sorry. It’s okay if he’s not sorry. It’s okay if they are not sorry. It’s okay if we are not sorry.

This also lends itself to a naturally genderless language. Now what’s funny is that the official translation, as taken from the official YouTube video, substitutes in pronouns and assumes the lover’s ex is a man when in fact there are no true third person pronouns (he, she, it, they) in Korean.

그 사람 lit: that person; trans: him

My translation as pictured above is more literal because I’m still a beginner but you can see what assumptions were made about the intent of the song by the translator.

According to Wikipedia:

Geu (그) has a range of meanings, “he,” “she,” or “it.” Ambiguity and the ability of the Korean language to drop pronouns which can be reconstructed from context make geu be seldom used by itself, but it has enjoyed a revival recently as the translation of “he” in works translated from European languages.


This same article makes note of what I noticed in the unexpected pronunciation of 네 in the third line:

Additionally, because many Koreans have lost the distinction between the vowels ae (애) and e (에), ne (네, “you”) is dissimilating to ni (니).

Note that 네 also means “yes” but inside this meaning the pronunciation is always maintained as “ne”. Only when the meaning is “you” does the pronunciation change to “nee/ni”.

This song is written and sung with casual language which is something I have little practice in (once I have more Korean friends my own age or an intimate partner I’ll get back to you). Casual language has pronouns for “I/you/me/you” while polite language avoids second and third person pronouns.

In fact, there’s only one way to say “you” in polite language but it’s for very specific cases: and you cannot go around calling your coworker 당신 (danghseen) since this is reserved for romantic partners… or insults. If you must address someone directly in Korean in polite form, you use their name or their title. Since I don’t know most of my coworkers’ names, I call them “teacher”.

You’ll often here this in Korean dramas: managers and upper execs are addressed by their title: in the drama Crash Landing on You, Yoon Seri’s subordinates address her as 대표님 (depyoneem) which means CEO.

Take note the ending 님 (neem): while 씨 (sshe) is the honorific attached to someone’s personal name, similar to Mr./Ms. in English, 님 is the honorific attached to someone’s title. My fifth graders and I all had a laugh when Geoni introduced himself as kimchi and I called him kimchi님. Notice the honorific in the word for teacher 선생.

Personally, I like this pragmatism. At my first job, I never knew how to address the CEO: calling him by his first name seemed inappropriate, but calling him Mr. Last Name seemed to derogate my position and affected an almost juvenile, “I am talking to my friend’s father” air.

Of course, I find myself at a sharp and specific loss for words in Korean when I want to address someone directly but know neither their name or title. Luckily, subjects are optional.

But sometimes I just want the polite lexical equivalent of pointing in someone’s face.

March 17, Madness

Have you ever started a sentence and like Michael Scott, were not quite sure if you made it to the end?

MJ the Music Teacher wanted the semesterly activities deposit for the subject teacher fund which I was able to do with my phone app, you know the one that required me going back to the bank to get another security card and installing a security deposit and sacrificing my first born. I suffered for it so I will use it!

The 50,000 won made it into her account and recognizing that my Korean studies have been much neglected, I attempted to tell her so. (In another sad social virus death, the free biweekly uni TOPIK classes I was so looking forward to were canceled). Only, it took me so long to write the sentence she had already received and responded to my deposit.

My attempt:
계좌 입금  했다고 말하고 싶기 위해서 한국어 연습할 수 있지만 서전에 “deposit” 잦은 것 많이 걸려서 이 대답 빨리 못 보냈어요.ㅎㅎ

Word for word translation:
deposit made say want to in order to Korean practice able but dictionary-in “deposit” looked-for-thing long takes so this response fast can’t sent (ha ha)

What I wanted to say:
I wanted to say “I made the deposit” so I could practice Korean but it took me a long time to find “deposit” in the dictionary so I couldn’t reply in time. (ha ha)

This is, again, why Korean takes a long time to learn if your native language is English– word order and grammar are alien concepts coming from analytical SVO multihistoric Germanic-ish English.

It seems a fair result from more madness from today:

School has been delayed by another three weeks.

HAHAHAHAHAHAHA I don’t know what’s going on anymore. Is this how the Joker was made? Slowly forced into chaos by his ever changing surroundings?

The good (?) news is I only have to come in five days over the next three weeks. The bad news is some teachers, Korean and foreign, have received notices that the school can track your bank card and detect if you’re actually not working from home. I just want to say… who cares?

I trekked down to E’s room to see if there is actually planning I need to be doing during our super extended teacher work month. It turns out she thought… I planned all of grade three?

Good thing I checked! I don’t mind planning all of grade three classes but things got confusing: she wants to do testing the first week to assess where all the students are and also start them on the alphabet (thank GOODNESS, because our textbook is the worst). Situations like these do confuse me: I’m not the main teacher, but I’m expected to be?

She asked if I had planned third grade and it was like forgetting your final project but having to makeup an excuse to your teacher on the spot.

“Uh, I have plans for the first few weeks. I can send those to you before school starts.”

E seems very open to change and suggestions and I saw that her board had a learning objectives sign. What a great recall to what I’ve been studying in my teacher program this week.

I, like G, personally prefer planning week by week. We know the approximate targets and can adjust lessons based on what students need.

It’s Korea so I know everything will work out at the last minute. E seemed to want me to make the decision on how we are teaching together but it’s hard for me to make that call when I don’t know who are students are, what the learning objectives are, when the school year starts…

Like Michael said, we’ll find ourselves along the way.

Getting Dressed in Korean

Feel my pain: these are the ways you say “put on” in Korean. The verb changes to match the type of clothing/accessory/makeup. For example, you put on clothes, fasten a watch, pull on shoes, fit rings and gloves, spread, lotion, do makeup, tie a necktie but wrap a scarf, pick up a bag but strap on a purse.

다 signals verb infinitive.

My tutor asked what kind of man I like, “fashionable”? I said any is okay as long as there is some effort. But “If he takes more time getting ready than me, I really don’t like it.”

For language corner, we can see how different Korean is in sentence structure which really struck me at the time:

Me-than getting-ready-time more takes if, really dislike.

That’s why it’s more difficult to pick up individual Korean words in subtitled movies or dramas because it’s not a one to one match.

I passed TOPIK Level 2!

I am now officially and nationally recognized as a “high beginner”.

Of course, it’s not until level 3 that I will be able to “carry out daily routine, with fair use of public facilities and able to socialize without significant difficulty.”

Still some difficulties now but not forever.