I’ve started, very belatedly, to resume my Korean language studies, which originally began, and paused, around 15 years ago at the Korean Cultural Centre in London. I was in their first intake for the beginners’ language class, and I met people there that I’ve stayed in touch with ever since. Back in 2008 the KCC’s offer was a two-hour lesson in the evening, one day a week. No matter how engaging the teacher (and he was very good) I found it difficult to concentrate on trying to learn a new language after a hard day of brainwork at the office, and even more difficult to find time in between the lessons to learn vocabulary and consolidate the things learned in class. The accompanying course books were unsuitable for self-study, which made revision even harder.
So after two terms of the weekly classes I stopped. Since then, I have been picking up words – mostly nouns – at random as I have continued my daily encounter with things Korean. The title of each movie or novel extends the vocabulary by a couple of words, as does travelling in Korea. But learning the Korean for buckwheat from the title of Yi Hyo-seok’s famous short story is not going to be much use to you except when you’re in a restaurant in Gangwondo and find yourself wondering what the local noodles are made out of.
I’ve recently found myself with more time on my hands, and after chatting with a language-hungry relative of mine over the New Year period – she’s learning Spanish and German in her spare time – I thought I’d give Duolingo a try. She recommended it for the amount of repetition involved in the app: a great way of drumming vocabulary and sentence structures into your brain. So on New Year’s Eve I downloaded Duolingo from the app store and started playing. And I’ve played every day since then. I recently hit my 100-day milestone.
In the early days of my experience with Duolingo I found it addictive. I was learning new things every day – and refreshing my memory of things I’d learned fifteen years ago. As you learn, you collect points which help bail you out if you make too many mistakes. Little animated characters cheer you on, baking you imaginary cakes if you get five questions right in a row. As you score more points, you advance through the league tables. Having finished top in the Obsidian league I reached the dizzying heights of the Diamond league. Which might sound impressive until you realise that your position in the league is earned not by skill and knowledge but simply by earning more points, which in turn is a function solely of playing on the app for more hours in the day.
Those higher leagues require you to spend a couple of hours a day playing or you soon find yourself relegated back down to a lower division. That’s a lot of ads you have to sit through if, like me, you are using the free version of the app. In the free version, after most lessons (which last anywhere between 3 and 10 minutes depending on how fast you are and how many new pieces of vocab you need to jot down, old-style, on a piece of paper to learn them later) you get an advertisement – either to upgrade to the paid version of the app, or for a third party service. I’m not sure what, if any, algorithm serves up the adverts, but I’m not likely to be tempted to buy a Bentley, download a fintech app or dye my hair blonde any time soon. And I have no clue why the app thought I might be persuaded by an ad that was in Dutch. It’s a little bit annoying to have to endure all these ads, but you can get rid of them by upgrading. After reaching my 100-day milestone I was rewarded with 3 days of the ad-free experience, and what a relief it was. But the app providers have to make money somehow.
During the early days of the course I was slightly puzzled by the vocabulary we were being introduced to: those Korean foxes seemed to be unusually preoccupied with cucumbers and milk. Korean children were dexterously playing with yoyos. On reflection, the point of these early lessons seemed to be to help the student distinguish between similar-looking words: 여우, 우유, 오이, 아이, 요요. But I couldn’t figure out what learning points we were supposed to take away from sentences which involved chickens bringing messages, still less what substances the people behind the app were on when they gave their students the sentences involving skateboarding dogs, or small dragons hiding in a girl’s belly button. My favourite random sentence is this one: “In my dream, purple raccoons were floating” (꿈에서는 보라색 너구리들이 떠 있었어요, since you ask). If nothing else, though, I have now internalised the past continuous verb form.
The course is structured so that you immerse yourself in the vocabulary of one topic at a time: the weather, school days, your family and suchlike. Most of these topics feel slightly run-of-the-mill, even though they are undoubtedly useful. But I found myself suddenly getting interested when the vocabulary started getting more abstract: “In all respects my friend is more enthusiastic than I am” (less 4 in level 2, in which we are taught to share opinions) is more useful than some of the bizarre questions we had encountered previously such as “What do we do if the garage does not have a roof?” and “Why is there a floor made of bones here?”
Duolingo’s biggest weakness for me is its format. It is basically one long multiple choice test. So, you cannot ask it questions. It does not explain things. Can’t figure out why what appears to be the object of a sentence has a subject marker? Tough. You’ve just got to live with it. Can’t figure out why the app seems to be happy with a particular positioning of an adverb in one exercise, but not in another? Confused by the different verb endings even within what appears to be the same tense and level of politeness? Too bad.
And do I trust Duolingo to get everything absolutely spot-on? No. I was occasionally annoyed when it took issue with my perfectly correct English, and when some of the only available answers for a Korean into English translation exercise were clearly Konglish. This made me suspect that the app was not always to be trusted 100% for its Korean. But I know enough from other sources to know that it’s good enough, particularly for a free language tool.
I wouldn’t go so far as the website editors responsible for various clickbait headlines (do a search for “Is Duolingo a waste of time?” and you’ll see what I mean). I certainly do not think I have been wasting my time over the past few weeks. I’ve been having fun and expanding my vocabulary and grammar a lot. But reliance on Duolingo as the only learning tool is not going to get you very far.
In the hope of demystifying some of the puzzles that Duolingo does not explain, I reached for a couple of books which have been on my shelves unopened for too long: a fun and even at times boisterous beginner’s text from Tuttle, and a more sober Essential Grammar from Routledge. Both have their uses and indeed revelations. But for someone who was brought up on Kennedy’s Latin Primer the stuffier, more old-fashioned texts have greater appeal. And I cannot believe that I read the Routledge grammar from beginning to end almost without stopping. On almost every page there was a light-bulb moment. It even explained why in the circumstances I had encountered in the Duolingo exercise above it was acceptable to have a subject particle attached to what appeared to be the object of a sentence. In fact, I enjoyed this book so much that I’m going to get the Routledge next-level “comprehensive” grammar co-authored by that very engaging teacher I had at the KCC all those years ago: my Korean language studies will thus come full circle.
I’ll carry on with Duolingo, mainly to continue learning new vocabulary. I am now descending back down through the league tables, and I do not mind one bit. I might try out Talk to me in Korean to see what they have to offer. But what I feel I need is listening practice and talking practice. While I find I’m understanding more of the dialogue in TV dramas than I used to, they still talk far too fast for me, and there are still far too many unknown words in between the words that I do recognise. I feel I need an entry-level audiobook – even one aimed at kids – to improve my listening skills. Most of all though what I need is to find myself a very patient Korean buddy for a bit of conversation practice. New Malden, watch out.