How to Think in Korean

A curious kid I was. Always asking why.

I’m sure my parents got their fair share of headaches because of it.

Interestingly, one of those questions could potentially be part of the reason why I am here today, writing this blog. I remember when I was maybe 7 years old, asking my mom the following question:

“Hey Mom. Do Chinese people think in English or Chinese?”

“Huh...probably Chinese,” she responded.

I spent so much time in my own head that it made me start to wonder what happened in everyone else’s. Early on I realized that if I was thinking about a clown, it didn’t make other people think about a clown.

Questions like these set me off on a journey of sorts to discover what made other people tick.

Now, keep in mind that every child is a language learner. As we grow up we learn new words and more complex expressions. We don’t really become a full fledged “native speaker” until maybe middle or high school.

So with that said, this leads us to two very interesting points:

  1. Babies don’t think in any language.

  2. It takes at least more than a decade to become a “native speaker” of your first language.

Let’s look at number one here.

Babies Don’t Think in Any Language

It seems rather obvious, but I didn’t give it much thought until I had a baby of my own some ten months ago.

Without an ability to speak, how can one have words?

Only now is my son starting to say short words and copy utterances that my wife and I make. For example, he recently picked up the word “Uh oh!” from us without much difficulty.

Although he knows the word, it seems that to him, it doesn’t mean the usual “Something bad has happened!” but something more like Korean’s 떨어졌다 (to have dropped [object, not person]).

Why might this be?

Well, my wife and I almost always say it when we accidentally drop something on the floor, so our son seems to have connected “uh-oh” to that exact situation.

He also says 엄마 and 아빠, the latter of which took him quite a lot longer to learn than the former. Perhaps this is because, as opposed to ㅁ, ㅃ is a more difficult sound, and so requires more effort to produce.

Either way, the interesting thing is that I’m not sure he quite knows what they mean. He could very well think that 엄마 means “feeding time” or “food” and 아빠 means “play” “move around” or even just “man”.

Why might this be?

Well, when he’s with Mom he’s often fed and when he’s with Dad, or men in general, he often plays.

So, simply put, he is learning to pair sounds to situations as opposed to concepts. This is language learning in its purest form.

Now what about number two?

How Long Does it Take to Learn Our First Language?

I think most of us don’t really remember learning our first language. I know I don’t.

As a kid, whenever my parents would go out to dinner with friends and bring me along, as soon as I would finish my food I would ask to go outside and play - meaning, play in the bushes in front of the restaurant or run in circles or something (yea, weird kid).

The adult’s after meal chat was just too much for me to sit through. The grown-ups were using all these big words I didn’t know and I couldn’t keep up with their conversation.

My ten-year-old English wasn’t developed enough to understand what they were saying.

The reality is that, if we take “native speaker” to mean “someone who has masterful control over a given language” then it really isn’t even until we are in our teenage years that we start approaching that level.

In a way, becoming a native speaker is like becoming an adult.

And for this reason, getting to a high level in any language is supposed take a long time. The learning process itself is bound by time, just like the physical growth process. We must birth and raise the Korean learner within us.

We must grow up in Korean.

When Adults Learn a Language…

Now as adults, when we go about learning a new language, how do we usually do it?

Well, most people think to sign up for a class or buy a book of some kind. Then, start studying vocabulary.

Apple - 사과.
Car - 자동차.
Tea - 차.

Word by word, we make lists, just like we were taught to in school.

And then, list after list, we study away, feeling like we’re making good progress until the moment we meet a native speaker.

We hear the language and think:

“Oh! A native speaker. Oh oh oh! I know some words…let’s see...I can’t just blurt out apple, can I?”

“Maybe I can do something else, like compliment their car!”

“But wait, I don’t know how to say “I like…”, either”

“Ugh! Maybe I need to do more studying before I can worry about speaking.”

With renewed spirits, we return to the grind. Study, study, study. Cram, cram, cram. Packing more verbs and common phrases into our memory bank.

안녕하세요? Check!

감사합니다? Check!  

만나서 반갑습니다? Check! Check! Check!

We feel the momentum building and start to get excited, imagining the day that we will walk by that native speaker and casually squeeze out some 멋있는 말 (cool words) like

자동차가 너무 멋있어요!

We imagine, of course, that at the sound of these words, the native speaker’s jaw will drop with surprise.  They’ll be so amazed at our Korean that their their eyes will fall out of their head, and they will immediately run over, and shower us with praise.

But that’s not how it really happens, is it? Especially for us Korean learners.

Those phrases we learned from our courses and textbooks? They don’t work like we’d hoped because we don’t know how to use them in the right situations, and we can’t get the pronunciation right.

The lists we used? Well, they remain what they always were, just lists. Real-life words don’t live in lists, so the lists don’t help when we try to speak.

In fact, with the situation above, complimenting someone’s car out of the blue wouldn’t usually go over well with a Korean person. Why? Because Korean people don’t compliment strangers on the street like we do in English.

Sometimes, it is possible to get away with this kind of learning with Spanish, or French, or any language with close cultural ties to that of English speakers.

But with Korean, a language that relies more on context than the words spoken, it’s not that easy.

Now, what does all this talk about struggle have to do with “thinking in Korean”?

Well, I remember how I used say, “I think in English. Wouldn’t it be cool if I could think in Korean?”, as if it were as simple as adding some new app to my phone.

The painful truth is that thinking in Korean, or any other foreign language, is far more complex than that.

How Do Thoughts Work?

In order to understand why this is, we need to think about how thoughts work in the first place, and then use that information to help us start, little by little, to think in Korean.

First and foremost, before we can start thinking in Korean, we should sit down, and ask ourselves the following:

How, exactly, do I think in English?

Better yet, how do I think at all?

Take a second and see if anything comes to you.

Do you consciously, knowingly create your thoughts in your head? Like a little elf shooting thought arrows through the bow of the mind? Or do they come from a different place?

Where Do Thoughts Come From?

I think this was the question that seven-year-old Jeremy really wanted to ask his mother. Not about the language of thought, but the origins of thoughts themselves.

As we grow up, we quickly notice the tightly knit connection between what we say and what we think, so it’s hard to pinpoint which comes first.

Maybe your friend comes over to hang out, and he asks you what you think about the brand-new shirt he bought at the mall.

If you don’t like the shirt, your initial thought might be “That’s a stupid-looking shirt.”

But that’s not what you say, is it?
If you have a 양심, you’ll probably pause and restructure what you say into a more polite sentence. Something like, “Yeah, that shirt isn’t my favorite.”

You’ve probably had this experience thousands of times. I know I have.

After so many experiences like this, we are prone to think that we are the ones who are in control of our thoughts - that we create them, and are in control of them.

If we are in control of the words that we speak, and thoughts seem to mostly arise as just “words in our head”, then of course WE are the one back here in the driver’s seat making all the decisions, right?

But to put it simply, as far as our first hand experience goes, we don’t know where our thoughts come from.

Why, for example, did you think of a bald eagle just now?

(Too late, you already did).

For all we know, they simply appear spontaneously out of darkness. This darkness is something that psychologists like to call the subconscious.

If we are not directly in control of our thoughts, and we don’t know where thoughts actually come from, where does this leave us in our efforts to think in Korean?

How Can We Make Ourselves “Think Korean Thoughts?”

Well, the truth is, we can’t.

Since thoughts occur subconsciously, we can’t force ourself to think in Korean, just like we still can’t force ourself to not think about that majestic bald eagle (got you again!)

For Korean thoughts to happen, they need to arise naturally, through hundreds or thousands of hours of input and experience with the language.

With enough time and experience, the Korean thoughts will come. And likely when you’re not expecting them. It happened to me, and it will happen to you, if you make the effort.

What We Need to Do is This:

Give up trying to think in Korean and let it happen.

As good old Master Yoda said, “Do. Or do not. There is no try.”

Trying is not doing. Do you try to brush your teeth at night or do you just brush your teeth? So rather than focus on the trying, placing your energy into the doing will carry you further.

With enough Korean input, the thoughts will just float to the surface. In Korean, as in any language, fluency is inseparable from thinking. The thoughts and the words happen together. So rather than spin our intellectual wheels in search of Atlantis, let’s focus on what we can do here and now.

The Takeaway:

1. Make a habit of doing repetitive listening everyday

2. When you get curious about something you’ve heard, ask.
3. Cultivate the desire to genuinely help Korean people learn English. It will come back to you in the form of great friends who are ready to answer your questions.
4. Study grammar every once in a while, or whenever you feel the desire to… or not.

5. Have fun.

Keep it sweet, friends.