Why you should learn 한글

I just posted a video explaining how to read Korean. You can go from zero to literate in eighteen minutes! Here’s why I made it and why I think you should study it.

Korean looks terrible when it’s transliterated into English. The common sense pronunciation of transliterated Korean is at best an approximation (hangul), often falls very far from the mark (annyeong haseyo), and at worst is inscrutable (tteokbokki). As a result there is little insight to be gained through transliteration; I might as well use nonsense words instead. And there is a harmful consequence. Because it is written so poorly in our alphabet, Korean seems more foreign, not just unknown but unknowable. By extension, so does Korea.

For these reasons I have decided not to transliterate Korean in this blog. For instance, I was happy to tell you the title of my previous post “두부고추장찌개” meant “tofu and red pepper paste stew,” because I don’t expect you to actually learn Korean. But I would not write it as dubu gochujang jjigae.1 You’ll have to figure that out yourself.

More on that translation, though: it’s not really correct to translate 고추장 as “red pepper paste.” 고추장 is a paste made with red peppers, but that doesn’t capture all of its meaning. Really, there is no correct translation of 고추장, because there is no English equivalent. There is only so much that you can convey in a succinct descriptive translation of uniquely Korean concepts, and if you go too far you end up describing apples in terms of oranges. A 파전 is not “Korean pizza,” as I’ve heard it explained (hey, they’re both circular things you slice!), any more than candle wax is ice because they both melt. Rather, a 파전 is a 파전. It’s not such a crazy foreign concept - a savory unleavened pancake made with rice flour and filled with toppings like green onions, seafood, and kimchi - but to learn what it is requires just a little bit of investment on your part.

That’s what this is really about. I think you should expend a little bit of effort to understand Korean and Korea and Koreans. Koreans are used to being overlooked in favor of or lumped in with the other East Asian peoples, at least on a Western or world stage. Because the standard of reciprocal interest is so low, they do things like introducing a 파전 as Korean pizza, condescending to the lack of interest at the expense of actually conveying their culture. And yet, Korean culture has so much to offer the world! And they have done an awful lot to be able to play by the rules in places like the United States. Return the favor and benefit from a two-way exchange. Learning hangul isn’t meeting them halfway; it’s giving them an inch in exchange for their mile.

If you won’t do it for their sake, do it for mine. If you happen to be a Christian you believe that “we are members of one another.” What that means is that since I went to Korea, part of you went to Korea too. I can’t give you the answer to questions like “So, how is Korea?” without sharing about Korea itself. If you don’t care what’s going on here or what it’s like, and you just want to know how I’m doing, I question how much you actually do care about me.

Finally, learning 한글 will help you by expanding your mind. A window into an entire region of the world which happens to contain billions of people will have opened. You will realize assumptions you had about what a writing system is were false. You will realize that certain things which appear inscrutable at first glance are actually fully within your power to comprehend. You will appreciate its elegance and simplicity which is not at the expense of depth or breadth. You will engage critically with our language in a way that will leave you with a deeper appreciation for it.

You will understand just a little better what it means to be human.

The door is open.

1 A possible exception are the few Korean words that actually have made it into our lexicon, like kimchi, words whose transliterations have actually entered our language.