Recently, I started the exciting journey of learning the Korean language as well as Hangul, the Korean writing system. While learning a new language I have had the opportunity to engage in the reading/writing process as a novice reader/writer.
Disclaimer: As a literate adult with a whole lot of experience with reading and writing English, I cannot completely take on the mindset of a new reader/writer. With that said, I do believe that through learning a new language that is quite different from English I have been able to go through an experience similar to that of a new reader/writer.
Hangul consists of 24 letters – 14 consonants and 10 vowels (no upper and lower case letters). My experience with the English alphabet helped me to understand the importance of the orientation of a letter and had me looking at letters in a top to bottom, left to right fashion which was helpful when looking at Korean letters. Although I knew the importance of orientation I still found myself struggling, just like beginner readers do, with visually similar letters. I even struggled with recognizing letters when they were written in different fonts. I relate this to the concern that something might be wrong with a student if they confuse their b’s, d’s, p’s, and q’s. Rather than something begin wrong it seems that the student needs support with sorting out the confusions (like I did). These were the letters I struggled with:
I am proud to say that I now know all of the sounds of the letters but I do not actually know the names of the letters which has made me realize just how unimportant letter names are in the grand scheme of things.
When I first began learning letters I practiced them over and over in isolation. Once I was familiar with what the letters looked like and sounded like I started to work on learning some words. As soon as I started to learn words I noticed that I was able to create links between words and letters. This helped me greatly with sorting out my letter confusions. Through word learning my recall of letter sounds became stronger and faster. I also became more confident when “sounding out” words. This made me think about the belief that students need to know all of their letters before they can learn words. I did not find this to be the case in my own learning. In fact, when I started to learn words my letter learning and fluency with letter sounds accelerated.
Hangul can be read and written horizontally or vertically. Currently, it is typically written left to right with word boundaries. Since this follows the rules of how English is written read print in this fashion came easily to me.
What I have had to do is train my eyes to look at the letters within a word differently. In Korean, letters are grouped in syllabic blocks that are read vertically and horizontally. I found this difficult to catch on to at first but once I understood the rule and had lots of practice I was able to do it more automatically. It was not innate for me to know how to look at a syllabic block. I had to have people knowledgeable about the rules of print in Korean and then had to train my eyes just like a beginning reader of English. Here is an example of a word that consists of one syllabic block and then a word with two syllabic blocks.
What I have found to be interesting is that with my limited knowledge of Korean words I have had difficulty noticing the spacing between words. This reminded me of how early readers with very few words to anchor them to the text can struggle with one to one correspondence. Here is an example of a sentence. Do you struggle with noticing the spacing too?
Learning to “Sound it Out”
My “sounding out” of words is overall a bit slow, has some awkward pronunciation and I do not understand much of what I’m reading (yet). My slow “sounding out” has made me consider how difficult it is for students to make meaning when all of their efforts go toward word solving.
When I do understand what I’m reading, even if it is just a snippet, I get so excited and even want to share my reading with my (very patient) family. This has allowed me to experience how students might feel when they spend a lot of time “sounding out” at the expense of making meaning – frustrated and unmotivated.
As I have started to learn phrases, parts of sentences, and repeatedly read particular syllabic blocks over and over my reading has become more fluent and less stilted. With repeated exposure and practice, I can read some syllables, words, and phrases without having to sound it out each letter. This just reiterates to me the many benefits of shared reading and independent reading.
I am learning that the language structure along with the formal and informal way of speaking is quite different from English and possibly, for me, the most difficult part of learning the Korean language. Not being familiar with the language structure makes it harder for me to predict what would sound right to come next when reading. Listening to native speakers on YouTube, learning Korean songs and watching Korean t.v. shows and movies with Korean and English subtitles have all been very helpful in learning how the language works. This is so important when we take into consideration the teaching of our students who are new to English and even native English speakers who are weak with language skills. These students need to hear how the structure sounds and practice it (many times!).
I started to learn Korean because of my love of languages and as a challenge for myself. As I began to learn letters, words, and phrases I started to draw parallels between my learning and that of the experiences of a novice reader/writer. My main takeaways have been that it is not necessary to learn all letters/sounds to read words, learning words can strengthen letter learning, struggles with letter orientation and/or directionality does not necessarily mean something is wrong with the brain but rather the rules of print need to be learned, their needs to be lots of successful experiences following these rules to train the brain, and repeated exposure to various language structures and opportunities for rehearsal will help to feed the reading forward as you can better predict what would come next.
If you are looking to take on a challenge I highly recommend learning a new language. It is a lot of fun and so rewarding.
If you speak Korean and you see any mistakes or misconceptions in my post please feel free to correct me.