Learning Korean Journey

Knowing how to pick your battles

When learning a language, it’s easy to get greedy or even over-ambitious and want to immediately start remembering all the words you come across. While I’m the first to look up any word I don’t know in the dictionary, I’ve learned to pick the ones that’ll make it into my flashcards and that I’ll start remembering for now. I might still remember that word, or at least recognize it when I see it in another context, but I’m not actively trying to learn it and that’s the difference.

For example, I was painstakingly going through the first pages of 한국이 싫어서 by Chang Kangmyoung the other day and had to look up dozens of words to help me understand the book. One of these words was 보떠리 (bundle) used in the context of bundling up a jacket in one’s arms. Sure, that’s a pretty common word that I might use someday! But do I really need to actively try to remember it? Is it really that important compared to, say, verbs like increase, decrease, conceal, etc? I’d say no. And that’s how 보떠리 didn’t make the cut for my flashcards, sorry bud.


It’s difficult to make this kind of choice, I agree. You don’t want to leave a word behind and then have that word hinder your understanding of something in a situation where you can’t access a dictionary or explanation of the word. But I’ve chosen to sacrifice 보떠리 and it just unluckily happened to be a word that doesn’t even have hanja root that could help me understand its meaning if I were to encounter it again. So long, bundle. In the same vein, a friend mentioned that she had words like unemployment benefits and industrial actions in her flashcards and she felt like they probably weren’t relevant to her current level of study and aspirations (being conversational). Of course, I recommended her to ditch those.

Sometimes, however, I get more attached to a word or expression and making the decision to abandon it, so to speak, is a lot more difficult. One of the most interesting parts of language learning for me is to finally figure out why that one thing means X, or what a long run-on sentence (looking at you very directly, Korean) means. Sometimes it takes 2 minutes, sometimes it takes 20 minutes and the satisfaction is only bigger the longer it takes to figure out a language mystery.

This happened the other day when I was looking up 부정적 (to be negative, pessimistic) on Naver dictionary and my recently found Korean study buddy pointed out that she actually knew another word to say “pessimistic” — we were both sharing our screens over Discord while studying to motivate each other. She introduced 비관적 (to be pessimistic) to me and my first thought was to look up if the 비 in the word was from the same hanja as the 비 in 비싸다. In hindsight: terrible logic. 1) The 비 in 비싸다 doesn’t have a hanja root, 2) I don’t even know other words starting with 비 so why did I think it could be an indicator of negation kind of like 비 is in 비싸다?! A mystery.

Either way, that thought still had me looking up the hanja for 비관적 and then looking it up on Naver Hanja Dictionary.

Pretty much my reaction upon reading and processing this:

The 3 hanja composing 비관적 are the ones for sadness + to see/look + target/objective. Sad look on objectives > to be pessimistic. Boom! Don’t we all love when languages just make sense? I sure as heck do.

Now, in all logic, I couldn’t possibly let go of 비관적 and not add it to my vocabulary flashcards. I was too invested in this and, to be honest, reading up on the hanja made it even easier for me to remember because now I had a strong memory associated to the word! So yay, congrats 비관적, you didn’t get discarded like your friend 보떠리 did. Besides, knowing to say pessimistic is more important to me right now that knowing how to say bundle, let’s be real.

How do you feel about reading up the definition of a word to help for your current understanding and then not actively remembering it? Do you also get weirdly attached? Are you cold-hearted and able to move on from the words you look up while deciphering a text immediately after closing the dictionary window? Let me know in the comments!