Clarifying My Controversial 15% Statement About Learning Korean

I Ruffled Some Feathers

Back in June, I posted an article here about learning Korean and asserted that I’ve only mastered about 15% of the language even after spending over 15 years as a Korean language learner. I even went so far as to use this number as a key theme in a recent video about learning Korean:

I’ve been asked how I can claim proficiency in Korean and say I’m a decent translator if I admit that I still haven’t learned 85% of what is knowable about the language. This is a fair question and having taken this position a few months ago, I’ve put a lot of thought into it since then. I agree that it needs more clarification.

My First Effort at a Clarification

Here’s an online exchange I had with Ondrej Slecht, an associate over at Korea Business Central, and someone whose Korean ability easily qualifies him to ask the question:

Ondrej’s question:

I’d be interested in knowing more on how you got to the 15-20% figures.

I personally tried the following:

  • number of words in a written text I understand
  • number of words in spoken Korean I understand (news, movies, documentaries)
  • percentage of actively/passively known hanja in a mid-size hanja dictionary (7000 characters)
  • percentage of actively/passively known grammatical structures in a grammar dictionary
  • accuracy of consecutive interpreting
  • accuracy of simultaneous interpreting

Best regards


My answer:

Thanks for the question, Ondrej.

I should say, first of all, that there isn’t an objective way to measure this kind of thing. And it doesn’t mean I’m only 15% functional in Korean life. By 15%, I mean there’s another 85% that could be learned and improved, not only in terms of vocabulary and grammar, but also by just being able to make better use of what I know, and even through having a deeper understanding of Korean history, culture and literature.

So when speaking, I figure I have about 5-6 times as many ways that I can express myself in English as I have in Korean, thus the 15-20%.

Even on the simplest Korean words, phrasings and grammar, I often don’t know all the situations in which they are used. And I can’t connect them together as naturally and with as much nuance as I would in English. There’s no doubt I can write six English emails in the time I’d write one Korean one; probably many more!

If we were to look at it from a “reading” perspective, I estimate I’m about three times as fast of a reader in English than in Korean. So, even if you assume I’m picking up only twice as much of the meaning in English as I would in Korean, it still means I’m processing Korean at about a 15% level.

Frankly, looked at this way, 15-20% may be giving me a lot more credit than I deserve.

Ondrej’s reply:

I see now – so it is mainly based on the comparison of the way/speed the brain processes a native language as opposed to a second language learnt later in life.

This is truly particularly challenging in Korean as there are virtually no cognates (words that have a similar meaning/form across languages) from the perspective of an English speaker. The same goes for syntax and grammatical structures.

Let alone the fact that certain clusters of the vocabulary are difficult to capture for the native speakers too.

Then there is the “real” language usage which sometimes differs from what is presented in standard textbooks. As an example, I have noticed that there seems to be much higher variety of nuances in “real” usage of 하더라, 했더라, 했었더라, 하겠더라, 했겠더라, 했다더라, 했었다더라 then what is explained in standard dictionaries.

In fact, there are probably more exceptions than rules!

The basic idea is that there is far more to “knowing” a language than just memorizing words and grammatical constructions. It requires the ability to put all that together in the activities of speaking, listening, reading and writing. 

Limited Brain Power and Its Perception

I would also say that the lack of fluency in a foreign language degrades one’s ability to express meaningful thoughts. I remember being at a seminar last year where a Korean expert on advertising was to speak to the audience of mostly expats. While his English would have probably been fine for a normal conversation, he chose to speak in Korean and let an interpreter communicate his meaning in English because he said that when he speaks in English, he sounds like an elementary school student. 

I remember thinking about that statement after the meeting and realizing how aptly it applies to my ability in Korean. First, if I’m using 6X the brain power to express myself in Korean, it leaves that much less brain capacity to be insightful. Secondly, even when I have something profound to say, if my expressions in Korean don’t match up with what the audience things an insight like that should sound like, I’ll be perceived as having less to say than I really do. Unfortunately, I have felt both of these dynamics at work in my communications at university in Korea.

A Word About Translation and Fluency

As for translation, when I’m asked if I can understand a particular Korean written document, I always answer that it’s just a matter of time. Give me enough time and a dictionary, and I can get the meaning… just about all of it! But if it takes me 10X as long to fully grasp the meaning on a Korean passage as it would on an English passage, can I still say I’m as functional in both languages simply because I did figure it all out in the end? 

I might also add that in the subject areas I generally translate, such as business, legal and technical, I’m much more proficient than in some others, such as literature, which I never translate. So if my 15% estimate is an overall level, it still leaves room for superior performance in specific subjects and skill types (i.e. reading).

Thoughts Regarding “Everything Else”

Another way to really understand how deep an understanding of a language fluency requires is to realize the historical and literary background of much of what we say. If we’re going out to a movie tonight but get there only to find it’s sold out, you might say, “Oh, I didn’t really want to see the movie anyway.” to which I’ll reply, “Oh, that’s just sour grapes.” 

If you’ve memorized that “sour grapes” refers to a situation of saying you don’t want something you can’t have anyway, then you’ve understood the phrase at its shallowest level. If you were a good ESL student, you might have learned Aesop’s fable of the Fox and the Grapes. This would give you a bit more understanding. But if you really want to understand it at its deepest level, you would need to have studied about ancient Greece and the role of these fables in society both then and now. I don’t think many of us realize how much language is tied to our historical and cultural contexts.

Finally, knowing what it means when I say it is only one aspect of knowing it; to be truly fluent in this phrase, it will need to come to mind naturally in appropriate situations whether you’re speaking, listening, reading or writing. It’s this level of fluency that is only achievable to people who have learned a language from an early age.

We Don’t Normally Use It All Anyway

In day-to-day life, we don’t use everything we know anyway. I heard somewhere that although the average English speaker knows thousands and thousands of words, daily English usage only includes a small fraction of this. And even if a word comes along that one doesn’t know, the context often explains it. So it’s possible for me to be 90% functional in daily Korean life (especially if the Koreans I associate with speak “down” to me just a tad) while still not having mastered most of what can be known and used.

A Little Perspective from the Standardized Tests

I’ve taken a standardized Korean language test and scored near the top.

This test is written for foreigners learning Korean and Koreans taking it would probably find it extremely easy. (Just as I’m sure I’d be close to 100% on the TOEIC or TOEFL.)

But there is a Korean exam for Koreans:

I have no doubt that if I took this exam, I would score at the very, very bottom. Perhaps I’d get around, oh, 15%…

I’d Like Another 15%er to Tell Me I’m Wrong

So, I hope the above explanation helps to shed some light on my 15% statement. Perhaps I should have said that I’ve only “mastered 15%” of Korean, rather than “learned 15%”. But I don’t think it’s realistic for any English speaker coming to Korean later in life to expect to reach deep understandings of the language that are much higher than this.

I would be especially keen to hear back from non-Koreans who have scored respectably on the KBS 한국어능력시험 but who disagree with what I’ve written here. I have a hunch that almost anyone who’s actually gotten to the 15% level will share my opinions on most of this.

5 Responses

  1. Joe says:

    You also need to take into account that you were in your 20s when you first started learning to speak Korean. You didn’t grow up with it and live the language. Just think of all the subtleties we know in English because we grew up in the U.S. But even in this country (as I guess is true in Korea and other countries) we can go to other regions where even though they speak English we might not understand bits and pieces of the local vernacular.
    And take “vernacular” for instance. I just had to look it up to make sure I was using it in the correct context. So, therefore, I am not 100 percent proficient in my native language. Possibly 15 to 20 percent? Who knows. It’s really a relative question. Language is so complicated and it is always chaging, so it’s nearly impossible for anyone to say who is proficient. A business person in Seattle might speak a totally different way than a construction worker in Brooklyn.
    One last thing. You mentioned the advertising speaker having a translator talk so he sounded more credible. I believe Korean Consulting would benefit from the same strategy by employing a full-time Korean translator to be at the president’s side at all times. So when the potential for discourse arrises the translator can interpret for the president, thereby avoiding the potential for that 85% void from being exposed. That or Treasure can take over operations in a few years.

  2. Dave Woods says:

    As a former speaker of Korean, Mandarin, Thai, Spanish, French and English, I believe 15% is a bit silly. While you may want to be humble for not knowing all the slang, technical, proverbs, etc., etc., etc. Statistics can be carved any way you’d like, but to claim functionality in a language and then say you only fully know 15% doesn’t make common sense. Sorry to so forcefully disagree, Steven. You are much better than that. So you believe that I am around 5%?

  3. Dave,
    Thanks, as always, for the contrarian viewpoint. 🙂
    I should say first of all that I’m not trying to be humble. Remember, I pointed out that I scored pretty high in the standardized tests. What I’m saying is that to get my Korean to the same level as my English, there’s a very, very long way to go.
    Try this thought experiment. Let’s assume that you reached the “15%” level in Korean back when you were still living here. Then suppose that I put you up against a Korean of similar education and experience and told the two of you to write everything you know about the language. Don’t you think his book would be AT LEAST 6X longer than yours even if I let you write yours in English? Suppose you had to write it all in Korean?
    I agree that 15% is arbitrary and that there’s a certain meaninglessness to trying to measure it, but wouldn’t it be fair to say that your and my penetration of the world of knowledge called “English” is easily 6X more vast than that of “Korean”?

  4. Thanks, Joe. Yes, learning a language later in life definitely makes it harder.
    A full-time interpreter at my side would be nice, indeed… I’ll check with Treasure and see if she’d be available for this role. Perhaps she and Cauvery could take turns. However, I have noticed that my Korean vocabulary is still way past theirs in some important areas and they get bored pretty quick in business meetings. Not sure if they’d be all that helpful interpreting for me. 🙂

  5. Daniel Lafontaine says:

    As a native English and French speaker, I must say you’re spot on when it comes to understanding the depth and breadth and the tangleness of language in general. I truly like how you explained your 15%. As for me, I’m going to start using the exact same definition when I say I know Korean at 3%.