The podcast that taught me how to speak Korean

After freshman year of high school, I used my summer freedom to take a programming class. "I don't expect you guys to learn this language in two weeks," our teacher made it clear from the outset, "any more than I'd expect you to learn Korean in two weeks."

"Korean?" I said to myself, bemused by such a bizarre example. "But who would ever want to learn Korean?" And yet, eight or nine short years later, not long after I started watching Korean movies, I started studying the Korean language. What struck my teenage self as an impossibly obscure pursuit has become one of the central elements of my life.

Much of that has to do with Talk to Me in Korean, a podcast that started up a few years after my studies began. Like most podcast enthusiasts, I've always spent a chunk of my listening time on language-learning shows, but as all podcast enthusiasts soon realize, quality varies. Talk to Me in Korean's consistency, rigor, and production value (and, no small thing, its goofy humor), evident from its first months, converted me into the most regular of listeners.

In fact, I'd say I kept up with those early years of Korean studies — a rocky road indeed, especially as one's first East Asian language — in large part so I could remain a listener. Evidently many others around the world did the same, judging by the media empire creator Hyunwoo Sun has built in the intervening years. The Talk to Me in Korean-verse encompasses not just podcasts but videos, books, and a real-life café in Seoul's eternally youthful Hongdae neighborhood.

I spent much of last summer in Seoul, testing out the Korean I'd learned on its streets (as opposed to the streets of Los Angeles' Koreatown, where I live). There I also paid a visit to Talk to Me in Korean headquarters, where I sat down for an interview with Sun himself on my podcast, Notebook on Cities and Culture.

Telling his story, Sun made a lament often heard in Korea: that everything he learned in his English classes, most of then taught by non-native speakers, turned out to be wrong, or at least not very useful. The medium of podcasting, which at its best produces shows like Talk to Me in Korean, makes it considerably easier to teach, and to learn, a living language in a living way. It has even made possible my own move to Korea, which will happen later this year. Now if I could just master the difference between 은/는 and 이/가, I'd be sitting pretty.