Public Transport: A Brief Guide to the Seoul Subway

If you are new to Seoul, probably the first thing you will want to do is familiarize yourself with the subway system. But fear not! It’s very easy to use and does not require you to know any Korean whatsoever (although I’d still recommend having some knowledge up your sleeve).

I come from a suburban-leaning towards rural area in the U.S. where we lack all forms of public transportation, so you can imagine that I was very nervous on figuring out how to get around. On top of that, I came alone and my plane touched down two and a half weeks before school started, meaning that it was all up to me to figure out how to use it. Fortunately, I had two Korean friends pick me up from the airport and guide me to my first destination. I picked up a few tips from them and my experience that I’d like to share.

1. Jihachul. First and foremost, there is an application for the Seoul subway that is available on most OS’s. You can find it by typing ‘jihachul’ into the search window of the app store. This app is handy as it not only gives you a map, but allows you to select your beginning and destination in order to see the time it takes and number of stops you will pass through. It also provides you train departure times, which is helpful when you need to catch the last train. It also operates offline, so you don’t have to worry about wifi or data availability. (There is another version of this for the Seoul bus system as well, but I will describe it in another post.)

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2. Subways are just like airports. No, you aren’t flying anywhere or running from terminal to terminal (that is unless you are trying to catch a quick transfer). However, that is not what I am getting at. Subways are like airports as in they are well marked. All you have to do is follow the signs and it will guide you step by step through the transfer, platform, or exit. The signs are written in both Korean and English so there is no necessity to know how to read Korean if you don’t want to—but I definitely recommend learning at least how to read  because it will make your time in Korea a lot more enjoyable.

3. 5 minute rule. Generally speaking, a subway train will come about every 5-10 minutes depending on where you are at. The inner circle (line 2) runs more trains through than the far branch of, say, line 5. Even so, the train system is quick and efficient and does not require you to plan your schedule around it.

Subway Train Location Sign

4. Subway cards. There are many types of card that you can use for the subway and bus system. These include (but aren’t limited to) Pop Cards, Korean Debit Cards, Korean Credit Cards, and some Student/Work ID’s. Anything with T-Money compatibility will work in the subway. You can get at Pop or T-Money card at any convenience store (if you land at Incheon International Airport, they usually have a huge stock of them). They don’t cost hardly anything and you can add the balance when you buy it. If you need to recharge your card, there is always a line of self-recharge machines by the gates to the platform that take your cash and fill it onto your card. However, if you can’t find these or they are under maintenance then you can go to the convenience stores down in the subway (or on the streets) and ask for a recharge. Just give them the card and the cash you want to put on and they cashier will help recharge your card.

Recharging Station

5. Subway charge. A single subway ride on the Seoul system starts at 1050W up to 10 kilometres. You pay additional 100 won every 5 kilometres up to 40 km, and 100 won every 10 km after 40 km. You can also transfer to another form of public transportation (for instance, a bus) without paying the base charge again if you manage to transfer within 30 minutes normally (this time varies) up to 4 times. The base costs of the means of transportation are not always the same, so the maximum cost applies. Therefore, if you transfer from the subway (1,050 won base fee) to a city bus which belongs to Gyeonggi-do (1,100 won base fee) you will be charged 50 won when you get on the bus, and you will pay additional cost based on the total travel distance when you get off. It may seem confusing, but it is actually rather quite simple and painless overall.

Charge

6. Timing (can be) key. Of course, like any other major city, there is rush hour. If you try to get on line 1 or 2 around 8am in the morning or 6-7pm at night, you’re in for some fun. In Seoul, there are no conductors to push you into the car like packing peanuts, but most Seoulites are not afraid to pack in nice and tight. If you have claustrophobia, don’t go during rush hours. It’s not worth it. Also worth noting is that the subway opens at about 6am and closes at midnight (standard buses also stop running at this time). If you miss the last train, there are other options such as the Night Owl Bus or taxis, but they are more expensive, of course.

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Whether you are here for a few days or for months, chances are you will use the subway system at one point or another. Hopefully, these six tips will ease any worries and prepare you for an amazing time in Seoul!

Learning Korean

오늘의 표현 (Today’s Expression):

여기서 잠실역까지 얼마나 걸려요?
yeo-gi-seo jam-sil-yeok-gga-ji eol-ma-na geol-leo-yo?
How long does it take to get from here to Jamsil Station?

단어 (Vocabulary):

역 (yeok) – station
지하철(ji-ha-cheol) — subway train
호산 (ho-san) — subway line
입구 (ip-gu) — entrance
줄구 (jul-gu) – exit

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5 Tips for Cultural Traveling

Recently, it has been a trend to travel to countries to gain a taste of the culture. Whether vacationing for a couple of weeks or studying abroad for a few months, you want to make the most of everything that you can. These trips are usually once in a lifetime, so I have compiled a list of the five best pointers I follow whenever I travel. These can be applied both within the United States and in almost every country around the world (but I would recommend reading up on normal customs and etiquette of the destination before you depart).

CQ 5Tips 21. Talk the talk. Make an effort to talk to people, other than just ordering your drink. Especially if you have a grasp on the native language. Even if you aren’t fluent, the attempt above else will please them and break the ice. Chances are they are eager to share their ways and hear about yours in return. As an added bonus, you’ll gain brownie points and get better service than other fellow foreigners.

CQ 5Tips 1

2. Avoid touristy spots. I don’t mean just the tourist traps, but also the big tourist spots. Find that little beach or port city a couple miles down the coast from the main tourist attraction and you’ll be thanking yourself. Every time that I have done this, I have been glad. Right down the road is always a less busy and traveled area, which means less traffic and less mess. Usually that so-called “neglected” spot is more beautiful and much cleaner and still jammed packed of historical significance.

CQ 5Tips3. Bargain it. Particularly in areas that are well known shopping centers for travelers, the vendors build in wiggle room for bargaining. Almost all the shops are priced high, both as a gimmick for the naïve traveler and leeway for the more savvy.

CQ 5Tips 44. Don’t ignore the children. The best part about children is that they don’t care about language and cultural barriers. They simply want to play and enjoy friendship with the “white-girl-from-out-of-town.” You’ll learn much more about daily life and get a chance to piece together more of the culture. On top of that, you’ll capture the hearts of the parents and community members when the see you are safe to trust.

CQ 5Tips 35. Help out. If you can, do something to help out the local area where you are staying. Simple things like asking who to buy X service for to spending an hour picking up litter around town goes a long way to show that you are not there to be destructive. Plus, they might see you doing something that they never payed much thought to and join in. Lead by example.

I have experienced the benefits of these tips first hand, both on my most recent trip to Ecuador and before. You’ll not be disappointed and return with a fulfilling dose of the culture. Now get out there and travel on!

Face the Facts: Language Classes are Underrated

LanguageHow many stories have you heard of people taking language classes for three or four years and still not having a handle on the language in question? Or is it the case that the person has taken three years and have all but forgotten everything the have learn?

Too many times I have heard the allegory of the faulty language class. Usually it flows something similar to this:

Jane is interested in learning Spanish, so she decides to take a year long language class in high school each year for her entire four-year high school career. After the fourth year, she feels she can read and write it decently, but lacks the vocabulary and knowledge to write an artistic piece as she can in her native tongue. Her speaking ability is shoddy, with broken sentences and long pauses. Now, ten years later, she only remembers a few phrases and some of the basic grammar structures.

And the common verdict of this story: language classes do not provide and enhance the background nor the skills that are needed to communicate in the target language. My assertion, this is a fallacy.

The average language class does lack in many aspects, but does not alter it as useless as you may think. Language classes help to lay a foundation and serve as an introduction to the language. The time that you spend in the classroom can be used to ask questions, practice formulating sentences, and learn to work around words that you do not know with other phrases. But there are two key points that must sink in before one can make the most of their classroom opportunities: (1) there is no such thing as simply “picking up” a language and (2) languages are an art; not an exact science.

I took the full four years of high school Spanish before I graduated, even though the school required a minimum of two years of the same language. I even petitioned my Spanish department to allow me to skip the designated fourth year class and instead attend the fifth/sixth year. What does that have to do with anything? I have only one word: initiative. Language learning does not just happen. It takes a high degree of effort to improve and enhance lingual skills.

language-learning-1A lot of people, with little if not zero experience with second languages, come into class thinking that they simply have to attend and hear the language to learn it. Unfortunately, this does not work as we wish as our minds are set to filter out both individual and strings of sounds that are not present in our native tongue. This idea is often known as “databasing” where certain sounds present in the native alphabet are kept while others are filtered out. When we are little, about a year to two-years old, we begin to build our database. Sounds that we hear and try to mimic stay with us, as others begin to fade away. This, however, does not mean that we cannot later use the sounds in speech, but that we must pay careful attention, relearn them, and then assign meaning to these sounds.

This means that languages, especially those much more different than the first, require a bit of work before individual words can be picked out. However, this does not indicate that higher exposure to the languages does not improve the rate at which lingual skill is acquired. It is quite on the contrary, but the problem is that only exposure does not equal learning.

The second idea to keep in mind is that language is a communicative art. It is not exact, as there are often multiple words and phrases that have similar meanings, which allows people to work around with what vocabulary that have at their disposal. This can be a huge issue with language classes, as a lot of them try to approach languages as a science with direct formulas. The main benefit of a class is that you do receive grammar instruction which can sometimes be hard to get or confusing in an out-of-classroom setting.

Now, language classes may not be the most effective mode to learn by nor are they designed to be the only method with which to learn the target language. In class you get about an hour’s worth of instruction and exposure and then it is up to the learner to continue. Another hit on the class is that it is likely not tailored to meet the learner’s style. Some people need instruction in the language to give them a chance to take note of pronunciation and ask questions back in the language to practice construction and entertain curiosity while others may not be able to puzzle out the meaning of the instruction, but could use more grammatical teaching. Some need writing and reading practice as they have already had experience in conversation and others vice versa.

All in all, language learning consists of many components which different teaching methods are more effective at teaching. Many people frown on languages classes even though they have their advantages. These advantages are overshadowed by advertisements of learning software and the movement towards online self-teaching creating a massive underestimation of the classroom value.

language learning is messy

For more reading material on the science of language learning:

National Science Foundation: Nature or Nurture, the Science of Language Learning

For more videos on the science of language learning and tips:

Tips to Make Language Learning Easier
Linguistic Genius of Babies
Linguistic Genius of Adults
Learning Another Language (Tips)

The Trick to Reading Chinese

I was that person who ran through school with little care and little passion about languages. I settled for Spanish to fulfill my requirements and stumbled in the first day, ready for another mind numbing class. The teacher bobbed into class precisely as the bell rang and immediately ran into a monologue of why languages are important. They’re connectors. They’re life savers. They’re businessmen. Languages are the hinges of communication and they swing open the doors to a multitude of cultures. That’s when it hit me. I actually enjoyed learning languages.

There you go. That’s my story. The start of a long narrative that would lead me to a curiosity for all languages, particularly the ones that are tough for me to crack and Chinese ranks number one on my list of tough nuts. I cannot count the hours I have spent pouring over characters, trying to burn them into my memory. Yet one doubt–more accurately; one question–has plagued my every step. Where do I start?

Chinese Building Blocks

As an English speaker, Chinese seems other-worldly to me. The form and grace of the character baffles me and boggles my mind when I try to study and drill them into my vocabulary. There seemed to be no easy access point, even with the Korean and beginner Japanese background that I brought with me. It was nothing like the others. No simple alphabet, no nice pronunciations, but thankfully it did have a relatively similar sentence structure to English. In all of my other languages, I have dug into literature to expand my vocabulary and heighten my awareness of the little intricacies; but Chinese has proven its difficulty with the characters that seem to not have connections. As ShaoLan puts it, I needed to find a way to “penetrate the Great Wall of [the] Chinese language.” I have started over and over and over to no avail, until I came across ShaoLan’s easy method. Her method entails the memorization of blocks of 8 basic building characters. In this TED Talk, she explains how a block of 8 simple characters leads to 32 more characters.

All of these build up to competency levels with 1,000 characters allowing comprehension of around 90% of literature. Chunk it down and take small steps, then the competency will come. After that speaking is much easier and vocabulary begins to come more naturally. This is how I have learned and continue to, with much ease and no more restarts. Chinese is more than difficult, but the wall is not impenetrable.

Helpful Links:

About Chinese Characters (History and Evolution)
How to Write Chinese
Mandarin (Chinese) Page
Cantonese (Chinese) Page

Currently, there are not any quality guides for the 8 block character approach. If you know of one, please let me know and I’ll attach it to this post. I spent much of my time building my own list of fundamental units and may put together a guide off of my research if enough people express interest. (Comment below if you want me to write up a short guide!)