American Musician with a Passion for Korean

  • By Lee Eun-jung

    February 10, 2012 07:41

    An increasing number of foreigners are showing an interest in learning Korean, but one young American is way ahead of them. He became infatuated with the language a decade ago and now speaks it almost like a native Korean.

    Michael Elliott was a composition student at California Institute of the Arts when he first came into contact with Koreans. He collaborated with several Korean animators, producing scores for their short films. Since he had been interested in languages from a young age, largely due to the influence of his grandfather, who is fluent in Spanish, he had dreamed of learning a new language but was too wrapped up in his music to do much of anything else. Working with the Koreans at CalArts, however, he started to learn a few phrases and this quickly blossomed into a hobby and then an obsession.

    Michael Elliott

    One of the Korean students he produced a score for said she had no money to pay for his work but instead offered him a place to stay if he ever came to Korea. She probably doubted this would happen, but as soon as they clinched the deal, Elliott started making plans for a summer trip to Korea.

    "At the time, I'd already taken two months of private Korean lessons in Los Angeles, so I thought that I was about halfway to mastering the language," he recalls. "To my chagrin, I found that all I had learned is taught in the first two days of Korean classes in Seoul. I couldn't even understand how much things cost because I'd only learned numbers up to 100, and everything here starts in the 1,000s."

    Deciding to devote himself to learning the language before he "got any older and dumber" as he puts it, he enrolled in a language institute in Seoul as well as taking private lessons. "At that time, the only thing I thought about was Korean. I studied at the institute till they closed the place almost every night."

    In the ensuing years, Elliott has translated for Seoul's largest newspapers and done the subtitling for some Korean blockbusters, but he recently shifted his focus to education by opening a free English study site called "With my background learning Korean, I really know where Koreans are coming from. I wanted to use my insight into the Korean language to teach English in a more effective and efficient way," he explains.

    Asked why he doesn't charge to access materials on the site, Elliott points to the exorbitant cost of English education in Korea and says he wanted to provide native-speaker English education without the prohibitive cost that has kept it squarely in the domain of Seoul's well-heeled classes.

    He also produces and hosts podcasts for English learners, which have an average audience of over 50,000 per episode, as well as appearing on a radio program on EBS, the educational channel. He also recently launched another site ( that teaches Korean to people around the world.

    Elliott is now challenging himself to take his Korean skills to the next level -- he wants to write songs in Korean. He has already composed and performed a pop song that he made available on his websites. To people who only know him from his educational broadcasts, this may seem an unexpected move, but he says, "I started studying music in kindergarten and majored in composition in college, so really this was more of a homecoming than a new venture."

    As for future plans, he says that he will continue to offer free English education through his podcast and websites and write more Korean songs about his experiences in Korea.

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