In my journey toward mastering the Korean language I inevitably question and evaluate my strategy on a regular basis. What works, and equally important – what doesn’t work? This past fall semester which I spent studying with my very own Korean “Tiger teacher” taught me a lot about language learning. The countless times my LP told me “Don’t think – just speak”, “tell me in Korean what this article says”, “tell me in Korean how to cook this and that (he actually wanted to know, because he couldn’t cook)” forced me to lose all my inhibitions and just make the jump into speaking Korean. With his encouragement and motivation I’ve made so much progress in terms of speaking freely. Much more than I could have ever imagined.

This obviously helped me a lot while I was in Korea and had to handle a lot of situations using only Korean. Without making a complete fool of myself I successfully carried out meaningful conversations with ajummas and ajusshis, doctors, real estate agents, professors, CEOs, and a couple of children. And of course all the sales personnel at Nature Republic, Tony Moly, Innisfree, Etude House, and Nature Republic (again!).

When people asked me how long I had been living in Korea, I told them that for now I was just visiting, but that I had studied Korean on my own for about 18 months. They were all very surprised to hear that it was possible to reach this level of fluency after such a relatively short time. But is it really this surprising? Isn’t it just a natural result of hard work and determination? And a lot of motivation, mind you!

The way I study Korean is 100% fun. Knowing that the first hour of everyday is dedicated to Korean studies alone is what gets me out of bed in the morning. This time is for me alone, and I’m doing it because I find so much joy in it. If you greatly enjoy something, and you are spending a lot of time on it, you are bound to get good at it. Talent is certainly secondary to effort when it comes to language learning.

While in Seoul I visited a lot of book stores (and bought A LOT of Korean books, but a separate post is coming on that) and everywhere I went I saw piles of books aimed at helping people learn English. I couldn’t help but look through some of them, and while some of them certainly had some merit, many books were just awful.  In almost every store young Koreans were flocking around these displays hauling down one book after another. The problem? You can’t learn a language from just books. Obviously books are necessary but they cannot stand alone as a language learning resource. You have to use all your senses in order to master a language. After all, learning a language is about speaking, listening, reading and writing, and focusing on just reading/writing will get you nowhere in terms of actual communication skills.

2015-12-29 13.44.35This book is everything that is wrong with language learning. Grammatically wrong sentences + awkward phonetical transcripts. This just makes me sad!

Having acted as an English teacher for my Korean LP it’s my clear impression that many Koreans have a strong knowledge about English grammar and even specialized vocabulary. Being able to speak freely on the other hand, that is a different story. Even in Incheon airport at the dutyfree department, the young sales girl did not speak a word of English. Well, maybe she did, and didn’t want to because she was afraid of making mistakes.

It generally seems to me that Koreans don’t want to show that there is something they don’t know or something they cannot do perfectly. While this trait is certainly commendable and superior to the “this is too hard, I can’t do this” attitude of many of my students at home it does come with a catch. My husband who doesn’t speak Korean discovered this on a few occasions when he tried speaking to Koreans in English. One day he had gone out to buy some apples and tangerines from our local fruit vendor. Apparently they were out of apples so when my husband asked in English “Do you know if there is another vendor close by?” the man nodded smilingly and said “Yes, we close at 6”. He thought he understood the word “close” and didn’t want to disappoint his customer by saying that he didn’t understand. Obviously my husband just thanked him and found the apples elsewhere on his own.

This type of behavior is very critical when it comes to learning a language. When learning a language you must never be afraid to make mistakes. Think about how toddlers start speaking their native tongue! Every beginning is imperfect! Also, you must never be afraid to say when there is something you don’t understand. In many cases a sentence can be reformulated in a slower and simpler way. And for the native speakers speaking to language learners: Speak to them as you would to a child. Not in a condescending way, but avoid using big words and use words you think they’ll understand. If a sentence can be said in a complicated and a simple way without change of meaning – always, always opt for the simple way in order to avoid any confusion. Be a language “parent” so that you always focus on making sure that the language learner gets the message. Correct the learner kindly by repeating what they said in correct grammar. My LP would often finish a sentence in English by looking at me and saying “Do you understand my meaning”, to which I would answer “Yes, I understand what you mean. Do you also understand what I mean?”, thereby letting him know the correct way of phrasing the question.

Through my friend Jeremy from MotivateKorean I’ve been introduced to his partner Jonson. The two of them recently started an awesome bilingual English-Korean language learning podcast called SpongeMind. This is not your average “how do you say this in English/Korean” podcast, rather this show addresses the core principles of learning a language.

These guys share my philosophies when it comes to language learning, and I highly recommend that you check out their material!

I’ll also have a blog post on Jonson’s amazing videos coming soon, so stay tuned for more tips on getting the most out of your language learning.

In the meantime I should start practicing what I preach and focus more on my own speaking skills. I got a phone call from my LP yesterday, and I only got to answer the phone and say that it’s been a long time (여보세요.  XX씨! 오랜만이에요) before he interrupted me with a “Yes, it has been a long time! What ever happened to your Korean pronunciation and flow?! You sound awkward!” Ah, the never-ending brutal Korean honesty!

Must. Practice. More!

3 Comments »

  1. Amazing! I’ve been told many times that one can get better at speaking in the target language only if one practices it often without worrying about the mistakes made. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to get started thanks to the feeling that I don’t know enough. 😀

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    • It’s never too early to start. Even if you don’t know more than just a few sentences then practising them over and over again is a big help. This also helps familiarize your facial muscles with the language thereby making it easier to pronounce new words in the target language. Don’t hesitate and start speaking today 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve also heard about the merits of abandoning one’s inhibitions when speaking a second language but in general I tend to feel the same way about making mistakes as you described English-learning Koreans D: While intellectually speaking I understand that it is unreasonable to expect any language learner to have perfect grammar, pronunciation, etc., it’s also painfully embarrassing every time I catch myself making even a small mistake haha

    Ironically enough, my boyfriend is Korean and self-taught himself English mostly from memorizing sentences out of his grammar book. When he’s learning new things he can come up with some really awkward sentences but totally isn’t shy about trying to use everything he’s learned. So when we first met he asked me, “Aren’t you American???” implying that as a Korean he was supposed to be the one too shy to use his second language and I was supposed to be boldly making mistakes (:

    I’ll be looking forward to seeing your new books!! 😀

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