Learning Languages (and everything else)

Last night I went to a language exchange where I was asked how to study and get good at Korean.

I said, “I study every day.”

“What?” said the guy. “For like two hours?”

“No,” I said. “Twenty minutes.”

He seemed surprised by that. The conversation got me thinking about my current approach to learning Korean and getting good at most anything: playing the guitar, writing, singing, whatever.

I don’t consider myself to be good at Korean. I still feel more helpless than not in trying to communicate in this new language and am still more likely to gesture wildly at the store clerk than to bust out anything intelligible. I am slowly realizing that I am improving day by day though. It’s a realization that comes at the most surprising times and arrives in the moments when I’m not thinking too hard about it. When I suddenly know that I’ve got the vocabulary and grammar to tell my language partner about what I did the previous day or inadvertently understanding that a teacher at my school has just playfully said she’s so busy she could die. (It sounds much harsher than it is when you translate it!)

There’s a lot about my decision to learn Korean that might be considered strange or unique: I’m an aspiring diplomat who was once obsessed with North Korea and Korean economic history. But I still started from the beginning like everyone else. Sure, I’ve learned languages before but Korean is nothing like any of them. It shares some basic similarities with Chinese but this has proven more likely to confuse me than anything else.

Here’s how to start from the beginning just like everyone else.

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