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.

Step 1: Choose.

Make the choice to learn Korean, learn to play the guitar, become a great artist, whatever it is.

A co-worker of mine is always complaining about how he needs to learn Korean. He then follows this up with every excuse under the sky about how hard it is, how lazy he is, etc. etc. I told him to cut the crap and just accept the fact that he didn’t actually want to learn Korean. There wasn’t a single external factor out there that made it so that he couldn’t learn Korean. It was all him.

There isn’t a single thing wrong with not wanting to learn Korean, by the way. As my co-worker heartily proves, you can survive and have a decent life in Korea knowing the bare minimum of Korean phrases. Sure, you can’t communicate with 99% of the people you meet here but it isn’t impossible to live here, get food, buy things, pay your bills, the whole of it. Much like it isn’t impossible to learn Korean.

I am somewhat uncomfortable when I hear people talk about how hard Korean is. (And I’ve been the person complaining about how impossible the language is, believe me.) It is a vastly different language from English yes, more different than Spanish or French, but thinking about how hard it is doesn’t make things any easier, doesn’t really help me learn anything more.

Korean is hard, I’m lazy, I don’t have the time, I have no aptitude for languages– this is pablum. This is noise. Make the powerful choice to learn Korean because… you are learning Korean. That’s it. Full stop.

Step 2: Set a goal. Or two.

Now that you’ve made the choice to learn Korean, set a concrete goal. The goal of “fluent in Korean/master Korean” is too vague and wishy washy. It has no metrics by which you can say, “I’ve done it. I’ve completed my goal.”

I think it’s impossible to master a language. I still encounter words I don’t recognize in English and screw up basic grammar and spelling all the time. I do not put pressure on myself to meet those standards when I can’t even meet them in my native language. This is not a barrier for me to be able to communicate in Korean.

Set something concrete that you can imagine clearly. Don’t be afraid to be detailed about your vision either. It’s the way to give yourself the chance that yes, that’s exactly how it’s going to look like.

Be able to order food at a restaurant. Talk to the landlady about where to throw food waste. Understand and sing my favorite song from my favorite Kpop group. These are concrete goals with an end point. I have something to work towards and I am able to recognize the goal’s completion when it happens.

Step 3: Do something every day. Set a daily goal.

Learning a language, much like anything else worth doing in life, is something built daily.

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

There are days where I think about the vastness of my undertaking. It makes me freeze up. It makes me want to quit.

So I don’t think about that.

I think about studying Korean for twenty minutes that day. I don’t think about the Korean I will be studying for twenty minutes tomorrow, or for twenty minutes the day after that. I think about the twenty minutes I do TODAY.

Twenty minutes is a completely arbitrary goal, by the way. Maybe what’s comfortable for you is one hour, two hours per day. Maybe you’d rather measure it by tackling one unit of your book a day, or by writing ten sentences per day using five verbs, present and future tense. Maybe you measure your day by asking your waitress to split your dinner bill among your friends all in Korean.

It’s a small, doable goal. And it renews every day. Didn’t hit your goal last night for whatever noisy reason you’ve got? That’s all right, your chance at redemption is to meet today’s goal. Feeling a little cocky because you blasted right past your goal last night? Now it’s back to square one, for this neverending, growing adventure.

I give myself a sticker when I meet my goal for the day. At the end of the month, I’m able to look back and see how much work I’ve actually put in to this journey. I can feel better that things are really going somewhere and I can tweak things so that I’m more on pace to meet my big goals than ever before.

I also have a weekly two hour class with a couple of friends and a fantastic tutor. I pay about $50 a month for it. It’s my backstop for Korean. It guarantees that even if the rest of my life goes to shit, there is something feeding me Korean at minimum once a week.

Step 4: Expose yourself.

I moved to Korea in part to surround myself with Korean and be unable to escape my drive to learn this language. Korean goes on all around me, an ambient sound.

This is how babies learn Korean. (I am, in fact, baby level in Korean.) They just pick it up from listening to words repeated over and over again. It takes them about a year to utter their first words though, a step you can happily bypass because you’re a grown ass adult.

Listen to people on the bus. Listen to TV or to music. Listen, listen. Coupled with lessons on the basics (the word for umbrella is 우산, that kind of thing) this is the magic that will cause things to just snap into place. You’re absorbing more Korean than you’re ever aware you actually know. There isn’t space for your brain to clog up about how much this language makes no sense– you’re not thinking about how or why you understand what’s going on. You just do.

Step 5: Have fun.

Enjoy the journey. Misery is going to be happen, it’s painful (you’re probably actually rewiring your brain while learning this language), all those things– but there’s just no point in being miserable about this. You chose it, you might as well enjoy it.

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