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September 9, 2010 » 10:55 pm

My Quest to Learn Korean

설악산, November 2002. I’m admiring the grilled sardines and steamed mussels and sea snails outside of Sanmaeul Restaurant, a wonderful, family-run hole-in-the-wall. They ended up feeding us for our entire stay in 설악산. Also note my sweet, red hat.

I’m generally good at learning, but I have a few nasty Achilles’ heels. My biggest one is languages. I absolutely suck at learning languages. Or, at least, I’ve sucked at learning languages in the past.

You see, I believe that we’re all much more capable of learning than we give ourselves credit for. There are lots of different ways to learn; we just have to find the way that fits the task and our style.

I believe this, and I’ve preached this, but I’ve never rigorously acted on it. I’ve thought a lot about the things I’ve sucked at learning in the past, and how I’d do them differently now, but I’ve never really carried out those ideas. My excuse has always been that I’m too busy, and that I’d rather spend my time mastering stuff that I’m already good at than struggling over something I’m not. There’s some truth to that, but there’s a bigger truth. I’m scared. Deep down, I’m not confident that I can do it, because I haven’t done it before.

Well, I’ve decided that it’s time for me to stop hiding and start doing.

Why the sudden motivation? First, I spent most of this past year hanging out with Wikimedians. Most of the Wikimedians I know kick ass at languages. I am bitterly resentful of all of them. Yes, that includes you Delphine and SJ and Chuck. That includes all of the ridiculously multilingual Wikimedia Foundation employees — the majority of them, in fact. Every time any of them would fluidly slip into another language to converse with others, I would seethe with rage and jealousy inside. Clearly, I needed to do something about this.

Second, I’ve always felt bad about not being able to speak to my parents or extended family in their native tongue, and I’ve always thought that if I were going to focus my energies on any language, it would be Korean. A few recent events encouraged me to follow through on this. I decided to go to Korea in October — my first extended vacation since founding Blue Oxen Associates eight years ago.

Then last month, I had the pleasure of meeting Jung-Ok Lee at the Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy, who asked me if I had ever thought about helping groups in Korea become more collaborative. I would love to do this, but the reality is that I don’t think I could be effective there without being fluent in Korean.

Which brings me to my third reason: Language is an essential element of my work in collaboration. I’ve always stressed the importance of Shared Language, and much of my philosophy and process revolves around this. I’ve always felt a tad hypocritical about emphasizing the importance of bridging between different languages, when I had limited experience doing this myself. I wanted to know what it felt like to speak more than one language fluently.

My Goals and Game Plan

My goals are modest. By June 2011:

  • I’d like to be able to read Korean children’s books.
  • I’d like to be reasonably competent at understanding spoken Korean.
  • I’d like to be fluent enough to survive in Korea by myself.

I had two approaches in developing my strategy. First, I thought about my previous failures in learning languages. This gave me some ideas of what not to do.

Second, I thought about my one and only success in learning a language: English. Believe it or not, this was remarkably useful.

Here’s my strategy in a nutshell:

  • Learn like a baby. Find opportunities to immerse myself — with family, with friends, at restaurants and supermarkets, and, of course, with my upcoming trip. Vocabulary is more important than grammar. Most importantly, babble like a baby. It worked for me before.
  • Learn visually. It’s easier for me to learn vocabulary when I can visualize what the words look like and what they represent when I hear them. Flash cards are a must.
  • Learn contextually. All of my friends who are language studs learn new languages by struggling through children’s books. This is significantly easier in this day and age, thanks to Google Translate.
  • Learn traditionally. At worst, taking a class forces me to practice regularly.

My First Class

I decided to enroll in an introductory class at the Intercultural Institute of California, and I just came home from my first class. I was very nervous. It’s been a while since I’ve been in a traditional classroom, and my previous experiences in language classes were never that positive.

As it turned out, I had an unexpected advantage over the other students in the class. I already know how to read and write Hangul. Hangul is easy to learn, especially if you’re good with symbols. It’s phonetic, with 14 consonants and 10 vowels — two fewer than the Latin alphabet.

Pronouncing Korean is hard, and I’m nowhere close to good at it, but I have a decent amount of experience hearing the correct pronunciations. My parents insist that I always mispronounce 사과 (apple), even though I’ve practiced it about a million times. I can’t for the life of me hear the difference between ㅈ (sort of a cross between j and ch) and ㅉ (a hard j), and I’m pretty sure my teacher (who seems very nice) stifled a laugh when I tried pronouncing them. (She definitely was laughing when I sang the alphabet, but I’m pretty sure that was because of my enthusiastic warbling. I really, really hope that was the reason.)

Knowing the basics allowed me to focus on other things. For example, I don’t always use the correct strokes when writing the alphabet, so I paid close attention to that.

I also focused on recognizing word patterns rather than sounding out characters. When I see the word, “apple,” I’m not sounding out the characters. I’m recognizing the whole word. This is not currently the case with Hangul. When I see 하나 (the number one), I’m not recognizing the word pattern. I’m sounding out each character, then understanding the word. By focusing on the word pattern, I can visualize the word when I hear it, which I think will help me learn vocabulary much more quickly.

I also know that my advantage will be very short-lived, and my weaknesses are going to surface fairly quickly. I’m going to try to mitigate that through extra preparation, although I’m bracing myself for much more laughter over the coming months.

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2 Responses to “My Quest to Learn Korean”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Eugene Eric Kim, Andrew Garrett. Andrew Garrett said: RT @eekim: My quest to learn Korean. http://j.mp/cZQgRM […]

  2. "Being reasonable competent at understanding spoken Korean" — this is not a modest goal. This is a great big huge accomplishment if you can pull it off.

    I've been studying Japanese myself since 2008. (My father's parents were Japanese but, of course, I was raised totally monolingual.). I'm getting better at reading, but spoken Japanese — completely hopeless. Ugh.

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