Learning Korean

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I’m at a stage now in my language studies where I’d consider myself nearing intermediate level. I still struggle to understand a fair amount around me and what people say, I still go mentally blank pretty often and I still make mistakes all the time…Yet, there’s a lot I can do now with my language skills combined with body language. While living abroad has been a journey for me, the language learning itself has been a journey as well, with distinct stages and challenges.

Around this time last year, I began to take my Korean studies seriously. I’d been in Korea as a tourist for about 3 months and was nearing my departure for home. There’s another story in here, but I’ll save that for a later post. After leaving Korea and arriving back home, I was searching for english teaching jobs as a way back into the country with a visa and income. During that time, which amounted to about 5 months, my girlfriend and I stayed in touch through Skype and Kakao (a Korean messaging application)/Facebook. I arrived back in the states with some basic grammar, basic introduction, a few questions and some korean food names. I was far from able to start creating my own sentences. I was running off, primarily, phrases I’d picked up or learned from a book.

Prior to starting my Korean studies, I’d never really wanted to learn a language. I took some French in middle school, then again in college, a spanish class, and 3 years of Latin. I was taking classes because I had to, not because I wanted to. I guess my mind started opening up to the larger world outside of the states during high school when I discovered international film and fell in love with Asian and French cinema. Yet I still, all through college, never considered really delving into a language. I didn’t have convincing enough motivations at the time. So, taking the first step to just acknowledge to myself that I was going to make a serious effort to learn Korean was a big leap. Choosing a language so far removed from my own was daunting to say the least. It still is. I felt very overwhelmed with the immensity of the task in front of me, even with the help and encouragement of my girlfriend and a developing life in Korea.

Since then, I’ve gone through stages of consistent, prolonged, daily study, and multiple week long dry spells. I’ve gone through weeks of chatting regularly with locals to weeks where finding the courage to reach out to strangers felt impossible. I’ve had highs where I’ve felt I’m making incredible progress, and lows where I’ve felt I’ll never be capable of reaching my goal of fluency. It’s like anything else, it’s a process, it has it’s curves, it’s ups and downs, it’s stages and challenges along the way…and most importantly, it’s ongoing. The process and learning never ends.

Now I’m approaching a year of study, at least…in terms of intention. I’ve been studying solo since 2 months ago, not including around 10 classes I attended through a nearby private institute during my teaching days. I’ve learned more than I expected I would through my studies. When I first started along this path, I felt it was just a matter of learning the necessary skills. I saw it as a technical pursuit. Not so much as an opportunity to really radically shift the way I thought about the world. What I’ve learned since is that language includes cultural characteristics, and through embodying and using the language, you can feel the energy of the culture – through the intonation, the emphasis, the word choices, etc. To speak a language effectively, in a way that creates a sense of connection to a native speaker (when heard), you must reflect the character of the language you hear. It’s not simply enough to say the words. That works to translate the literal context, but language in use is more than words, but the emotions associated with the words themselves. The process of language learning is more than just learning new vocab, new grammatical structures, but also stepping into a new way of emotionally and mentally relating to your surroundings.

For me, I still have a long way to go in my studies, but I’m at a point where I feel significantly closer to the culture here, simply from having developed my language skills. I’m given insights through the language (in terms of ability to understand (a little) of my surroundings and interact, at a relatively basic level, with locals) about the culture and the place I currently call home. In a later post, I’ll go into more detail about what exactly the language is teaching me about Korean culture specifially, but for the time being I’m just enjoying the experience of communicating in two distinct ways. This past week I’ve been at a low in my confidence about my language learning process, but after meeting a Korean friend today and sharing our languages, I’ve been given a boost. Looking forward to a new week of classes.

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