Sunday, March 31, 2013

An Honest Assessment of My Korean Language Progress

Okay, six months of 한국어학당 finished (20 weeks x 20 hours per week = 400 hours of instruction), so I figured I should self-assess my Korean progress.

First, the positives:

- I speak better Korean than most foreigners here, which isn't saying much, since the bar is embarrassingly low. That is, if you can properly order food, say hello, goodbye, thank you, and pronounce (and remember) Korean names properly, then you are already ahead of probably 95% of foreigners, and Koreans will call you a "genius". It's 2013, people. This is sad.
- I can get around Korea just fine. I have no trouble with daily life.
- I can have conversations in just Korean about various topics, sometimes for hours.
- I can read and write better than I can speak.
- Occasionally, I can express complex concepts by mashing together words I already know.

Now, the negatives:

- My Korean is nowhere near "natural". The word and grammar choices I make are decidedly strange, and I don't sound like a Korean when I speak.
- My pronunciation is decent, but not great. I can make myself understood perfectly well, but I still mess up certain sounds, especially distinguishing ㅅ from ㅆ, ㄱ from ㅋ, ㄷ from ㅌ, etc. I have trouble hearing the distinctions between these sounds, too, which is obviously not a coincidence.
- I am functionally illiterate. I often look at advertisements and come across multiple words I haven't seen before, often different enough that I can't just guess. The informational mailings from my apartment building and the town are incredibly difficult. Forget about the newspaper, magazines, novels, let alone subtitles.
- The gap in my basic Korean is embarrassingly large. Recently, I found myself able to discuss the exchange rate, but didn't know the term for "to wash your hair" (머리를 감다).

So what's the deal, here? Didn't I just spend six months at one of, if not the highest-rated Korean language institutes in the country? How come I'm not fluent?

Basically, I think Korean language instruction is broken. Some of the ways:

- We barely learn how to speak. No, seriously. Let that one sink in for a moment. Speaking is skipped in favor of reading, writing, and listening. Although mostly, all of this is skipped in favor of listening to the teacher talk. As a result, unsurprisingly, I can understand nearly 100% of lectures about learning Korean and Korean grammar, yet I didn't how to say "to wash your hair".

- When we do speak, it's with other students, so we spend nearly 100% of our time speaking incorrect Korean and reinforcing our mistakes. The teacher corrects us about 1% of the time. It's not their fault - they simply don't have the time to correct every mistake.

- Despite being able to understand close to 100% of what the teacher says in class, that translates to much, much less outside of class. The reason is that the teachers don't speak like normal Koreans inside class. They are trained to only use words that they know we've learned, and even more frustrating, they don't speak at a normal speed. The first day our teacher came in last semester, she asked how fast she should speak, and I voted for "as fast as possible". She chose "as slow as that drugged up kid after the dentist". Every now and then the teachers get excited and speak natural, fast Korean with phrases that are often used but never taught in textbooks. I take furious notes during those times. They often ask me why I'm taking notes for stuff that's not on the test.

- Speaking of the tests, they mostly don't test our actual Korean ability. It's not that hard to pick grammatical forms or words to fit into a sentence blank, but this IN NO WAY means you know how to use those words or grammatical structures. The writing section is perhaps the best test of language ability. The listening, not so much - on our final exam last term, the listening portion was recorded at an embarrassingly slow rate.

- The stuff we read in class in mind-numbingly boring. It's also often written in an awkward way. The goal is to pack as much new vocabulary into the readings as possible, and sometimes reinforce recently learned grammar patterns (a good thing). But mostly it's just insanely, want-to-gouge-my-eyes-out boring.

- Korean is mythologized, both in and out of class. We're constantly told how hard it is to learn. Koreans for the most part believe that foreigners, especially non-Asian foreigners, are incapable of ever speaking proper Korean. If your expectations are as such, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I still often encounter Koreans who refuse to allow their brain to understand me, despite most people having absolutely no trouble understanding my Korean.

I really liked some of my teachers. I even asked one why they teach the way they do, and she said that the students want to learn a "large quantity" of Korean. So there it is. Quantity over quality (yet our school brands itself as teaching "precise" Korean). Supposedly demanded by the market.

Anyway, the only times my spoken Korean has gotten better are when I actually speak Korean with Koreans outside of class. Same for my listening. My reading got better from reading song lyrics and comic books. My writing got better from writing Facebook posts in Korean, which require a lot of time spent poring over example sentences in the dictionary to try to figure out how to use certain words and grammar patterns (yep, you figured me out - those aren't naturally occurring fluent Korean thoughts floating around in there).

If I were to design a Korean language course, it would be strikingly different from the one I took:

- For starters, it would spend way more time on the basic stuff. There are word frequency lists for every language. It's the biggest bang for your buck to learn the most frequently-used words first.

- Same for grammar patterns. And speaking of grammar patterns, I would teach them in context rather than piecemeal. We learned like ten different forms of indirect speech (-는다고 ...), and every damn time we went through "If the verb stem has a 받침, then it's -는다고, otherwise it's -ㄴ다고". Seriously, when you're speaking, you don't have time to think of these rules. Nor do you have time to think of grammar. You just speak. If you're thinking about 받침s, you're doing it wrong. If you hear "한다고" enough times, you will never accidentally say "하는다고". Cause it sounds off.

- I would use real material for reading rather than boring-ass contrived crap meant to teach us about the virtues of 떡 and how to properly celebrate a 돌잔치. Comic books, novels, songs, etc. Real stuff written by real Koreans, not academic educators.

- Listening would only use real material too. Korean dramas, movies, even television commercials (as long as they don't have Psy).

- I would teach speaking. This would involve actually speaking. This one seems pretty obvious.

Well, that's it for now. I'm exploring building something for myself to help accelerate my own Korean study. Stay tuned.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Taking Responsibility

One of the most liberating and terrifying things you can do is to accept responsibility. For everything. Many of us grow up with the incredibly limiting belief that anything that doesn't go our way is someone else's fault. It's your teacher's fault, your friend's fault, your boss's fault, your partner's fault, the world's fault - whatever, as long as it's not your fault.

There is no surer way to hold yourself back than blaming your life and your setbacks on other people.

A particular pet peeve of mine is people who blame their character flaws on something out of their control. This takes a lot of different forms, such as, "I've got a bad temper, so he had it coming", or "Yeah, I'm just not good with responding to messages", or "I'm no good at talking to girls", or recently the popular anti-social excuse "I'm just not comfortable around people". Yes, I know that there are biological propensities for violence, anti-social behavior, and just about every other potential character flaw, but there's nothing worse than blaming malleable character traits on things out of your control. The mere belief that these things are unchangeable givens is at once a terrible excuse for our own behavior as well as a confining cage squeezing the life out of our future selfs.

The sheer magnitude of important stuff not taught in school is fairly overwhelming, but how to deal with other people, and how to deal with our own thoughts, emotions, and especially shortcomings - in other words, skills related to emotional intelligence - are perhaps the most glaring omission. It turns out that these are skills that can be learned, and the value is arguably greater than anything else you may learn in life. How do I know that we can change the way we deal with other people? Because I've seen it in others, and I've seen it in myself.

No one can force you to change. No one can force you to become a better person. It has to start from you - there is no other way. It starts from simply accepting responsibility for everything in your life. Once you accept personal responsibility, your life is something in your control. It's hard, it's painful, and sometimes it really, really sucks, but it's also the healthiest thing you can do if you're looking to grow as a person.

From now on, rather than looking outward and directing your blame at others, look inward. You'll be amazed at how freeing it is.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Barriers

Lately I've been thinking a lot about the barriers that we create for ourselves as we go through life. Most of them aren't our fault - we learn them as we grow up. But more nefarious is the fact that we don't just learn them; we're taught them. Society seems designed to constrain our lives into neat little boxes, and the more that I've come to realize this, the more I want to shout at the top of my lungs and tell everyone that the boxes aren't real. They're imaginary, and if you don't want to spend your life constrained to one of these nice little boxes, you don't have to.

But it's up to you, and no one else.

Yesterday, in Korean class, our reading of the day was a letter from a student to one of his old teachers, about the day when his teacher told them that everyone has a special talent. That day resonated in the student's mind, because at the time, he said that he had no dream. Hearing someone simply tell him that he wasn't destined to be a dreamless wanderer changed his perspective enough that he actively sought out his dream, ultimately finding a fulfilling career and life. Of course, the ironies of this appearing in a Korean textbook are simply overwhelming, but disregarding that, we started talking about our dreams. Our teacher said, "Lately, more and more people in Korea are starting to have the dream of becoming teachers." It seemed like a suspect statement*, so I asked why, and she said, "Well, teaching is a stable profession. So it's more that they give up their dreams in order to do something stable."

What. The. Fuck.

Since I'm the oldest one in my class by nearly a decade, and also the only one who pays attention to what people are actually saying, I was a bit taken aback. But I'm fascinated by what drives people - everyone, everyone has something interesting about themselves, and you often just merely have to ask to find out.

So I asked my teacher: "선생님, 꿈이 뭐예요?" Teacher, what's your dream? She started telling us how she used to dream of being an artist. When she was younger, she even held galleries and exhibitions of her art. But then, as she got older, her dream "disappeared". As she was talking about her art, I could see the twinkle in her eyes. And when she told us, perhaps to convince herself, that her dream had simply "gone away", I could see the pain.

Dreams don't die. They might wither, they might change, but they never completely disappear. The point of this is not that being an artist is a better career than being a teacher, or that my teacher made a wrong decision. No. It's that the reason she made her decision was because she believed she was supposed to. Everywhere we turn, we're deluged with people telling us what we're supposed to do. We're supposed to major in something "useful". We're supposed to get a good job to pay the bills. We're supposed to get married by a certain age. We're supposed to find value in the same things that society, especially media, values. We're supposed to do all these things without questioning why we're doing them, and it's supposed to lead to a better life.

Look, happiness and fulfillment in life are no one's responsibility but your own. Society tells you to be a certain way because it's the way society maintains its own stability. It comes down to the following: do you want society to be in control of your life, or do you want to have a say?

The barriers we create for ourselves are mental barriers. First we need to acknowledge that they're there. And then we need to see them for what they are - shackles holding us back.

Life is out there for the taking. Live life. Don't let life live you.

* I happen to believe that teaching is an extremely noble profession, and I only wish more educated people would become teachers.