I can order food, sure. I can swear a little and sing a rough translation of “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.”
That’s about the gist of it.
I’m on my second teaching contract in Korea, a nation whose culture and people I adore. And yet, my Korean language skills are, to be frank, pitiful.
I’ve hit the expat plateau, that stall in language learning. I have just enough Korean to get around, and too many shitty excuses for not studying more.
This year, I want to work harder and be more receptive to the local language of a nation I like so much. What better time than the New Year? This year, I will make five resolutions for my language learning. Not vague “read more, speak more” common sense resolutions, but real focused goals that are, I hope, attainable. Struggling to study a new language too? Join me.
1. I Will Make My Efforts Known
Instead of just scribbling down my New Year’s resolutions in a diary, I’m going to make ‘em public this year. Announcing goals to the world creates accountability; if I make strides with the language, people will know. If I slack, oh boy, they’ll know too. Come March, if my textbooks are propping up a table leg in my apartment, I can’t brush it off with a “Well, I’m comfortable with my basic Korean.”
To tackle this resolution, I’ve fessed up to my rudimentary Korean language skills to the whole Matador Network. Other language learners can write about it too, and start a blog about the process. Writers like Benny the Irish Polyglot or Steve Kaufmann are good models.
If you can, sign up for a class and be kept on track with test scores and assignments (not to mention the money you paid for the lessons – always a dandy incentive). You can use Facebook, that great mouthpiece of minutiae, to make your goals public or to get a Word of the Day on your page in your target language.
A whipsmart girlfriend of mine is learning Swedish, and posts Facebook status updates whenever she passes a level in the course. For a fellow language learner, her success is inspiring. Okay, envy-inducing. Let’s say both.
2. I Will Focus My Goals
The curious thing about being immersed, as I am here in Korea, is the order in which you take in language. The terms and rules you absorb on-site are different from the stuff of language textbooks. I’ve found myself picking up language on a need-to-know basis. I work as a teacher, and have learned classroom vocabulary and bits of scolding. I have to eat, so menu terms come easy now. Working in a big school with a complicated staff hierarchy, I’ve picked up how to say “I agree” four different ways, in four different degrees of familiarity.
The problem with this unstructured pattern of learning is that once the daily stuff is familiar, it’s easy to slack. Then, one overlooks those situations where more language would be handy. I can buy groceries and even haggle at the street market already. Still, I could do with knowing comparative forms like “fewer,” “cheaper,” and “riper.” I can direct a taxi just fine, but I should learn “I’m lost”; a phrase that was needed last week in new part of town.
My resolution is to figure out what language gaps I need to fill. I’m going to carry a notebook for a week, jotting every circumstance in which I don’t know what to say. Then, I can focus my studies on filling in those sparse bits.
3. I Will Tame the Zeal (and free my inbox)
When I first decided to come to Korea, I went on a binge of language learning materials. I bought flashcards, made flashcards, scooped up textbooks, phrasebooks, dictionaries. Online, I signed up for every language learning site that was free.
Now, I get a dozen emails a day with different newsletters and practice sentences. I’ll give myself some points for enthusiasm, but all that daily information is too much. Today, I got emails to review vowel characters in written Korean, vocabulary for the doctor’s office, and two words of the day (“light blue” and “district”). All these daily bits are unconnected to each other, which makes my learning unfocused. As a result, not much is retained.
My resolution is to take an afternoon to declutter, deleting and unsubscribing from the stuff that’s too easy or too advanced, not helpful or not clear enough. The bounty of language resources online means I have the luxury of being choosy. Better to focus all my energy on one good lesson than jump around my inbox trying to take in seven.
4. I Will Use a New Medium
In language teaching, we talk about realia: items of text or sound that demonstrate language as you would encounter it in real life. This could include menus, commercials, flyers, etc. This year, my resolution is to find a niche of realia that interests me, and stir it into the mix of Korean study tools.
It’s easy to get scared off these authentic language items when you’re a low-level learner. After all, the texts and podcasts of your studies are difficult enough, and they’re tailored to language students. Realia is great, though, because it lets you explore the language through your interests. It’s tougher than a simplified textbook script, but that personal interest is fuel for the challenge.
I love to cook and I love Korean food, so I’ve started looking up simple Korean recipes online. It’s a good challenge because I’m forever wondering what flavors I’m tasting in new dishes. It gives me a new window into Korean culture as I learn about cooking methods and festive, seasonal dishes.
For fellow foodies, recipes are a great learning tool. Other options might be song lyrics, TV shows, jokes, catalogues, a book of aphorisms or traditional children’s fables.
5. I Will Let Go of the English Safety Net Sometimes
I’m lucky to be learning a language onsite in Korea, where every new face is a potential speaking partner. I practice Korean with my coworkers, who are kind and patient with my baby steps. I study with fellow expats, who teach me memorization tricks and new idioms they hear. The thing is, we can (and do) dip into English to clarify or explain a point. For someone like me, who can be shy with language errors, this English safety net is becoming a bit of a crutch.
My resolution is to chat up folks who speak zero English. I want to push myself to use Korean resourcefully, rather than switching to English to get my point across.
I live near a convenience store that’s run by a couple who speak no English. They’re kind and hospitable toward me, always pressing new drinks into my hand, always offering strange biscuits. My chats with them, with no fallback English, leave me stammering and self-conscious. Over time, though, I’ve felt an improvement. If you have a friendly neighbor or colleague who speaks no English, try striking up a friendship. Chats with cab drivers can do the trick too.
Are you ready to join Anne in any of her language learning resolutions? What will you do this year to improve your language skills?
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Anne Merritt has lived in Canada, Europe, and Asia. She teaches ESL, writes, haggles, hikes, and wears sunscreen fanatically. Her work has appeared in The Globe and Mail, GoOverseas.com, and The Compass. Check out her blog.
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