My 2014 Language Challenge: KOREAN!

Ok so the bombastic title of this post is kind of an inside joke that I keep with myself. Internet polyglots like to announce their latest language adventures. It’s good publicity and they figure that the public announcement will help them hold their own feet to the fire.

I am going to start studying Korean soon… next week, it seems… but the scope and importance of this grandiose announcement is kind of empty… I’m just going to take a beginning Korean class on Saturdays with my friend.

Here’s how it went down: T is a friend of mine from high school. He’s Korean American who was raised speaking English and not Korean. He sent me a message a couple weeks ago saying, “JP, please write a book or publish a podcast explaining how to learn a language so I can finally learn Korean.”

Getting this message was a couple arrows to the heart. The first arrow was that I, too, am a frustrated heritage learner; despite all my training and study and decades of exposure, I still cannot put together a sentence in Tagalog with more than one noun in it. Focus morphology! The second arrow in my heart is that I’m a successful multilingual language teacher but I fail to explain successful language learning on a daily basis. People ask me what it takes to learn language and I start to tell them, but before I even finish the sentence I can see by the look on their face that they’ve already lost interest. You just have a special talent, they say, which makes me livid.

Anyway, I didn’t want to go through all of that with T, the man wants to learn his mama’s language, and my “how to learn” lecture is not going to help him. So I offered to take a class with him. I didn’t really believe he’d say yes.

But he said yes! So we’re going to start Saturday classes next Saturday! I went out and bought the textbook for the class, downloaded some alphabet guides, and… I’ve even started looking for inspiration online.

Click for Pablo Trincia's polyglot vid (in Italian, and in assorted languages with Italian subtitles).

Click for Pablo Trincia’s polyglot vid (in Italian, and in assorted other languages with Italian subtitles).  His “secret” starts at 8:20.

Now I usually hate watching polyglot videos (as in, I hate-watch them), but I watched this one by Pablo Trincia because it I totally understand his Italian! Which is a miracle, because sometimes Italian people can be talking directly to my face and I don’t understand, but for some reason I understand this guy crystal clear.  He explains his secret to learning languages at time index 8:20.  It’s translated quick and dirty by me, so don’t expect too much:

“What’s the secret to learning them? Fine. The secret is… don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Don’t be afraid to get into the game. Always face it with great enthusiasm, because even if you make mistakes (and I’ve made a pile of them in this 9 minute video) you shouldn’t get embarrassed; you have to realize that the person that you’re talking to actually appreciates the effort you’re making.”

Doesn’t it sound nicer when he says it?  Don’t be afraid.  Fear is false in language learning, you may feel it, but what that fear is telling you when you’re in a target language situation is a LIE.  I have a poster hanging in my classroom, and I designed a t-shirt.  Make no mistake, I do sometimes feel the fear of making mistakes, fear of looking foolish, fear of catastrophic miscommunication.  I feel those fears, and then I remember that they are a LIES.  Fear is false in language learning.

So back to Korean:  I actually learned the alphabet 20 years ago, from my Korean and Korean American friends back in grad school.  Korean sounds are represented phonemically with letters, letter which are very handily grouped in to syllables.  I didn’t learn any Korean back then, just the alphabet… we used it to write in Spanish.  What?

I’m not expecting a lot from a Saturday class, especially since it will be tough to make time to practice during the week.  I can’t exactly put Korean at the top of my list at the moment, since I’m still chipping away at Mandarin.  But I’m looking forward to relearning the writing system, to getting some greetings down, and all the other stuff that happens in 1st semester language class.  I would LOVE to be able to order food in Korean by semester’s end in March, we’ll see how it goes.

For those of you who are still looking for some “secret” of language learning, I do have tons to say about that.  However, I’ll just share the best advice I ever got, from Prof. Tardiff at the University of Michigan, when i was starting Mandarin.  She said “多听多说多看多写。加油!”  Listen a lot, speak a lot, read a lot, write a lot.  Go for it!  

I don’t know how many times I’ve written and re-written this advice, or passed this advice along to students of my own.  Most people read this line as some simple words of encouragement, but I take it as a prescription:  listen, speak, read, write… but NONE OF THE OTHER SHIT that occurs to people, shit like flashcards, computer games, word cubes, GLOSSARY VIDEOS.  It is heart breaking to me that people waste their time and money on that other shit.

Listen, speak, read, write; practice THOSE skills, not that other shit.  That’s the best advice I ever got, and the best advice I give.  Communication is the secret of learning languages; put your time and energy into communication.

(And now the Flashcard Defenders will fill my comments section with their stories of recall-is-acquisition, and ‘stop-oppressing-my-fake-learning-style.’)

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