Category: General

Brief Update

So I see that I have been getting in at least one post every month and I don’t plan on breaking that flow (though I really would like to post more often though).  I have SO many posts still stuck in drafts because they take thought and energy to write and… honestly, I’ve been lacking in that department for a few weeks now.  I’ve made no secret about the fact that I struggle with depression and, yes, I’m going through a bit of a low at the moment.

But for those of you who may be curious, here are a couple general updates about the state of my life, this blog, etc.

1) For various reasons, I deleted my tumblr a few months ago and I’ve been much happier without it.  The downside is I’ve lost all the casual translations that I’ve posted on there for the past 4 years so many of the links on my “Translations” page are dead.  Boo.  But not to worry – I have started a portfolio of my translations on Google Drive and will be updating links over the next couple months.

2) I still have a (very infrequently) updated Korean language diary on tumblr here.

3) I was in the Motherland (i.e. India) for two weeks in August.  Overall it was a very unremarkable experience.

4) I’ve been reading a lot, LOT more (not Korean) and have thus mostly given up on television – including Korean dramas and anime.  This makes me so happy because I’d always loved reading but then graduate school sucked all the enjoyment out of it for me.  I’m finally falling back in love with books.  Are any of you avid readers?  Friend me on Goodreads!  The slight downside to this is that language-learning has taken a backseat for the time being.

5) A big hug and THANK YOU to all the people who have followed me on this blog, sent me sweet emails/messages/tweets, and have stuck with me from the beginning.  You guys are the ones who keep me writing and learning.

Status update

It’s 12:30 AM and I may or may not be eating Cheez-Its out of the box at this very moment.

Lots of stupidity going on in my life.  Things have been tailspinning since February and I feel like I’m falling deeper and deeper into a hole I won’t be able to climb out of.  I think I’m going to have to make a major decision soon but, for once, I’d like to have the chance to choose one way or the other, and not be forced into one direction.  I dunno if I’m going to get that chance.

Anyway, this is a little potpourri post about what I’ve been up to with regards to my Korean studies/immersion.

1)   I’m starting to regularly watch things without subtitles. It’s liberating.  I find that often I don’t even notice the lack of subtitles.  This is nice because many of the drama sites I was using in the past are shutting down (RIP Dramacrazy), and it’s much easier to find raw episodes elsewhere within hours of it airing in Korea.  The only exception I make to this is mystery-thrillers because I want to get every detail of the plot revealed in the dialogue – though subtitles don’t always help in this case because they aren’t always accurate.  That aside,

2)  I am profoundly bored with almost everything that’s airing in K-dramaland at the moment.  Except Monstar which is so precious and endearing and refreshing and basically all the positive adjectives ever.  I watch 최고다, 이순신 bracingly, with one finger poised over the FF button, but I adore every second Jo Jung-seok’s on-screen.  I tried 너의 목소리가 들려 briefly but there’s something about it that just strikes me as… contrived?  I dunno.  Maybe it’s because I don’t like any of the actors.  The first few episodes did not get me emotionally invested whatsoever.

3)  I watched 파수꾼 recently and it shook me to the core. It’s up there as one of my top 5 film of all time.  It’s everything I could want in a film.  I don’t have proper words for it.  I’ve always felt more of a connection to Japanese films than I have to Korean films, but this is the first Korean film that’s really gripped me.

4)  I switch between Korean novels a lot but currently I’m reading 바람의 화원 and translating a bit here and there.  It’s fun learning art- and geometry-related vocabulary.

5)  My most recent auditory obsession is Dynamic Duo’s 7th album ‘Lucky Numbers.’  It is F-L-A-W-L-E-S-S.  If you haven’t already, check out their new single here.  Not sure if I’ve expressed how much I love Korean hiphop (and especially Amoeba Culture) on this blog, but there it is.  I’ve been listening to a lot of old Epik High lately too.

6)  As for idol music, I don’t really know what’s going but I think a few groups (B2ST! Which, tbh, I’m extra excited because of Monstar)  that I follow are planning on making their comebacks soon.  B.A.P. kind of blew me away with their new single.  I don’t even know what to think about these boys anymore – is there any concept they can’t pull off?  Other than that… I’m still listening to a lot of SHINee.  Still super impressed with how strong they came back this year.

7)  I’ve been listening to a lot of 유인나의 볼륨을 높여요, while I’m walking to lab, on the bus, while I’m doing experiments.  It’s nice to fall asleep to too.

8)  I skype regularly with my language partner.  When we talk, on her part, it’s roughly 50% Korean, 50% English (though it varies – when she’s excited it’s like 3% English.)  On my part it’s 5% Korean, 95% English because I still struggle with having a real-time spoken conversation in Korean.  But my language partner’s good at forcing me out of my comfort zone.  She’s often like, “Okay for five minutes, let’s use Korean only!” One thing I’ve noticed about my language partner.  Personally I… I think I’m pretty decent at Korean for a self-studying, non-Korean person, but my language partner compliments me only very rarely.  It’s nice!  If I show her something I’ve written, or I say something, it’s like she acknowledges it for what it is without the label of ‘oh this is good for a non-Korean person.’  If that makes sense.  I feel like she holds me to the same standards as a native speaker, which might seem a little unfair, but then again I do the same for her in English.  That’s the best way we can improve ourselves.

9)  A couple months ago, I tried making a facebook page for this blog… and then promptly took it down.  I decided it was kind of boring and I’d rather not log in to facebook more than I need to.  Heh.  Instead, y’all can talk to me as much as you want here.

10)  THANK YOU to M and Curioser and Curiosor for nominating me for the Liebster Award – the post has been sitting in my drafts for months now and I just haven’t had the drive to finish it yet.  Someday!

Okay that’s it for now.  More coherent posts to come in the future (hopefully).

Korean pronunciation II: Colleagues & Pomegranates

Immediately after I learned Hangeul, I stumbled across a long, complicated list of Korean pronunciation rules.  It set off mental alarm bells.  Unlike Japanese kana, which I was learning at the time, Korean apparently wasn’t as simple as learning the alphabet and pronouncing what I see.  My reaction to these “advanced” rules was decidedly not to whip out a deck of flashcards and write out every consonant combination and pronunciation and spend hours memorizing them.  Rather, my reaction was to quickly close the webpage, forget about it, and get back to the Korean drama or podcast or whatever it was that I was listening to.

Because, unsurprisingly, the key to really learning how Korean words are pronounced is to constantly listen to them.  Watch enough dramas, films, and variety shows and you will inevitably begin to pick up commonly-repeated words and phrases.  Throw in some light reading or textbook studying, and you’ll figure out how to spell some of those words and phrases (or vice versa).  Soon it will become apparent that some words have funky spellings.  The first time I noticed this was with the word 연락.  연락해/연락 줘 was a phrase I’d heard many times before discovering its unusual spelling.  That’s how I figured out that the ㄴㄹ combination was pronounced ㄹㄹ.  Then when I came across ‘원래’ – no problem because I knew it was pronounced [월래].  Of course the dictionary helps too!

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Daum 국어사전 informs me that 동료 is pronounced ‘동뇨’

Over the three years I’ve learned Korean, I picked up most of these advanced pronunciation rules through this kinda-sorta-but-not-really studying technique.

A few weeks ago, though, the word for ‘pomegranate’ stopped me.  For the first time, it dawned on me that even though I couldn’t recall very many words containing aㄱㄹ combination, I had correctly pronounced it anyway.  The Korean word for pomegranate, 석류, is pronounced [성뉴].

It’s a small matter, but it felt like a breakthrough:  No longer was I relying on known associations to learn these rules, I felt I knew why these pronunciation rules were in place.  As redundant is it might sound, it goes back to Hangeul.

I think most people realize how awesome Hangeul is early on in their respective Korean-learning endeavors.  Sejong the Great invented it almost entirely for the benefit of commoners, and therefore it was designed to be simple to learn and no-nonsense.  In fact, a famous line from 훈민정음 해례본 illustrates just that:

슬기로운 사람은 아침을 마치기도 전에 깨칠 것이요, 어리석은 이라도 열흘이면 배울 수 있다.
An intelligent person can acquaint himself with it before the morning is over, a stupid person can learn it in ten days.

Also to help the commoners, the shape of each consonant reflects the way it is pronounced.  Supposedly.  I’ve spent enough time puzzling over how certain strokes in certain characters are supposed to indicate where my tongue is supposed to go and I used to concentrate so hard on how to move my mouth, you could practically see the gears turning in my head.  Again, it was listening (also watching peoples’ mouths) that helped me realize that ㄱ was further back in the throat than ‘g/k,’ that you put your tongue between your teeth to pronounce ㄴ and that’s why sometimes it doesn’t sound exactly like ‘n,’ that you only bring your lips lightly together when pronouncing ㅁ compared to ‘m’ and that’s why it can sometimes sound more like a ‘b’.

Coming to know where those consonants fit in my mouth helped me deal with those pesky rules of 발음.  How?  Because I knew the number one feature of Hangeul is elegant simplicity.  Simple to memorize, simple to read/write, and simple to pronounce, even when certain odd combinations of letters dictate otherwise.

Take the simple word 학년.  I knew this was pronounced [항년] because early on I’d learned that 막내 was in fact [망내].  Therefore ㄱㄴ=ㅇㄴ.  But why isn’t it [학-년]?  Now I think about where ㄱ falls in my mouth.  It is near the back of my mouth, like I’m getting ready to gurgle it.  But ㄴ forces me to push the sound to the front of my mouth and press my tongue to the roof of my mouth.  When you’re speaking quickly, the ㄱ gets pushed further back into the throat where it morphs into ㅇ and this makes it much easier to move your tongue to the upcoming ㄴ position.  The example of 연락[열락] also suddenly made sense.  Physically it’s possible to say [연-락] but if I tried to say the word five times fast, my tongue naturally twists to make the double ㄹ s0und.

Does marveling at all this make my Korean pronunciation flawless?  I wish.  But it helps me understand why (seemingly) complicated pronunciation rules exist.  I’d rather reason things out for myself than memorize charts any day!

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Korean pronunciation I: 파리(빠리?) 바게뜨

A Korean bakery called Paris Baguette.  I’m going to pretend this makes sense.

This post is not a review, but I will say I find Paris Baguette to be fairly underwhelming and overpriced.  Does not stop me from popping in and buying about five red bean buns every time I’m in downtown though.

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My language partner Kwang-im and I have been here a couple times and she always makes fun of my 500% Americanized pronunciation of its name.  Parisssss Baguette.  Yet when we speak in Korean, I make conscious effort to pronounce it the way it’s written in Hangeul (파리 바게뜨), while internally chuckling at the fact that I am in fact saying Housefly Baguette.  Yum.  The pronunciation took effort, not because the Korean sounded so different from the American English pronunciation but because, for some reason, the aspirated 파 felt weird in my mouth.  After a couple times of forcefully emphasizing the 파 in 파리, Kwang-im gently told me that it is, in fact, pronounced 빠리.

WHEW.  Strangely, my ears and mouth had both wanted me to use the tense 빠 in the first place.  I suspect this is because my mother tongue (and many Indian languages?) use a lot of tense consonants; i.e. if I were speaking in Marathi, I’d use a tense “p” rather than the aspirated “p” I’d use in English when saying the word ‘Paris.’

Anyway, moral of the story is:  Do not be fooled by Hangeul.  While many words are pronounced the way they are spelled, a good many are not.  There are special pronunciation rules when certain letters are next to each other, liaisons in some cases and not in others.  And some inexplicable instances, like this one, of spellings not matching up with actual pronunciations.  Language wouldn’t be language without exceptions to rules, right?

More to come in Part II.

21 Questions

Shanna posted this today and I decided to give it a go too.  Currently dealing with a lot of blegh school- and health-related stuff so I haven’t been posting regularly, but I do have several half-written posts currently percolating in my Drafts.  But for now, here’s this.

1. Why Korean?
I have a whole, rambling post dedicated to that.  I love language and of all the languages I’ve tried learning, Korean stuck with me.

2 . Daum or Naver (dictionary I mean)?
Daum, baby.

3. First website that you visit everyday?
Tumblr HEH HEH.  And Dramabeans.

4. Best thing that happened to you? (related to learning Korean)
Meeting wonderful people who share my passion for language.

5. Ever regretted learning Korean?
Not for a second.

6. Most common feedback/question you get when you say you are learning Korean?
“Why Korean?”
“How long have you been learning?”
“Say something.”

7. First Korean food that comes to your mind?
떡볶이!  The first Korean dish I ever tried was 야채 비빔밥 at Tofu House, but I LOVE 떡볶이.  I want some.  Like now.

8. Most overrated Korean drama?
내 이름은 김삼순.  Feel free to hate me, but I must be true to myself.

9. Most underrated Korean drama?
White Christmas or Que Sera Sera.

10.Latest milestone in learning Korean?
Finally having confidence to watch everything unsubbed.  Woot!

11. Favorite Korean word / phrase?
수고 했다/ 수고 많았다/고생 했다.  These are such special phrases to me.  I like that there’s a direct and standard phrase in Korean that others can use to acknowledge another’s hard work.  Whenever I get back from lab and 언니 says that to me, it makes me want to get up the next day and work even harder.

12. Name 3 people (fictional / real) who motivate / influence your Korean learning journey
1)  My language partner and dear friend Kwang-im, who’s always challenging me and pushing me out of my comfort zone and making me realize what I’m actually capable of – not only in Korean, but in the scientific research world as well.

2)  The Korean, writer of the popular Ask A Korean blog, who came to the United States when he was in high school and now has a better grasp of the English language than most native English speakers.  At some point in his life, he crossed the “good writing for a foreigner” threshold to just “good writing” period.

3)  Hyunwoo Sun, polyglot, entrepreneur, and founder of Talk To Me in Korean – is there nothing this man can’t do?  My Korean wouldn’t be at the level it’s at if it were not for this man and the amazing TTMIK team.

13. Secret ambition / goal (relating to Korean)
Not “real” goal, more of a crazy fantasy.  Act in a Korean drama as the token foreigner character, except have some lines in Korean too.  Never mind the fact that I can’t act.  HAHAHAHA.

14. I want to sound like _____ when I speak Korean
Ha Jiwon!!  I love her tone.

15. Best compliment received (for Korean)
A comment I once got on Lang-8:

와~ 이렇게 한국어를 잘 쓰는 외국인 분은 처음봐요!! 모르고 보면 그냥 한국 사람이 쓴 글로 보일 정도군요. 요즘엔 한국인들도 한국어를 제대로 못 쓰는 경우가 많은데, 한국어 잘 못 쓰는 한국인들에게 Archana의 글을 보여주고 싶을 정도네요~ 열심히 공부하시는 모습 아름답습니다!

Also, a friend of my friend said that my speak/write 예쁘게.

16. When is the last time you sat down and studied Korean?
I think it’s been a year and a half or something.  I don’t really “sit down and study” Korean.

17. Favorite textbook?
I hate textbooks.  Integrated Korean.

18. Special people you met (online or otherwise) through Korean?
The one who started it all – my best friend in high school Michelle, my language partner and 친언니 같은 Kwang-im, my program mate Yekyung, my wonderfully wonderful fellow book-addict Jeannie, the ever-diligent Shanna, words-cant-describe-how-much-I-love-her Holly, and of course ALL OF YOU.

19. How has learning Korean changed you / your life?
It’s nice to have one thing in my life that will, without fail, make me happy.  Also, 90% of the things I do in my leisure time involves Korean in some way.  However, I’ve lost other parts of my life – I don’t read as much any more and I hardly ever write.  Because free time is so limited in grad school, all of that time goes into Korean.

20. Ever dreamt in Korean?
Yes.  Funnily enough, I have several dreams where I’m being interviewed in Korean but I can only understand 85% of what the interviewer is saying.

21. Single best thing about learning Korean?
Having a whole new culture/history, a new body of literature, and world of entertainment open to you. 

Hope to see more of this going around the K-learning blogs.  Till next time.

First (?!) Korean notebook

That’s right.  It’s been nearly three years since I started studying Korean, and I’ve finally started a notebook.

During the early days, I learned a LOT of grammar from songs and my “notebook” was actually just a binder full of song lyrics.  I had the Korean lyrics on one page and 3-5 pages of detailed grammar and vocabulary notes stapled behind it – a compilation of stuff I looked up in books and read on the internet.

Then as I started reading more, I had sheets and sheets of vocabulary words (in blue and black) and grammar points in red, which I organized in order of the the books and/or articles I read, in the same binder.

Now, I plan on taking TOPIK sometime in 2013 (I think it’s only offered annually in the US?  I have to check the dates), and it’s getting harder for me to retain those not-so-common grammar points, so I decided to start a grammar notebook.  I’m still sticking to loose-leaf paper for my vocab notes because I like organizing them according to the source material (and I read a lot of stuff simultaneously), but I think it’ll be useful to build my own grammar dictionary of sorts.

Anyway, here’s a page from the new notebook!  I’m in the process of recopying some old grammar points I’d written on scraps of paper ages ago.

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Look at those lovely colors!  Jeannie sent me these pens from Korea and I LOVE the super-super-fine point tips.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen 0.3 tip pens in the US.

Happy 한글날 to all my fellow Korean learners!

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“한국말로 해봐!”

For various reasons, I have always avoided telling Korean people that I know Korean.  Not that I’m shy or afraid of making mistakes… I’m somehow hyper-conscious of unintentionally objectifying the him/her.  As in, “I want to be your friend because you’re Korean.”  People are individuals, not a race.  I never want the other person to feel like I’m his/her friend simply because s/he is Korean.  I want our friendship to be built on more than that.

So when I volunteered to host my friend Yekyung during this year’s interview weekend, I didn’t tell her I knew Korean until our very last email exchange before we were to meet in person.  In the post-script, I wrote one short sentence in Korean, telling her to feel free to mix Korean and English with me if she liked.  At that point, keeping it a secret would just be rude.

I think I’ve mentioned Yekyung on this blog a couple times.  She is now a very good friend, a really great 언니, and a fantastic language partner of mine.  This weekend, our program had its annual scientific conference by the beach and Yekyung was my roommate for 3 days – it was great!  I mean, aside from the fact that she’s an incredibly sweet person and a wonderful roomie, she’s an incredibly strict language teacher.  One of the best things about being friends with her, is that she got over the “한국어 잘 하시네요” phase pretty quick.  When I speak in Korean, she actually listens to what I’m saying, she corrects me without reserve, and, yes, she praises me a decent amount, but not so much that it’ll get to my head!

I love that whenever we chat, at least one of us is getting language practice.  She gets to practice English with me, but also has the luxury of switching back to Korean when she feels like it.  I still find it difficult to hold conversations in 100% Korean, but it’s getting easier and easier to intersperse my English with longer and longer Korean sentences when I’m with her.  And, man, is she a strict conversationalist!  One day I said something like “스탠포드 처음 왔을 때, 너무 umm because it was like so big  길치니까, 걱정 됐어” and she just gave me a look and said, “Um?  Because it was like so big?  What is that?  And there is no such thing as um in Korean!”  Haha.

We like to share our language worries with each other.  It turns out that many of the difficulties I have in Korean, she has in English.  One of them, for example, is not being able to follow a conversation that’s taking place in a loud setting or with lots of people talking at once.  Another being not knowing simple words (Yekyung:  “Do you know 국자?  The long spoon that you put in soup?  I don’t know that word.”)  It makes me feel like we can really help each master each others’ language.

Best of all, I never feel alienated from Korean when I talk to Yekyung.  There’s never this sense of, “Oh, you’re not Korean so I won’t speak in Korean with you.”  I mean, she’d wake up in the morning half-asleep and say “어 일어났어? 몇시야?” to me, like it was totally natural for her to speak to her non-Korean friend in Korean like that.  It was great.  I think I was the one only who kept thinking it was all amazing and unbelievable that I was actually speaking in Korean while Yekyung was totally unfazed.  Haha.  I think I even asked her like three times, “실제 언니라고 부르면 이상하지 않아?” and she looked at me like I was crazy, because what else would I call her?  Hehe.

A couple months ago, there was a period of time during which I texted and spoke to Yekyung only in English because I figured, as a graduate student in the U.S., she should really practice conversing in English as much as she can.  In fact, it’s probably selfish of me to try to talk to her in Korean for my own practice.  But Yekyung actually encourages me to speak to her in Korean.  Once we went out for brunch and I started talking to her in English but suddenly she interrupted me saying, “한국말로 해봐!”  I feel an incredible surge of happiness whenever she says that (and she says it a lot!) because it makes me feel like she really cares about helping me improve.

I think it’s pretty clear that I’m still overly sensitive about how Koreans might view me as a foreigner with in interest in their language and culture, but Yekyung’s really helped me become less self-conscious.  And I feel myself getting better and becoming more confident with each passing day.  Here’s to both of us mastering our language of choice!

5 Tips on taking on another foreign language

As I forge onward in my Japanese studies and toy with the idea of dabbling in Italian again (I studied Italian for a couple months long before getting into Korean), unsurprisingly, I find myself faced with road blocks.  It’s not an easy task self-studying one language and it seems counterproductive to study seven or eight at the same time, but I’m sure I’m not the only language learner out there to indulge in the occasional new-language sabbatical.  I don’t know about you, but I really miss that “Everything is New and Shiny and Exciting!!!” phase of language learning.

That being said, these are a couple of things I’m trying to keep in mind as I start to study Japanese in earnest.

1)  Kill two birds with one stone.  If you’re comfortable enough in the first foreign language (FL1) you started out with, try to incorporate it into the new one you’ve decided to tackle.  Again, be logical with this, because it’s probably not a great idea to learn Japanese through Spanish, if Spanish is your FL1.  It might make more sense to study French in Spanish, and just stick with your native language to study Japanese.  Use grammar books, dramas with subtitles (see my previous post) in your FL1 to learn your second foreign language (FL2) and you’ll be learning and reinforcing both at the same time.  Take notes in your FL1.  When I was taking Japanese in college, I went through my textbook and wrote most of my grammar and vocabulary notes in Korean.  This way, you don’t even have to feel “guilty” about abandoning your FL1.  The key is to get comfortable enough before taking on FL2.

2)  Don’t feel guilty.  Did you spend three months on your FL2 and completely ignore your FL1?  Don’t feel bad.  You may have forgotten a few things here and there, but that’s fine.  I’m a big proponent of learning languages because you love them, not because you have some grand goal to achieve (though the latter is fine too).  The difference is that one makes you purely happy and the other has a sense of obligation attached to it.  If you’re like me and you’re learning languages because you just love language,  then learn whichever one makes you happy at that moment.  If Japanese (or whatever your FL2 is) captivates you for a certain period of time, go for it.  Don’t feel like you “have” to go back to your FL1.  Don’t feel like you’re wasting time on a new language when you could be progressing in another one.  No one’s tying you down and forcing you (if you’re self-studying, that is).  Go back when you’re ready.  Chances are, if you’ve spent considerable time with your FL1, you will go back and you will still remember it.  (Again, the key is to stagger your language learning so you have a solid basis in your FL1 to fall back on.)  Enjoy learning FL2 as thoroughly as you can.

3)  Don’t compare language learning experiences.  Are you slower at learning Japanese than you were Korean or vice versa?  Don’t let it discourage you.  It took me a while to understand this myself but languages are obviously different.  And it’s likely that what worked for you in FL1 isn’t going to work for you in FL2.  It’s all about exploring your options and experimenting with different learning styles until you find what works for you in your language of interest.  I learned most of my Korean by reading, but this doesn’t work for me at all in Japanese because Kanji is such a hindrance.  I actually find that I’m learning more Japanese through listening, which, unlike my experience in Korean, is helping my vocabulary grow faster than my grammar.

4)  Don’t overwhelm yourself.  This applies to learning foreign languages in general, be it FL1, 2, 3, or onward.  I’m sometimes guilty of reading or writing something in Korean and being proud of myself for having understood the nuances correctly and/or expressing myself well.  Then I turn around and despair that I’ll never be that good in Japanese/Italian/French/Hindi/whatever else I want to learn.  I’ll never learn to be eloquent, I’ll be stuck with my textbook understanding of the language forever.  Granted, I’m not even that great in Korean, but it worries me that I won’t even reach this level in Japanese, etc.  My advice if you think like this:  STOP.  Remember that you started out with a clean slate in your FL1.  It took you time and effort to get to where you are now.  You’ll need to put in time and effort to achieve the same level in FL2.  Depending on the language (see #2), this might vary, but just because you’re somewhat comfortable with FL1 doesn’t mean FL2 will come easier.  Remember to face that learning curve.

5) Communicate.  This falls in somewhat with #1.  Try to find native speakers of your FL1 who are learning FL2 and try and learn along with them.  If you can meet up with them in real life, that’s even better, so you can practice your FL1 speaking.  Online is great too.  I don’t have any Korean friends learning Japanese at the moment, but it’s certainly nice to be able to communicate with people who started out learning Japanese first.  I follow several people on Lang-8 who are Japanese learning Korean or vice versa and it’s nice (and interesting) to be able to use a mix of both languages to communicate with them.

I’m sure there are a billion other things I could add, but these are the main things I have to remind myself of daily as I study Japanese.  Best of luck to all you would-be polyglots out there! :)

The “F” word

Oh, you all know the one I’m talking about.

As language learners, I think we’ve all thought about fluency at one point or another.  It’s to be expected.  For many people, fluency is the ultimate end goal of their language studies, often driven by external motivation (e.g. wanting to watch TV shows without subtitles, understand music without translations, communicate with celebrities, etc.)  It’s a way to keep them going when they hit plateaus or troughs.   What, they might ask, is the point of learning a language, if not to become fluent?  I can’t quite understand people like that, honestly.  I am in constant amazement of people who have the discipline to put themselves through the rigors of dry textbook learning, routinely, all in the name of the “F” word.  Kudos to you.

In my case, I’ve experimented with lots of different languages and, for one reason or another, Korean’s the only one that really stuck.  The only thing I did differently was to make up my mind to ignore the “F” word.  And, bam, suddenly I was in a free-for-all, no strings attached relationship.  It’s amazing how much one begins to relish the actual process of learning new things when one doesn’t have the “F” word dangling over one’s head.

Among language learners, I’m perhaps the odd one for considering fluency a burden rather than a goal.  If anything, it feels so far out of reach that it’s actually demotivating.

But here’s where I am – 2 years and five months into learning Korean and stuck in molasses since January.  Getting sidetracked by Hindi, which I’ve had an on-and-off relationship with for years.  Now I’m starting to think maybe it is time to start setting goals, or I might be stuck in this rut forever  Something small, like passing Intermediate level TOPIK or making it through a short novella or maybe finishing those Integrated Korean textbooks I bought last year.  (Speaking of books I’ll never finish, I recently bought myself a copy 노부타를 프로듀스 to get me motivated again.)

In any case, while ignoring the “F” word was good to get me past that initial learning curve, I’m at a point in my Korean learning where I need to set goals that will allow me to progress and improve.  Changing my self-study approach might be the only way to get myself un-stuck and back on track to loving and learning Korean again.  It’s definitely worth a try. :)

Technical language

When I was an undergraduate working in the lab, my former boss was Spanish but was very strict about everyone using English and only English in his lab, which I can understand.  Research is a collaborative effort and it doesn’t help anyone if you’re alienating other members of the lab by using a language they don’t understand.

Most of the scientists I worked with last quarter are Chinese and converse mostly in Chinese with each other and, everyday, I’m amazed that they can talk science in practically 100% Chinese.  It’s funny and interesting at the same time to hear things like “Something something something TRANSGENIC MICE something something BIOTINYLATED something….”  It makes me wonder how flexible a language is about “inventing” new words as science and technology evolve.

Japanese, for example, seems to be pretty generous about adapting English words (considering that they have an entire alphabet for foreign words).  On the other hand, I remember being highly amused when my mother said that a language institution? organization? of some sort actually invented Tamil words (not just “Indianified” pronunciations of the English words but actual words) for “computer,” “e-mail,” and “television.”  Ha!

Oddly enough, though, there do seem to be foreign word equivalents even for technical scientific words.  For example, both Korean and Japanese have words that mean “gel electrophoresis” – a molecular biology technique that uses electricity to separate fragments of DNA by size.  It’s especially fun to look at the Kanji for this word because the characters that comprise it pretty much tell you the meaning.

gel electrophoresis = ゲル電気泳動 (ゲルでんきえいどう)

  • ゲル  = gel
  • 電気 (でんき) = electricity
  • 泳 (エイ) = swimming
  • 動 (ドウ) = movement 

Gel electrophoresis has been around since 1975 but I wonder how long it took to actually coin the Japanese equivalent for this word.  Was there a transition period of time during which just the English was used  (with Katakana, perhaps) before the appropriate Kanji were selected?  Or was it immediate?  Who came up with the word, scientists or linguists?

Is society moving toward more or less homogenized language?  Personally, I think the global pressure of English will soon force inventors and scientists from non-English speaking countries to use Latin roots to coin new words; it’s only a matter of time before we see the breakdown of native “invented” technical words, especially in science and technology where international collaboration and the necessity to be understood is so key.