First ever Korean class

So after many months of not really studying Korean (despite what it looks like on my blog, I rarely pick up a textbook and study. Almost everything I write about comes from random one-off things I read in Korean.) I decided what I really needed was external motivation to take my skill to the next level.

SO! I signed up for Advanced Korean classes at San Jose Language Center. I really feel like I struck gold here because it’s incredibly close to where I live and it’s a language school designed for adults – which means all classes are after working hours.


There are only two other students in the class and they’re both of Korean heritage. At first, the instructor said she was worried when she saw me (clearly not of Korean heritage) on her roster but we conversed for a bit, and then afterward, she said I might actually be too advanced for the class. Welp?

Either way, I was really nervous about taking an actual class for Korean that’s also completely taught in Korean. In my 7-ish years of learning the language, this was the first time I’d ever taken a class in a formal setting. I also hadn’t actually had a conversation in spoken Korean since my first trip to Seoul about 2.5 years ago.

I had my first class last Friday and… it was really, really great. Yes, I’m fairly familiar with all of the grammar we’re supposed to cover over the next seven weeks, but I’m getting so much more value than that out of this class.

  • Speaking practice: This is a huge one. Since there are only two other students and the instructor, we get to converse a lot amongst ourselves. I’m finally getting some very much needed speaking practice.
  • Proverbs: Yeah, I’m pretty terrible at learning proverbs. I’ll look them up and then immediately forget them. I think learning proverbs and idioms in a classroom – especially in one this small – will be really effective because of all the practice we do with each other.
  • Nuance: In the first class, we covered three different ways to express reason or cause: -느라고, -는 바람에, -고 해서. Though I’m familiar with all three, the instructor provided a lot of insight into the nuances of each and the different types of situations each one would be appropriate for.
  • New friends: Yay new IRL language friends!
  • Expert knowledge: I’m so used to researching/looking up all the questions I have about Korean grammar or vocabulary on my own that it’s incredible to be able to just ask the teacher when I don’t know something.
  • TOPIK prep: Because I hate reviewing TOPIK papers on my own. And (as with any kind of test prep) there are tricks that can help you master certain types of questions that are just not covered in textbooks.
  • Accountability: This is really the main reason why I wanted to take a class – so I’d be forced to study, do homework, review… or else be forever shamed in front of my teacher and peers, heh. Already since my first class, I’ve spent more time reviewing grammar/vocab in the past several days than I have in months. And by the time the course ends, I’m hoping that I will have developed a daily cadence for studying Korean that I will continue to follow.

I’m a huge proponent of self-studying languages and I always will be. If you have the drive and you can find the right resources, I think you can go far studying on your own. But I’ve come to realize (not just regarding language learning, but also other things), if you feel stuck in some part of your life, figuring out a way to shake things up really helps. I realized that I just wasn’t motivating myself to study Korean even though I really want to get better in the language (yay for the 욕심 coming back); getting myself into a classroom setting was the right way to kick my brain in gear.

명심 해야 할 속담

So I have a job and, aside from that, I have a million other hobbies.

Korean and Japanese are my more serious hobbies (I’ll be taking TOPIK for the first time this year!)  I’m pretty bad at sitting down and studying everyday but my everyday life is inundated with those languages.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.

But then there are my other hobbies – knitting, origami, blogging, writing fiction, reading, teaching myself how to code, designing websites – and when I get those rare pockets of time I have outside of the job, I’m literally scurrying from one hobby to another.  And, now that I’ve decided to take the 40th TOPIK exam, I feel guilty when I’m not spending my free time studying.

On the one hand, having a goal to work towards is great, especially since I’m this busy.  On the other hand, the more I throw myself into studying Korean, the less time I have to develop my other hobbies.  Maybe it’s the new year, but I just got back into writing fiction, reading again, and practicing Japanese conversation with an awesome language partner.

I tell myself that the timesink of preparing for TOPIK is short-lived.  Sure, I can get back to my random amalgam of hobbies after I’m done with the exam, but the fact of the matter is, well, it’s impossible to do a million things and be great at all of them.  Developing advanced skills, especially if you’re teaching yourself, takes a lot of practice, which takes a lot of time.  And time is limited.

I fear, as the old aphorism goes, that I’m turning into a “Jack of all trades, master of none.”

Turns out there is a Korean 속담 that captures the sentiment of Johannes factotum quite well:

열두 가지 재주 가진 놈이 저녁거리가 없다.

Literally:  “A man with twelve talents has nothing to eat for dinner.”  어설픈 재주를 여러 가지 가진 사람이 한 가지 확실한 재주를 가진 사람보다 못한다.  That is, a person who knows many things superficially is less able than a person who knows one thing thoroughly.

Sigh.  But I want to know all the things!  Unfortunately, I don’t think I have the brain capacity to be a 만물박사[萬物博士] – that’s the Korean term for a Jack of all trades.  Considering the Hanja, literally, a “Professor of a Thousand Things.”

The thing is, having multiple skills or talents doesn’t mean you’ll be the master of none.  You can most definitely be the master of some.  The trick is prioritization.  That’s where I inherently had a problem with my thinking.  I wanted to be an expert on every single thing, so I couldn’t sit down and delve deeply into the few things really cared about, including passing TOPIK.

I know I can’t be the “master” of Korean and also 79879 other things I love to do.  But I can be the master of Korean and, perhaps, two or three other things.  Like blogging.  Or writing.  I have to take a long, hard look at the rest of my hobbies and decide what I don’t mind being mediocre at (a good example is knitting – I really only know how to knit a garter stitch and barely can manage purling) so I can shine at the things that really matter to me.  But I would never give up any of my hobbies, no matter how “bad” I am at them.

After all,

Jack of all trades, master of none,
Certainly better than a master of one.

Cécile Corbel & songs in foreign languages

Good music makes me so, so happy.

I’ve been listening to a lot of “experimental” electronic, indie rock, and singer/songwriter type music these days.  When I listen to music in a language I can understand (English, Korean, and some Japanese), lyrics are often the most noticeable element of song for me and vocals tend to stand out against the backdrop of instrumentals.  But in other languages, vocals become mere morphemes without meaning, indistinguishable from the other layers of sound in a song.  A friend and I were discussing how sometimes we prefer to listen to songs in languages we don’t understand – for me, at least, it’s because it lets me interpret and feel the song in my own way without being hindered by semantics.

Recently, this friend introduced me to a singer who, as she described it, has “the voice of a siren.”

Cécile Corbel is a Breton singer and harpist who, in addition to having the most enchanting voice I’ve ever heard, also composed the score for the Studio Ghibli film 借りぐらしのアリエッティ (The Borrower Arrietty).  That’s her singing a song from the film in the video above and, yes, she is singing in Japanese!  Corbel’s native language is Breton – a Celtic language that originated in the British Isles and is spoken predominantly in Bretagne, France – but she also sings in French, English, Italian, German, and Irish.  And true to her roots, many of her songs have a gorgeous Celtic feel to them.

Here’s one of my favorites by her – “La Fille Damnée” in French.

It’s been ages and ages since I heard anything in French and, as per my usual weakness with French, I understood very little about what this song was about until I looked at the lyrics in French (so I guess my four years of French in high school wasn’t all for naught?  Heh.)  But that wasn’t necessarily the point because I wasn’t really trying to understand this song.  Corbel has a voice that I just want to listen to and feel without thinking.

But then I noticed something interesting.  I remember when SNSD’s “I Got a Boy” came out and English-speakers “misheard” the chorus (“I got a boy 멋진, I got a boy 착한”) as “I got a boy munchin’, I got a boy chicken.”  It’s as though your brain takes the sounds of a language you don’t know (e.g. Korean) and forcefully tries to apply meaning to it using a language that you do know (e.g. English).  Now, I’ve listened to Korean music for years so I never “misheard” those lyrics in English.  Even when I come across Korean speech or lyrics that I don’t understand, my brain still recognizes it as Korean.

Now the weird thing with me is when I listened to one of Corbel’s songs in Spanish among others, I kept hearing what sounded weirdly like Korean or Japanese or even Hindi words.  Never once did my brain try to “Englishify” what I was listening to, despite the fact that 99% of the time I open my mouth to speak, I use English.  I wonder if this is a result of the fact that the vast majority of songs that I listen to are not in English, even though I use English in my daily communication.  But something similar happens when I watch movies in foreign languages to which I have little to no exposure – let’s say German or Thai.  I’ve found this to be really disorienting because my brain keeps trying to hear Korean or Japanese in the dialogue, not English, even though the vast majority of movies I watch are in English.  It’s almost as if my brain understands I’m hearing something in a foreign language, makes a switch from English, and tries to interpret it in my next-most-proficient foreign language.  Does this happen to anyone else?  And I’m not sure but is there a technical linguistics/cognitive science terminology for this phenomenon?

It’s crazy.  I’ve been thinking more and more about neurobiology these days and how fascinating it must be to study the brain in the context of language acquisition.  I wonder if there’s a way to visualize a phenomenon like the one I described happening using fMRI – do different parts of the brain light up?  Is the neural connectivity changing?  Does synaptic plasticity affect whether or not you experience something like this?  Gah, so many delicious questions.  I should dig into the literature sometime.

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! :)

Learning versus memorizing

When I first started out learning Korean,  I learned most of my grammar and vocabulary by translating Korean songs.  These days, I pick up new words by reading books, 만화, articles, and watching interviews and reality shows.  But the critical question is, of course, how does one retain this seemingly endless onslaught of unfamiliar words?  With regards to that, I’ve seen that there are usually two factions of language-learners:  those who swear by flashcards and those who condemn them.  I fall under the latter category.

Honestly, I like to think I have a fairly good memory (you can’t really be a scientist without one heh) but I just cannot memorize decks and decks of flashcards and store them in my long-term memory.  And this problem isn’t just limited to Korean.  I made about 200 flashcards in order to study vocabulary for the GRE but the only words I could remember consistently were the ones I had encountered while reading something.  Why was this the case?  I strongly believe it was because I was incapable of just memorizing definitions; I had to actually learn how to use the words for it to stick.

The general way I go about learning new vocabulary is this:  I pick a song or an article or a passage out of a book and write down all the words I don’t know.  Then I look up the words in a dictionary and write down the part of speech and the definition that most closely matches the context of the word.  I don’t bother with writing down numerous example sentences (maybe one or two); the main example is already in the original source.  After that, I DO NOT SPEND HOURS MEMORIZING THE WORDS I’VE LOOKED UP.  I’m a huge proponent of learning a language organically – that is, not really forcing yourself to sit down and STUDY (I mean, unless you’re in a language class or something.)  My language acquisition process is kind of undisciplined in that regard.

But despite that, I noticed the more I read, the more I would come across a certain new word or phrase I’d just looked up in the dictionary.  Sometimes while I watched a drama, I would start picking out those newly-encountered words in the dialogue as well.  Soon, I would develop a fairly good sense of not only the definition of the word, but also its nuance and the context in which it’s usually used.  That right there is the difference between memorizing vocabulary and learning vocabulary.  To me, memorizing is superficial recollection of the definition of a word through repetition but learning implies that you know how to correctly use the word yourself in different contexts.  That sort of solid, thorough understanding cannot be attained by merely seeing the word once, noting its definition, and then losing it in a stack of 200 flashcards.  It’s critical that one develops a deeper knowledge of how the word is used by encountering it in not just one but several different circumstances.

Nouns don’t present that much of a challenge; in fact, I would say that flashcards are effective for the rote memorization of nouns.  But one has to be careful to learn how to appropriately use certain adjectives and verbs.  When I wrote my entries for Lang-8, I tried to use only the words I felt I had learned well enough to use correctly (you might argue this defeats the purpose of Lang-8, but I’ve noticed that many native speakers just correct a misused word without really explaining why).  I only looked up nouns and avoided looking up adjectives and verbs.  Undoubtedly, the one unfamiliar adjective I used, I had used incorrectly.

Of course, I’m not saying there’s no merit in flashcards.  In fact, I applaud you if you can retain new words in your long-term memory with just rote memorization (I can’t, no matter how hard I try.)  Flashcard proponents may also argue that it’s fine to quickly and steadily build a base of words that you “semi-know” (i.e. know only the basic definition but don’t use that much) and then wait for the deeper understanding (i.e. the nuance, stylistic usage) to come later.  I think that’s fine too, but personally, the only way I can remember a new word is if I learn its definition in tandem with how and in what context it’s used.

The only issue with my way of learning vocabulary is that it can be slow.  If I look up 100 new words in the span of a week, because I don’t force myself to memorize, I’ll probably only learn the twenty that I encounter over and over again.  But the advantage is that I usually end up knowing those 20 new words fairly well; they’ll be nestled in my long-term memory, ready to be used when needed.