The only way I could get Mike to contribute to the blog was to interview him about his experience in Korea. So I sat him down, did my best Barbara Walters impression, and hit record on my iPhone. His responses are below!
Why do you want to learn Korean?
I don’t really have a short answer to that question. I think a big reason is that my parents speak English really well, but there are times – especially when we’re having a conflict – where there is sometimes a struggle to really communicate how we’re feeling. I think it’s a bit of a burden on them to have to speak in a language where they can’t quite capture what they’re feeling and I’ve always felt that burden. For me, part of wanting to learn is being able to speak to them in the language where they’re the most comfortable – meeting them there. Maybe we’ll eventually get to a point where I may not be able to express exactly how I feel in Korean, but I’ll at least be able to understand how they feel when they are trying to explain it to me in Korean.
Another part of it is that I think there are aspects of Korean culture that are just inaccessible without understanding the language. I do think there is a lot more now being written in English about Korean culture and history, but there’s just not as much as there is in Korean. I want to be able to tap into that and learn more about that stuff too.
Why did you want to come to Seoul to study? Why now?
Firstly, I wanted to spend more time here. The classes at Sogang (the University where I’m studying) are pretty well known for their quality so I’ve always had it in the back of my mind for the past 10 years or so that I wanted to do a term there.
Secondly, we’re not working! Taking three months off to do this never seemed possible before. I never felt like I could afford to take a break from work – from a career perspective I mean – it never seemed feasible before. I think with this trip we have the time to do it and you (Heather) were supportive of me being in Seoul for three months which is the longest we’re going to spend anywhere during our year of travel.
How is learning here different than taking classes back home?
There’s definitely the immersion aspect. Being here, having to do day-to-day stuff in Korean. As well getting listening practice all the time by just being in public. One strategy I wish I practiced more of from the beginning actually is just eavesdropping on other people’s conversations. That’s been good as a source of input! And the classes themselves just give you a structure around time to study and what to study. It’s different than being back home because I’m doing it every day; thinking in Korean every day. That’s an added bonus that I get for free by studying in Seoul that I’m not really afforded back in Canada.
Having gone through the class now, I’m actually a little skeptical of the notion that immersion is necessary to learn a language. I think it helps, but I’m not convinced that it’s the only way to become fluent.
How is Korean language connected to Korean culture?
There’s so much nuance involved with respect to levels of formality in Korean language as well as honorifics and humilifics. It’s really complicated because it’s so connected to the social hierarchy in Korea. It’s not optional the way calling my dad “Mr. Han” would be in Canada. It’s so embedded in the culture here that people actually ask each other if it’s okay to start speaking casually once they get to a certain point in their relationship where that’s appropriate.
Just learning the rules themselves for politeness levels and formalities is easy, but the context around when to use which level – that stuff is really hard to learn because it’s totally situational and you just do it instinctively when you’re a native. I’m not sure I’ll ever really get to that point where I fully understand it because so much of formality and politeness has to do with your relationships with people and that’s hard to learn from a textbook. For me it’s totally different than being a kid who grew up in Korea making friends his own age, dealing with his seniors in class, communicating with his parents and grandparents. Then growing up and going to college and interacting with people there and then in the workplace. All of those relationships are critical to learning when to use which form of speaking. It takes a lifetime to know how to speak in those situations so I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to fully embody that.
What does a typical day look like for you?
Classes are 9am to 1pm so I get up at 7, make some coffee, do some vocabulary practice. The school day starts with 50 minutes of writing class, then 80 minutes of speaking class and then another 50 minutes of listening and reading practice. After class I usually grab some lunch with my classmates, do some homework and more listening/vocabulary practice. Then I do it all over again the next day!
What kinds of people are in your classes?
Students at Sogang generally skew mid-20’s on average so sometimes I feel a bit old, but most of the time those boundaries don’t really matter; we’re all just students. People in my class are really nice and I’ve made some good friends during my time here. This is a total guess, but I’d say the program I’m in is likely about 85% women. Their interest in Korean language stems from K-pop or Korean dramas but their reasons for learning are pretty all over the place. Some people want to eventually work here, some people have met Korean significant others and some people are Gyopos (overseas Koreans) like me who are trying to connect with their language and culture.
What’s the hardest thing about studying in Seoul?
I think finding a balance of spending time with my studies while also enjoying the city has been hard for me. Sometimes I’d go through periods where I’d just be studying all the time and then feel so guilty about not getting out and doing things. In retrospect I wish I skewed more toward enjoying the city.
You’ve read a lot about learning a second language as an adult, what findings have been the most helpful?
Grammar sucks! I’m really sick of learning grammar. I think that learning grammar is helpful if you’re taking a test about grammar, but it’s not particularly helpful in learning to listen and speak a language. I’m also 100% convinced that listening is the most important skill you can develop when learning another language. I guess this is pretty obvious (yet I think a lot of people overlook it) but if you want to get better at listening you just have to listen. If you want to get better at reading you just have to read more. Same goes for speaking. I think a lot of people are trying to find a shortcut because they’re busy and it takes a lot of time to learn another language, but I don’t think there’s a secret to it.
Maybe some people are predisposed to be good at languages, but I am not one of those people. I think it’s still possible for anyone to do it; it just takes time. It’s not a function of how many years you’ve been trying to learn, it’s more about deliberate practice. How many meaningful hours have you put in? Learning Korean as an English speaker takes a lot of hours. You have to do it every day.
I think it takes a little bit of faith too. It takes so much time to learn a language like Korean. It’s hard to imagine spending the recommended number of hours people say you need to learn a language. I don’t remember the exact number, but it’s a lot. You kind of just have to believe that you can do it, because when you’re right in the middle of it and it doesn’t seem like you’re getting anywhere after putting in so many hours already, it can feel overwhelming. It can feel like you’ll never get there so you really have to believe that in the end, the effort will be worth it.