Monday, January 28, 2013

Being Patient While Learning a Language: Strategies and Ideas

How's the Korean going? Good, actually. Pretty solid.

I was reminded recently of how very patient we have to be with ourselves while we learn something we really want to master. As they say, Rome wasn't built in a day. And that is what today's entry is about. Well, not Rome, that is. It's not about Rome. It's about... well, just keep reading.

I haven't posted on here much lately. So what gives? you might ask. Probably just laziness. I really am doggedly determined to learn this language. So much so, that most of my spare time is dedicated to the task. Interestingly, the one thing that drives me more than anything else these days, is working towards conversational skills in Korean. I often wonder if it's an odd thing to be passionate about, but that's what makes me tick.

If you're like a lot of people who struggle with the best way to study a language, fear not. I'm giving you the low-down right here. My studying consists of (mostly) three of the four language domains--the four language domains being listening, reading, writing and speaking. I'm concentrating on the first three I listed. I'm leaving speaking out of the mix for awhile. I'll explain. This is where the patience comes in.

So, you know how babies have that fantastic two-to-three-year period of their lives where they babble up a storm of nonsense and random words? They're doing a lot of listening and a lot of testing out sounds and words. No fear. No holding back. Because we don't expect them to know how to speak straight from the womb without hearing us speak for a few years. And even then, there are years of fine-tuning ahead. Babies are born into a natural "silent period." Not that it means that they are silent per se, but that they are not using the full language to express their needs and thoughts until they have built up a big enough repertoire of words and phrases that they feel comfortable using.

Image from

Adults are often too hard on themselves, thinking that they are terrible at learning languages because they can't say anything yet. Calm down! Put in a few years of listening, and it will definitely help you get started. Try out a word or phrase here and there as you get comfortable with it, but give yourself time to go through your silent period. It's a natural process of language learning, and varies in duration, depending on how often you are able to immerse yourself in or surround yourself with your target language. Could be less than a year if you're constantly surrounded by that language, or way longer if you rarely hear it.

That said, I have been mainly working on three of the four language domains mentioned above. Helpful tips included. You're welcome.

LISTENING: Listen to everything you can get your ears on! I continue to watch Korean television daily and almost exclusively listen to Korean musical artists. I listen to podcast lessons from the Talk to Me in Korean website. This is all to help me get enough input to move me past the silent period in into (yay!) communicating with real human beings!

READING: When adapting to a new sound system or alphabet (or both), do it old-school. Find someone to "read to you" and then follow along with your eyes. To do this, I often listen to YouTube videos of songs that I like and read along with the Korean lyrics as I hear them. This, I tell myself, is developing the part of my brain that develops in children when their parents read stories to them at night. Songs are musical storytelling. And my eyes are soaking in the shapes of the Korean characters as I listen. EXAMPLE: Here is the video to my new favorite Korean song by an amazing singer-songwriter named Clover from a group called Standing Egg. Yeah, he's got a mohawk/bowl-cut(??) and a ukelele. Odd combo, but give him a chance. And read the awesome lyrics here. It's so stinking cute, it will melt your heart. And it's catchy.

WRITING: Technically, this is along the same vein as producing speech, but it doesn't have to be. I would recommend that, especially if you are learning a new alphabet, it's a great idea to practice forming those shapes on your own with a pencil and pen. To ease the stress of producing linguistically accurate Korean, I copy. Nothing wrong with that. I write the Korean lyrics to songs I'm listening to and translate them word for word, so I'm practicing the technical aspect of writing the Korean characters, and associating them with meaning. Sweet deal. Then, when possible, I do try to form simple sentences and get a native Korean to check and give feedback. But I don't stress too much about that. I have momentarily stopped writing sentences with HaruKorean, but will sign up for another month when I'm ready to dive back in.

Speaking? Well, let's just say that's been a failed attempt with several language partners so far. Not for lack of trying from both sides. But I'm reminding myself to be, that's right, patient. (Progress on this front continued below, but if you want to skip to the wrap-up, take-home lesson at the end of the post, go ahead.)

Right now, I consider myself mainly in the silent period (mentioned earlier) of my Korean acquisition. More accurately, between being silent and very rarely making small two, three, four-word utterances. (You can read more about second language acquisition stages here.) Writing is easier than speaking for me because it can happen as slow as I need it to, and I can go back in my notebooks and look up the vocabulary and the grammar I need to write.

BUTTTTTTT... I've reached some important language landmarks!!! ... if you can call them that. I now have a broad enough vocabulary and understanding of grammatical structures that I can make intelligent guesses about what I'm reading (in songs especially) and what new words mean. Many times, I can get the gist of a sentence or I can catch a whole phrase. Woot!

Just as thrilling, is the fact that I can now hear the utterances that the subtitles are translating. Many times, I can even recognize where the English translation and the Korean expression differ from each other. My ear is getting so well trained, that I am happy to report correctly understanding many of the lines in this short, unsubtitled clip from a Korean show (picture at the top of this blog entry). I saw the translation below in the comments after listening a few times, and everything I thought I heard, I correctly heard. Score.
It's all about the hours you put in. With anything in life. Languages, musical instruments, sports, etc. Surround yourself with what you want to learn, practice, take risks, expect to suck at first (and maybe for an extended period of time), and patiently guide yourself through the stages of learning and/or frustration as best you can. If you want something badly enough, you'll get there. If not, maybe you don't want it badly enough yet. Wait till you do.

Good luck. Keep at it.