I was chatting with a Canadian friend one night at a pub over a drink and we got to talking about our various trials and tribulations over the last year or two — it had been a while since we talked one on one. Work, school, social life, hobbies were all topics that cropped up and eventually I started talking about my studies. Currently I am an East Asian Studies (EAS) Specialist finishing my last semester at the University of Toronto. This means that aside from a few breadth requirements and mandatory electives I only study the history, sociology, art and politics of North East Asia — China, Korea and Japan and a few related regions. My reasons for switching to this area of study from my previous diploma in Film are varied and complicated but let it be known that I decided that the Korean peninsula was going to be my main focus and that the specialist degree required three years of intense language learning in a language of my choice from those regions. It should come as no surprise that I chose Korean.
Back to the pub. . .
I got to talking about my experience learning the language. Now, at the end of my studies, I’m currently an “intermediate speaker”, meaning that if I’m in Korea I can find my way if I get lost, introduce myself, speak in length about what I do and make somewhat interesting small talk. I revealed to my friend that my journey to even this mid-level was long and arduous, full of prolonged and tedious study sessions, failure, regret and even depression — “it was rough at times man!” is how I summed it up. However, my friend was surprised at this. “Wow, I had no idea!” he said, “I thought you just picked that stuff up easily”.
In my experience there are certainly some folks out there who were born to learn languages, and can do so with considerably less effort than a many others (they still have to study hard though). I myself am friends with (and deeply envious of) more than a few polyglots (it’s common for EAS students to take on multiple languages and apparently minor in linguistics). However, I am not one of these talented people. I had taught myself Hangul just before my first trip to South Korea in 2008 but my first serious attempt at learning the language shortly after I had been admitted to U of T in 2010 resulted in me dropping my first-year Modern-Standard Korean course shortly after I flunked the mid-term. I attempted to make up for it in the summer semesters wherein I squeezed by with a 53, just earning the credit, but not doing well enough to qualify for second-year. I decided I needed to step back from language learning for a bit and regroup. Korean was the first language I attempted to learn in earnest after-all and I figured what I really needed was to learn how to study language efficiently.
I took a year off language and contented myself in getting A’s and B’s in my various culture, history, and politics courses which were varied and consistently interesting, while taking a few hours a week to keep up what little Korean I knew. Certainly these courses were no cake-walk, but compared to language learning, they felt fairly tame and manageable. Still, in the back of my mind Korean was looming, and I knew I couldn’t escape (remember, I did need to complete third year Korean to get my degree). In 2011 I visited Korea once more for another summer in the hope that I might be able to boost my Korean to some degree. While I was able to pick up a few new terms and words here and there, I spent more time sightseeing and speaking English with my (at the time) girlfriend, who was a local, than I did studying Korean and so my dilemma had not resolved itself, still I wasn’t too worried because I had a plan to do an international exchange the following year.
Since I had failed to obtain a good enough grade to continue my studies in Korean it was up to me to fill in the gaps. I still had one hope, that I could somehow raise my efficiency to an acceptable level and test into second-year Korean. To do this, I decided to go to the source and study diligently. Six months before I was set to go to South Korea, the girl I was dating decided she was tired of doing the long distance thing (to her credit it was quite a long time) and we decided to break up. I decided I would go ahead with the exchange anyway and figured that the experience would make or break the South Korean future I had imagined for myself. Finally in August 2012 I went back to South Korea, but this time as an exchange student at Yonsei University in Seoul for 10 months, after-all what better way to learn Korean than to live in Korea for a year right? Well. . .
My time at Yonsei was a blast and I had some truly great moments, made some truly great friends from all over the world and learned many things. I learned much about South Korea as well as myself and my question as to whether or not I could handle life in South Korea as a foreigner was answered — I could. By studying in Korea I gained much, but unfortunately high-level Korean proficiency wasn’t among those gains. Don’t get me wrong, I improved, but only marginally. At Yonsei, most of my classes were conducted in English and most of the people I hung out with were other exchange students with whom I spoke English. It’s worth mentioning that Seoul is place where you don’t actually need Korean to survive. It gives you a huge advantage, but it’s not absolutely necessary (as evidenced by the numerous non-Korean speaking ex-pats that populate places like Itaewon). My Korean friends, who were mostly older than me were working busy jobs and it was hard for them to make time to see me, let alone help me with my Korean. So while I gained valuable cultural and life experience, and some truly great friends, I once again failed in my initial goal.
All this failure wasn’t easy to deal with and a lot of it was drawn out. There were times even before Yonsei when I’d be so stressed out that I’d actually drink a bit before going to class just to calm my nerves or dull the frustration of going to a class in which I’d learn new material despite still struggling with previous lessons or where I’d need to take a test or quiz that I knew I’d fail. On top of everything, I was often older then my classmates, having entered university at 23 and among my classmates I was often the only one who had actually been to Korea for an extended period of time, yet I was always underperforming. Even when I was at the Korean Language Academy at Yonsei, for the second semester I actually had the lowest mark in the class and subsequently failed. I would always tell people about my lofty ambitions of someday working in Korea for some sort of company or cultural institution as a translator or go between in international affairs. In fact working in South Korea was my ultimate goal, I honestly couldn’t imagine doing anything else and while I was performing higher-than-average in the rest of my schooling my failure to fruitfully study Korean had me feeling like my life plan would come crashing down at any moment.
I was convinced that my failure in U of T was the result of my not having language learning experience and therefore lacking language acquisition skills, which was true for the most part. I decided to work on developing those skills prior to going to Yonsei through self-study, but I was only able to get so far. Learning Korean at Yonsei was quite different and frankly painful as the pace was faster and more intense even than U of T (we had class every week-day from 4-6 and learned new content every day). The language learning skills I had attempted to acquire helped a bit, but I was still juggling four other courses at Yonsei and I felt I just couldn’t keep up with the new content that was being introduced daily. It was as if I had built a meagre hut out of sticks only to have it blown apart by a mighty wind. I just couldn’t keep up.
At Yonsei I felt like I was wasting time and money and at home I just felt like an idiot. I couldn’t understand how, despite having the best reasons to want to study the language; despite having lived in Korea with Korean families, working on farms and being all over that country; despite my do-or-die attitude towards my future in South Korea; despite my being a generally good all-around student, I was constantly being overshadowed by younger, less-experienced students whose strongest motivations for learning the language was to be able to watch Korean Dramas and listen to K-pop without subtitles. It drove me crazy and I was constantly asking myself “what’s wrong with me?! I must be an idiot!”
However, after coming back from Seoul for the third time, inferiority complex intact, things started to change. . .
Find out how in part 2!