Over the past couple weeks I found myself getting a little dispirited when I thought about Korean. Have I just not been trying hard enough? Is it a time management problem again? Why have I struggled to spend as much time studying Korean as I spent learning German, and felt like I’ve gotten less out of the time I have spent? Is Korean really harder than German?

I was given an important reminder in Thierry’s class last week. Language acquisition is like building a muscle, he said. You can’t just work out for a few hours and expect to get strong. It takes time, and while you’re working on it, for the most part, you won’t notice any improvement. It’s only looking back that you see the difference.

I knew this already, but I guess I’d forgotten. I was expecting my Korean to get noticeably better week by week. It didn’t of course, and I think this actually backfired: when I didn’t notice any improvement, I started losing my motivation.

Noticeable improvement isn’t the goal in the beginning of language acquisition. The purpose is the practice: giving my brain time to get used to the sounds of the language.

Why, then, did it seem like I could notice a week-by-week improvement when I was devoting four hours a day to German back in August? One possibility seems pretty obvious, at least as a partial explanation. German really is similar to English. It’s full of cognates, and the grammar isn’t all that alien to an English speaker, even if it’s different. This not only made it easier to start speaking German early, but it made it easier to soak up material. When I started in on that Anki deck with 10,000 simple sentences, I could do 60 cards a day without going insane; I have a similar deck in Korean, but it seems I can barely keep up with 10 new cards a day. OK, it’s partly the structure of the deck: the Korean sentences are all much more different from each other than the German sentences, so each Korean sentence is worth more “points” so to speak. But aside from that, it’s a lot easier for me to remember that gewartet means “waited” than it is to remember “gidalyeossda“, let alone 기다렸다, which also mean “waited” but don’t even have any familiar syllables, let alone a resemblance to the English word.

I think there was a feedback loop here. The easier I found it to understand new German sentences, the more motivated I got to seek out even more German. With Korean, the loop has been in the opposite direction. How do I break this? Again, part of it is remembering that rapid improvement isn’t the point. All I really need to do is find material that I believe in, that I can stand (or, better yet, enjoy), and that I can somehow make comprehensible.

In other news, I recently asked a Korean friend to record some simple phrases for me. Things like “Really?” “I didn’t know that” “Sorry I’m late” and “What a pain.” All told the recording is about a minute long, and I’ve been listening to it on repeat for 10 to 15 minutes at a time almost every day. Again, at first I was dismayed that even such simple phrases wouldn’t stick in my mind after a few days of repeated listening, but now I think this is once again beside the point. They’ll stick eventually, and when they do, I’m going to be a conversational powerhouse at the Korean table.

Oops, it’s December

Hey, isn’t it the start of a new month again already? Oh wait, it’s a third of the way through a new month! I was supposed to start another language this month. At least given the way I’ve been approaching language learning recently, that would have been crazy (there are such things as 12-hour or 7-day hackathon-like languages binges, and one of those every month is definitely doable. But that sounds more like cramming for a test, and I’m skeptical much of it would stick around for long).

I can see I’m still learning a lot about language learning from my experience with Korean. That, and I’m traveling back to the States this month for the holidays and a friend’s wedding, and the thought of starting another language at the same time stresses me out. So as a very wise man once said, Whatever!

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