You shouldn’t be reading this blog… this is the kind of thought I end up having every time I read your typical blog about some X Asian language student stating that he/she reached an intermediate/advanced fluency level in two years or less. I don’t know you, but I feel I am doing something wrong every time I read this kind of stuff. Is he/she a f****ng genius or it’s just my problem? How many times are you just looking for a bit of insight about your language learning but, inevitably, do you end up totally unmotivated?
In a few months it’s going to be two years since I started learning Korean by myself, and I feel I am still far from an intermediate fluency level. In fact some days I feel I am in the middle of The Dip.
What’s this so called (The) Dip? The Dip is a concept made up by Seth Godin, an an American entrepreneur, author and public speaker.
According to Godin every new project (or job, or hobby, or company) starts out exciting and fun. Then it gets harder and less fun, until it hits a low pointreally hard, and not much fun at all. In the end you find yourself asking if the goal is even worth the hassle. This situation is what Godin calls The Dip.
The Dip is the combination of bureaucracy and busywork you must deal with in order to get certified for scuba diving. The Dip is the difference between the easy “beginner” and the more useful “expert” approach in skiing or fashion design. The Dip is the long stretch between beginner’s luck and real accomplishment (*1). I you do a quick Google image search you will be able to find all kinds of illustrations about The Dip.
As I said, some days I feel I am in the middle of The Dip rewarding my Korean level. Of course, reaching The Dip is always inevitable and positive. Even so I hope that I’m just being a bit too negative and my level is not that bad.
If I look closely at what I have been doing for these past two years I realize that my study plan wasn’t that consistent. The main reason for that would be that learning Korean by myself was the first BIG self-learning project I ever undertook in my whole life while having one of the biggest handicaps anybody can have: nobody taught me how to learn.
So these two last years have been a constant process of trial and error about learning about learning. Learning korean it’s been the way I put into practice the theory I have been coming through(*2).
What about English, then? If it isn’t it my first language doesn’t it mean that I already know the way for acquiring new languages? Mmmm this is a question quite difficult to answer. But I will try.
I have two first languages: Spanish and Catalan. I started to learn English when I was eight years old at the school. Back in my school days English lessons at school were quite poor(*3), so it was unexpected to achieve a high English level at public institutions. You had to go an English school or to a private academy to achieve that kind of level. I never went to those kind of places. So what did I do? Well, I spent all my childhood playing English video games and surfing the Internet when Spanish websites were almost nonexistent. I remember that when I was eleven years old my Christmas present was an imported Pokemon Gold-USA version- game copy. Before that I already played some ‘dense games in English’ like Zelda Ocarina of Time and such. Of course I wasn’t able to understand them at 100% but step by step I was building my English skills without realizing it.
Already at high school I was always a few steps ahead of my classmates. When my classmates were reading English books for children I was already reading Poe’s short stories. And then I found one of the best websites around to horn my English skills: fanfiction.net.
When I was a teenager I was a big fan of Japanese animation shows, so to find a website like that where I could keep reading fictional histories about my favorite characters was one of the best things that ever happened to me until then (yes, I had a very simple life). At the beginning I had a lot of struggles to understand 100% all the words, but before realizing it I was able to read whole stories without having to use any kind of automatic translator even for the most difficult parts.
Finally the other major boost which helped me to gain a decent English level was to watch dozens of English subbed Japanese animation shows and American TV series (Lost was the first one I watched without subtitles of any kind).
If I analyze the whole process now I realize I was putting in practice exactly what the Input Theory tells us we have to do in order to acquire a second language: to consume ingent quantities of interesting input sources. That’s why I highly believe in the Input Theory, because it has been already effective for me at least once before.
So, back to my Korean learning process. The main idea has been always to emulate my English learning process. Although recently I found out something really significant. But before keeping on I have to explain something:
Almost all my Korean learning material is for English speakers. Yes, if your first language is Spanish and you don’t know English but you want to learn Korean you are screwed up. Sorry. Korean learning books for Spanish speakers are practically nonexistent.
These past months, while learning new Korean vocabulary, I realized my English vocabulary is not as accurate as I thought. Every time I check the meaning of a new Korean word I have to do a second translation from English to Spanish in order to know the exact word meaning. This led me to discover what I already said: even if my general English comprehension is quite high I have certain difficulties when it comes to identify the exact meanings of individual words.
How it’s possible then that I have been able to keep up with my English learning for so many years? I believe that it was because of the close relationship between English grammar and vocabulary with the Spanish ones. Yes, it’s a close relationship if we compare it with the one between Korean and Spanish, an almost nonexistent one.
When I was learning to read English I could read a certain document beyond my understanding level and be able to deduce the meaning of it through the context due to its similarities with some Spanish words and such. In case of Korean this is almost impossible. My previous language knowledge (Spanish, Catalan and English) while reading something in Korean doesn’t really help me that much. I have to learn every new word from scratch (=to look for its translation at least once). So this situation slows down drastically my learning process. Or at least I feel like that if I compare it with my past English learning process.
Having in mind all of this I reached two conclusions. The firs one is that to focus on vocabulary solely during part of my learning time is critical; at least for now, while I still haven’t reached an intermediate fluency level. The second one is that the next time I start to learn a new language I will make less mistakes for sure!
(*2)theory= new ideas I get about proper ways of learning.
(*3)In my whole school and high school student live I never took an oral English test, only written ones. Can you see now the kind of flaws the Education System did have back then?