I remember when I first started self-studying Japanese at 15, I wondered if I would one day be fluent in the language and how it’d feel like at the point when I suddenly start speaking fluently. That point never came because unlike what I had expected, the progress was so gradual, it didn’t surprise me like I had imagined. It wasn’t like a “TA-DA!” To put it crudely, it was more like when you pee to the insides of the toilet bowl and then your pee cascades into the water below. I didn’t even notice I could speak it fluently until when I actually realized that speaking Japanese has become like speaking Mandarin to me. I no longer think in a different language, find the words in Japanese and then form a sentence. When I speak Japanese, I think in Japanese. It has reached the point where I don’t even remember how I managed to get where I am now or what that process felt like.
Whenever English learners ask me how they can improve their English, I would always suggest mimicry and watching TV with English subtitles. I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest shadowing but if one doesn’t dislike it, it can be very helpful. Watching English programs with English subtitles can also help learners understand what words the sound they hear are actually being articulated. That’s very helpful for languages like English where “What do you want?” sounds more like “Whaddya wan?” when spoken (no idea why I chose such a confrontational statement as an example).
The above suggestions were easy to make. But now that I’m studying Korean, and have been doing so for over 4 years now, I’m at a lost how I can get better quicker. I don’t watch a lot of Korean shows, nor do I listen to a lot of Korean music. I’ve scoured the net for a lot of ways and am trying a few such as living with the language and having conversations with myself. I try to describe everything I do everyday, and things I come into contact with everyday. If I don’t know the words, I search the dictionary for them, write it down on post-it notes and stick it to the item. So I now have post-it notes on my wall, my kitchen, my toothbrush and toothpaste, my electric kettle, my iron and ironing board, my fan, my bed, and so on. So far, it’s been working out great for me because many of those are things I use and do on a daily basis, and I can now say things like 물을 끓이다 (I boil water) and 양치질을 하다 (I brush my teeth) without looking through the dictionary, although I’m a little wary about how dictionaries sometimes return unnatural statements. Since there’s no way I can find out their accuracy immediately, I shall remember as is and then try to use them when the opportunity arises.
Korean is very much like English where trailing characters typically assimilate the last consonant sound of the previous characters making it very hard to catch when you first hear someone use them. For example, Gaijinhan (gai-jin-han) would be gai-ji-nan when pronounced by a Korean. The “h” sound becomes silent when it trails a consonant. When I try to watch Korean shows to get used to listening, I realized watching English shows with English subtitles is only suitable for learners who are already comfortable reading the language at a decent pace. I can’t do that for Korean because by the time I finish reading the 3rd character, the subtitle would’ve disappeared from the screen.
A colleague today asked me “Why are you so keen to learn Korean?” This colleague is a Taiwanese who recently moved to Korea for the job. Despite only having learned Korea for no more than two years prior to her move there, she can speak and understand the language amazingly well and have no problems communicating with the other Korean members. The reason she asked me that is because I am not based in Korea and I don’t deal with the Korean market so there’s really no urgent need for me to learn it.
I started learning the language out of pure interest in the language itself. I like how it sounds and thought it could benefit me since Korean is the next most used foreign language here apart from the other languages that I already know. And also the language school I attend costs only 500 yen an hour. But because of that lack of real use and purpose and a hardly existing interest in Kpop and dramas, I wasn’t very motivated. Now that I see a destination to my journey, I’ve become more motivated. Maybe I’ll start writing my diary in Korean in a separate page on this blog. Not so much for people to read, but more for my own practice (writing and typing). I know it’s going to take time for me to be able to speak Korean at the level I speak Japanese, but for now, I can’t wait to reach the level my Taiwanese colleague is at; to be comfortable speaking to others in the language. I wonder how long that will take me.
It’s odd that I kind of enjoy this feeling of not understanding the language very well and working toward fluency. I suddenly realized, while on a different level, maybe I do understand what Gary V meant when he said he sometimes secretly hope VaynerMedia would fail so that he can start building it from scratch again. The process is more enjoyable than the goal.