The Mezzofanti Guild Language Learning Made Simple

Why The Best Language Learners Focus On More Than Just Language


First an update! 🙂

It’s already been two whole months.

I came to South Korea around mid-September with my heart set on becoming fluent in the Korean language by spending every single day actively immersed in it.

Korean is listed alongside Arabic as one of the most difficult languages to learn for English speakers (according to the FSI), and since I’m already a fluent Arabic speaker I want to prove that Korean is just as possible as any other language to learn with the right motivation and method.

You don’t have to be in the country to learn the language (as I proved with Irish) but being here in Korea has helped me move a lot faster toward my goal. So much of what I’ve picked up so far has come about by being surrounded by Korean speakers for nearly all of my waking hours.

Even though there are days where I’m mentally fatigued and the last thing my brain wants to do is try to learn something, I’m fortunate enough to soak up new words and expressions from the Korean children I teach and my co-workers, as well as people in shops and at the gym.

Immersion undoubtedly has its benefits.

I’ve already made quicker progress with Korean than I had with Irish at the 2 month mark, meeting with my Korean friends every weekend and a private teacher on Friday mornings. My teacher spends an hour talking to me in Korean and then showing me better, more natural ways to say things which gives me something to work on until our next lesson.

Last week we covered all the vocabulary and expressions related to hairdressing (styles, length, etc.) and then I went and got my haircut shortly after which gave me a chance to activate everything we covered by putting it to use straight away (plus make a few new hairdresser friends as well :)).

These are highly practical, needs-based, student-directed lessons.

Even though it’s still pretty slow, my Korean conversations are happening much more naturally and with little need to go back to English (or give up entirely). There’s still a very long way to go though.

I’ve also decided to register for a TOPIK test early next year which will serve to push me even harder to achieve the best grade possible (the test is similar to a CEFR grading test so I’ll have some proof on paper of my progress). Having that as a short-term goal should increase my productivity and give me something serious to work toward over the next few months.

I encourage you to set yourself short-term goals like this as well to really force you to stay on target and reward your efforts.

Note: Video updates are coming shortly. I’ve been insanely busy the last two weeks so I haven’t had time to edit and upload them.

Subscribe to my YouTube channel to stay updated.

 

Why I distant myself as much as possible from most expats

Here’s a pet peeve of mine.

The amount of expats who have been living here in Korea literally for years and still don’t speak much or any Korean is frankly shameful.

If you live long-term in a host society – no matter where it is in the world – it’s a sign of respect to make some kind of effort to try to learn the language and try to take part in the local culture.

There’s a real tendency here (and I’ve had issues with the same thing in Egypt and Georgia) for Westerners to live a totally parallel existence to the host society. They work with the locals sure but they spend all their downtime with foreigners and quite often bitch to each other about the host society and culture that welcomed them.

I’ve already queried a handful of expats here who have been in Korea for a few years now on why they have little interest in making Korean friends or trying to learn some Korean, and all I hear are excuses such as “I just don’t have time.”

Garbage! 😐

I realize that foreign languages aren’t everyone’s cup of tea but even a small bit of effort goes a long way.

Hanging out with these kinds of expats is a great way to get nowhere with the local language.

Even though it can be tempting at times to hang out with your own people all the time (especially if you’re homesick or frustrated at work), I strongly recommend focusing on making local friends if you’re serious about becoming fluent in the language as quickly as possible.

 

It’s first and foremost about your own mindset and willingness to become something radically different

With the new language comes a new personality that is a reflection of you through a new cultural self (sounds a little abstract I know).

You could say that a polyglot (multilingual person) has split personalities in this respect.

When I learned Arabic, I aimed to connect with and try to inherit every aspect of Egyptian culture. I aimed to get as close to being Arab as a non-Arab could get.

On a language level I was determined to learn the jokes, slang, idioms, and pronunciation as best as I could. Along with that I made it my business to follow current affairs, TV shows, literature, films and songs (I probably know more about Egyptian TV and music celebrities than English ones now).

With Irish I’ve been doing the same over the last year and now Korean as well.

To truly succeed you need to eat, sleep and breathe your target language AND its culture, and in a sense strive to be one of its people.

One excellent example of someone who has excelled at this in my opinion is Alex Ristich (active over at LingQ and on YouTube). This guy has been a bit of an inspiration to me since I started learning Korean – not just because he learned Korean but because of the way he’s really mastered Korean-ness.

It’s that ‘-ness’ element there that really separates the brilliant learners from the ordinary ones.

Share your own thoughts in the comment section below.

 

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  1. I agree about the expats who never even bother to learn the local language being shameful. I live in Taiwan and I guess about its no more than 1/10 expats who bother to learn any more language than basic pleasantries and food items they want to order.

    However do you find it a struggle to immerse yourself in the local TV and music when none of it is rarely to your taste? I'm pretty picky with the TV I watch and the music I watch in English. Although I have managed to find movies and music I find cool in Chinese it is few and far between. Do you just grit your teeth through some of the bad pop and poorly acted soap operas? Or do you actually enjoy it after watching it for a while?

    1. Enjoyment is key.

      If you find watching something to be boring or 'not to your taste', it's not going to benefit you much.

      I actually hate most of the crap that's on television these days. However when I watch cheesy soap operas and so on in another language I tend to forget about how lame it is and enjoy it for its language content.

  2. This is so true. When I lived in Dublin I knew a group of Spanish people who just would not learn English. They even celebrated NYE an hour early on Spanish time! I don't know how you could waste such a perfect learning opportunity like that.

    1. Yeah it's a shame.

      I just think it's rude and hypocritical because if a group of English speakers moved into their neighbourhood in Spain and did that they probably wouldn't be happy about it.

    2. They probably did not have any intention to. It happens in my country too. But to me the most exciting part is learning about the cultural aspect.

  3. How do you go about making friends who are willing to speak the language with you? Do the friends you are making want to speak English with you or are they willing to converse in Korean most of the time?

    1. Some of the Koreans I meet up with on the weekends are English students so I do offer help with their English at times but most of the time we just speak Korean.

      It's quite easy over here actually to find people to practice with.

    2. I do not how you found Koreans that are willing to speak Korean with you. I had a hard time that people speak to me in Korean. Most of the time, they will reply back in English. I do not live in Korea and just spend a few weeks there. It took me a while to learn to say the prices in Korean because they always say them in English. I forced myself to reply in Korean so I could practice (십만오천원은요?) . I spend most of my time in Seoul. Maybe it is easier to practice Korean when you live outside of Seoul. It looks like that for Koreans is hard to believe that a foreigner can speak another language besides English. Sometimes, I feel like telling them in Chinese that I do not speak English.

  4. "Last week we covered all the vocabulary and expressions related to hairdressing (styles, length, etc.) and then I went and got my haircut shortly after which gave me a chance to activate everything we covered by putting it to use straight away (plus make a few new hairdresser friends as well 🙂 )."

    I love this. Was that intentional? That is, did you decide to study things related to hairdressing specifically because you knew you had an appointment to get your hair cut afterwards and would therefore be able to immediately apply what you'd just learned while it was fresh in your mind thereby really cementing it in? Because, if so, that was brilliant, precisely what I would've done (or wished I'd done later upon thinking about it, ha!).

    Cheers,
    Andrew

  5. Hey Donovan,

    I'm really honoured to be mentioned here, and much more so that you've received some degree of inspiration from my efforts in learning Korean. I wish you the best of luck as you continue learning a language that is near and dear to my heart 🙂

    Cheers,
    Alex Ristich

    (By the way, I actually work at LingQ!)

    1. Hey Alex!

      Wow, great to hear from you. Sorry I wasn't sure if you worked at LingQ or not but now I know. It's a great platform.

      Would love to meet up next time you're in Korea.

      Thanks a lot for the well wishes!

    2. Sure thing, next time I'm around I'll be sure to get in touch! Enjoy the brisk winter 🙂

      Cheers,
      Alex

  6. "Here’s a pet peeve of mine.

    The amount of expats who have been living here in Korea literally for years and still don’t speak much or any Korean is frankly shameful."

    ㅋㅋㅋ I know what you mean.. I imagine having co-workers such as J, J and M must have been offputting in that aspect… though they have not been in Korea for years. I wonder if any of them gave you a hard time for wanting to learn 한국말, maybe telling you that you don't even need it to survive in Korea..

    "There’s a real tendency here (and I’ve had issues with the same thing in Egypt and Georgia) for Westerners to live a totally parallel existence to the host society. They work with the locals sure but they spend all their downtime with foreigners and quite often bitch to each other about the host society and culture that welcomed them."

    So true… 사람이 그렇게 할때 나는 진짜 짜증나요..

    도노반님 이 한국어 배우라고 노력 해서 행복해요! 노력 잘하고 능력 착실히 쌓이고 있으세요!

    혹시 한국어 하는 친구 한 명 더 필요 하면 저 하고 나 하지요.. ㅋㅋ

  7. I really appreciate this post. I haven't been an expat yet, but I've traveled in Argentina 3 times in the past 3 years and hope to live there someday (I'm too old to do the backpacking circuit and too young to retire). I'm doing as much as I can to learn about Argentine culture while living in the US, and most of my friends here think I'm a little crazy, but it's really helped my Spanish-language skills, and the Argentine friends I have here seem to appreciate that I know a lot about their country.

    I watch a lot of junky programs on blogs and on Argentine public TV on the web. It's not great art, but after 200 episodes of sitcoms and telenovelas, I noticed that my listening skills were far more advanced than those of my classmates who never watched Spanish-language programming. Now I'm at a level at which I can appreciate "higher art," such as theater and concerts, on the fairly rare occasions when artists visit our college town. And I find it incredibly fun to learn the slang peculiar to one country or region!

    I wrote a few language learning tips on my blog:
    http://springbyker.wordpress.com/2012/09/24/a-few

  8. "Having that as a short-term goal should increase my productivity and give me something serious to work toward over the next few months."

    This is one of the problems I'm trying to deal with. I'm been learning languages for a little while (about two months) and I'm happy with my schedule and whatnot. My problem is measuring progress. In other things I do I can easily have a quantifiable goal and a time frame to reach it in, but I'm finding that hard to do with languages. Do you have any suggestions for goals like this?

    I looked at taking CEFR grading tests but the next one is February 2nd and I'm not too keen on turning my language learning into studying for an exam. I also have no idea what level I'll be by then to know what to take.

    1. Good point. If your language learning becomes 'studying for an exam' it's going to be really detrimental.

      I've been asked this question quite a lot actually. Here's my last response which should help you:

      Write out a plan using *themes/topics* as a focus every week for 3 months. E.g. Week 1 will be all about jobs and careers. All you do for that entire week is learn how to talk about various jobs (your own job particularly), terms and expressions about work, etc. Week 2, relationships, Week 3, politics, and so on. Come up with topics that are relevant to you or things you feel passionate about discussing. Focus only on expanding that particular vocabulary and practice talking about those specific things each week.

      The reason why this helps is that you'll be able to look back in 3 months and see a whole range of topics that you previously couldn't talk about and now can.

      It's a great way to measure progress and set small goals for yourself that are fun and relevant.

  9. Right on the money about expats' poor attitudes. (To be fair, it can be hard for English speakers not to get sucked into speaking English to benefit others' education rather than one's own.)____Similarly, your comments on adopting the persona of a speaker of a language rings entirely true to me. I think that's the best way of expressing it.____On a practical point, I'm rather sceptical about launching into attempting to speak a very different language (from the ones you're used to) without getting plenty of opportunity to listen to it first (and absorb both the cultural cues and the sounds). Do you have a view on that?

    Oh, and could you explain the title, please? It's rather tantalising to leave it there with no explanation.

    1. Thanks very much.

      I completely agree with you. Lots of listening should always come first as it's impossible to have any meaningful conversation without plenty of input to draw from. Speaking immediately is nonsense – you need to have a long period where input is the main focus.

      One thing a lot of people don't realize is that pronunciation is primarily learned before we say anything.

      The title of the blog or post? 🙂

  10. You make some excellent points here regarding those living abroad, I would have expected the chance to learn about a country's culture would be a motivating factor in moving somewhere.

    It would be great if more people adopted an attitude like yours.

  11. Hi Donovan,

    I've been living in Korea and learning the language for the past four years, and I agree about the expat community here. To me, the sad part is that most of these people are ESL teachers. It never made sense to me how someone could expect to teach people how to learn a language when they've never had the experience of learning a language themselves.

    Anyway, I just stumbled on your website the other day, and I think it's really cool that you happen to be learning Korean. I'm really looking forward to your video updates! I'm curious to see how much progress can be made in just a few months by someone who really sets their mind to learning the language.

    If you happen to visit Seoul, shoot me an email if you want to meet up for a cup of coffee or a beer.

  12. I've only lived in the USA and Canada, but I agree that adapting to a new culture is important and helpful when learning a language. I've known people who have lived in the USA for many years and never learn more than the most basic English words and phrases and I can't imagine how they can be satisfied with having to rely on friends and family members to act as translator/interpreters all the time.

  13. Totally! Have you any pointers on how to get immensed eventhough you dont live in your home country and dont meet people in everyday life who’s mother tongue is the one you learn..?

    1. Shoot..you live in your home country and learn foraign language:)

    2. Kate, italki is great! I think I heard about it on this blog. I’m currently learning French with a teacher via skype, a couple of italki sessions a week and lots of listening to radio, podcasts and original French tv series.

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