23 In Korean Learners/ Special Series

[Special Series – Korean Learners] #1 Charles Montgomery

This is part of an ongoing special series when 1-2 Korean learners/bloggers each week are invited to share their Korean learning journey! It will be nice if you can leave a comment after reading! ^^ To participate in the series, check out this post.


About the guest author:

Charles Montgomery is an English professor in Dongguk University in Seoul. I had the pleasure of meeting him (although for a short while) when I was in Korea! Check out his site and his twitter!

Korean Modern Literature in Translation

Twitter @KTLit

One of the remarkable things about Shanna is that she is using (well, til last
semester) primarily self-study to learn Korean. I, on the other hand, am the living
example of how self-study can be a failure. Which is odd, because in most other
arenas, I am a complete self-studier. When I was a webmaster I learned to code
all alone in my office. When it came to literature, I just sat in my office, coffee
shops, bars and at home, and read. But with language? I am not a self-studier.

I came to Korea over three years ago, and my Korean is still shameful. Prior to
leaving I took a few months of Korean at a hagwon in Sunnyvale California, but
its classes were inconveniently scheduled, and I had a more than full time job. So
when I got to Korea, I could say ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ and that was about it.

I did quickly learn to say “Cass 오백 씨씨 주세요!” but that was about it. So, I
bought a Korean textbook and brought it to my little apartment. I opened it
once, diligently worked away at the first chapter, memorized about 15 words,
then tossed the book on my desk until “the next time.”

The next time was about 10 days later, I could remember none of the vocabulary
I had ‘memorized,’ and the work I had done looked like hieroglyphics. So, I
plunged in once more, and with three phrases memorized (“nice to meet you for
the first time”/ 만나서 반갑습니다 and “goodbye” in two forms depending on
who was departing 안녕히 계세요/ 안녕히 가세요). I then marched out into the
world and tried to practice my exciting new knowledge.

Alas, this turned out to be harder than I thought. As it turned out, I worked
primarily with English speakers (except in the classroom) and even when I met
Koreans, it was incredibly artificial to try to force my phrases into conversation.
I mean, how often did I really meet someone for the first time? So I might learn
a few phrases, but I could rarely use them, practice pronunciation, or learn what
the responses to them might be.

I was also in Daejeon, which I will just say, trying to be polite, is not that
cosmopolitan, and the natives seemed to have no interest at all in my cruddy
Korean. So, I buckled down to reading translated Korean literature, which
became my little window on the culture (did I mention my blog at www.ktlit.com
is all about modern Korean literature? Well, now I have.^^)

Next year, I moved to Seoul and repeated the textbook/desk/real-world cycle
about three times.

Even when I did sit down with the textbook, I found that I was easily dis— hey,
did you know that you can find streaming NFL games on the internet? And I
wonder what my friend Martin is doing right now? Hmmm… do I want a snack? –
— tracted.

And when I went out to practice my Korean, I ran into several problems. The first
was that I still only had this list of artificial phrases to use, and they were rarely
relevant to events in life. I could scarcely use them in real situations. The second
problem was where I worked, in the English Interpretation and Translation Department at Dongguk University. The professors and students I worked with
were all effusive in offers to help me, but their English was simply too good for
this to work out. Everyone in my division is an excellent English speaker and
when my Korean faltered, they would just code-switch and, bang(!), we’d be back
in English.

As it turned out, cabbies and restaurants DID want to engage me (the lure of easy
돈!) so like many expats, I did self-learn taxi-Korean and some restaurant-

On occasion I took a tutor, but fitting them into my schedule was difficult and
they were expensive. In addition, many of them didn’t really seem to have taught
before, and this meant a lot of time was wasted.

I met Steve Revere, whose Korean is brilliant, and he gave me copies of his
two “how to learn Korean” books. I repeated the textbook/desk/real-world cycle
yet again. And got distracted. And got busy in the translation area. And traveled.
And drank. And generally just passed my Korean textbooks as I whisked myself
out the door.

I also looked at the many resources on the internet, but as my interest in one
waned I would just skip to another, and I couldn’t settle down with any one (or
two, or three, or four…..) site and make any progress.

I made one abortive attempt at doing Korean pen-pal with my best friend back
in the States (he’s Korean by birth, and bilingual), but as soon as he returned my
first email, I just let it sit there, with other emails to answer, and in a language
I’m OK at.

As it turns out, I am not a self-learner. The mighty intarwebs (via Wikipedia) says
self-learners have these characteristics.

1. self-observation (monitoring one’s activities);

2. self-judgment (self-evaluation of one’s performance) and

3. self-reactions (reactions to performance outcomes).

To me that first one is all about discipline… watching what you do and
scheduling what you do. Let’s just say that I suck at that.

The second one is also problematic for me. Language-learning takes time, and
I’m a short-attention-span-theater person. If I study something and don’t see
immediate progress? I move to something else that has an immediate payoff, like
a popsicle, beer, or watching downloaded episodes of Trailer Park Boys. So in the
short term I judged progress (which is the improper scale) as insufficient, and
lost the will to continue.

The reaction? I’ve described it above: on to pursuits with quicker results; putting down the textbooks.

Sure, in three years I did learn some things, but as last semester ended I re-
indulged in step 2, and realized that my silly expectations and lack of discipline
had conspired to pretty much halt me in my tracks.

Twice, I had entered formal classes in Korean, and in the three weeks that I had
stuck with that (Yeah, I know, lame), I had achieved most of my progress. My
university did not have me teach a winter-session class this break, and that gave
me the opportunity I had been evading. As I type this I am halfway through
my first month of formal classes. That is, the first month of formal classes that I
will complete. The formal classes impose upon me the discipline I lack, and the
instructor’s responses are based on rational calculation of how anyone would be
doing two weeks in. If she says I’m doing well, I can ignore the evidence of my
lying eyes.^^ This means that steps 1 and 2 of the “self-learning” characteristics
are (thankfully) being imposed on me.

In that two weeks I have learned more Korean language (as opposed to
vocabulary, a surprising amount of which it turns out I have picked up along
the way) than I did in the previous three years combined. Even better? I’m
enthusiastic about the process and intend to take two classes next month. In the
Spring semester my schedule is a blessing – I will be able to continue my lessons
if I choose to.

For the moment, I choose to!

So, while I give mad props to the folks like Ms. Tan, who can buckle down and
teach themselves, I have to say that it is bricks and mortar for me.

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  • Reply
    16 January, 2012 at 1:46 PM

    haha I’ve learnt that brick and mortar can be potentially awesome or disastrous. I loved my lessons in KLI Yonsei and hate it to the core when I was in KU.

    Not to generalize, but I find it easier to practice Korean just because I’m an Asian. When I was in Korea, everyone thought I’m Korean and I’m ‘expected’ to be able to speak the language, which is fine by me since I don’t want to stand out. If I was learning… let’s say Arabic I can imagine myself having a more difficult time trying to saying something (if I did say anything at all).

    Hopefully the lessons will work for you, and we definitely have to catch up again when I go back! 😀

  • Reply
    16 January, 2012 at 1:49 PM

    Good story. It shows how everyone is different. I wish you the best as you continue in your studies. (By the way, I liked the whole “distracted” thing)

    • Reply
      16 January, 2012 at 3:43 PM

      Yeah! THAT was so fun, right? ^_^

  • Reply
    16 January, 2012 at 2:42 PM

    Oh, this is going to be an awesome series~

    Thank you for sharing your story, Charles! What works for one might not work for other indeed. ㅋㅋ

    Btw, what would you recommend as my first Korean novel (English translated and uhm available on online bookstore like BookDepository or Amazon)? 😀

  • Reply
    Binh Nguyen
    16 January, 2012 at 3:53 PM

    I have been following Shannah’s blog for a while and was eagerly waiting for the first few posts of this series to come out. ^^

    First I have to say I do appreciate the OP’s candor in confessing to what he himself considers a lack of discipline, and I do have to concur that the above cycle of doing the language intensively for a while, then putting it off what can count up to years, then come back to it and be disappointed and keep stopping again and again is a phenomenon prevalent among the vast number of language learners across languages. The reasons which I think can be attributed to this epidemic are:

    1. The learners do not have a clear incentive; or rather, a purpose; in studying the language. Do you want to learn Korean to do business, or just to get by with everyday conversations is enough for you? I myself started studying Korean because of my voracious appetite for K-pop and I wanted to understand what was behind those lyrics and rhythm. If you don’t have a reason to study a language, it’s hard to force yourself to do it, especially if your mind unconsciously tells you that it doesn’t want to spend it time binging on the language. Even if you have a reason, it is still challenging if the motive is for money and not because you like that language.

    A suggestion for people with this underlying issue to spend more time ‘indulging in that language & culture’ first, which basically means listening to K-pop, watching Korean dramas/movies/cartoons, or reading manhwa/Korean lit. translated into another language – every language and culture is beautiful, especially those of Korea. You then need to appreciate the language and make yourself fall in love with that world for the process to work. Passion will get your further than any mere attempt at unwilling/forced discipline.

    2. The second problem that most language learners encounter is not having a pattern or a structure that work best for them to direct their study, and then not being able to keep up with the plans. Most people opt for the structure of the classroom because they can’t bring themselves to buckle down and stay with it for hours, but that’s because they don’t understand language learning doesn’t have to be such torture. If you’re listening to K-pop and you really love to listen to a song – rather than trying to study Korean, make an attempt at looking up some new vocab in the lyrics. Or if you’re into Korean dramas, watch every series twice – the first with subtitles in a language you understand, then without subtitles to see how much you can comprehend and note down some common phrases that you hear the actor keep repeating over and over again. When you indulge yourself in activities you enjoy within the scope of a language, studying will transform itself from being a nuisance and a bane on your existence to being a delight and something you keep looking forward to every day.

    Most self-studying methods are more efficient AND enjoyable than classrooms, simply because it gives you more leeway in shaping the process in a manner that is more enjoyable for you – why bother going to classes and get stuck with stuff your teacher tells you to study while you can learn by yourself a couple of grammar points and vocab from a phrase your hear on the TV or from a song? (Because the latter is more fun!)

    “Every diet plans work – you just have to stick to it.” You need to choose a method which you feel you can stick around with for the longest period of time – be it using colorful/beautifully illustrated textbooks or just simply looking things up from songs’ lyrics with only a vocab dictionary and a grammar dictionary and play around with the things you’ve learned by making sentences. Every method will work given a particular amount of exposure. So you just have to pick one with the most fun in it and let that fun navigate your own route.

    3. Perfectionism will murder your enthusiasm very quickly, before you even know it. Because perfectionists have high expectations, they are more prone to burn-out than those who take it easy. You will often tell yourself that you have to study two chapters of the book, study 100 new vocab words and listen to 5 hours of tape in the target language PER DAY. I bet even Shannah will hate Korean if she ever attempts to do that.

    The remedy for this diagnosis is that instead of having high expectations, have wide expectations. Don’t make yourself study 100 new words on a given day, then suffer from burn-out and quit. Instead expect to do very little per day (like 5 words/day) but keep up with it for three full months. (If you have reached the limit of 5 words/day and still feel hungry for some more, then be my guest!)
    When you hesitate to start doing something because you expect yourself to do too much and you don’t feel ‘ready to do it perfectly,’ just drop that thought, set a countdown clock for 30 minutes and just do it. Then reward yourself at the end of the day according to how many 30-minute productive periods you have plowed through. Never, ever reproach yourself for having too many unproductive periods after this, but instead focusing on applauding and rewarding yourself with well-deserved rest, food and quality time with friends and family for the productive periods.

    So to sum up:
    1. Have a clear motivation in studying a language. Always remind yourself of this.
    2. Create an approach, a studying plan that you enjoy the most.
    3. Stop being a perfectionist.
    If any audience of Shannah’s blog is having the aforementioned problem, I hope my comments do help.

    Credits to AJATT.com and ‘The Now Habit’ by Neil Fiore.

    • Reply
      16 January, 2012 at 6:27 PM

      What great advice!! I wish I read your advice earlier! This will definitely help me in my language learning! So many points that you mentioned are SO, SO true for me!

      Do you happen to have a blog by any chance? I would love to read what you have to say about learning languages~!!^^

    • Reply
      16 January, 2012 at 8:48 PM

      woah that’s awesome! ^^ Like creativityjapanese, I agree to what you say totally!
      Having a clear motivation really helps, especially in times when you reach a bottleneck or get stuck in a particular phase.

      I really loved what you have written. Would love to invite you to contribute to the series! ^^

    • Reply
      17 January, 2012 at 12:12 AM

      Me three! Good points you have there!
      I think the first one is the most important one. That if you have so much motivation, number 2 & 3 should follow, or should not even matter anymore. But recently, because I noticed my progress for the past months was very slow, I changed to a more enjoyable way to study and I stopped being a perfectionist (or at least I’m trying to ^^).

    • Reply
      18 January, 2012 at 8:50 AM

      Wow you said everything that needed to be said, Binh. I willingly bow my head to you, oh mighty Korean-learning master. Honestly, most people I know who are interested in learning Korean are lacking real, concrete motives. They just like k-pop or Korean culture, but aren’t really driven to learn it for any specific reason. They can just read the English translation, which comes with just about everything k-pop related. As for me, I want to live in Korea, so I better be as fluent as I can get, so that’s my goal. What’s your reason for learning Korean? I know you said k-pop, but i must be more than that. A simple love for k-pop is not enough to mobilize someone to spend so much time and effort to learning a language.

      As for Charles, yeah I think your story is similar to that of many English-speaking teachers I’ve met in Korea. In fact, I even know someone who works in Daejeon…perhaps you know him! Anyway, I think the classroom setting is always good, because it pushes you to do more than you (might) do by yourself. I usually end up taking classes that are too easy, so I lose motivation sometimes, but still, it’s generally never a BAD idea to take a class (with the exception of Shanna’s KU class…sorry about that!) Keep it up!

      • Reply
        18 January, 2012 at 7:20 PM

        Hi karainseoul! Haha I beg to disagree! Sometimes, for some people, a simple love for kpop is enough… in fact *cough, cough* more than enough. ^^ (and no, I’m not a kpop fan… but yes, I am a fan. ^^)

  • Reply
    Binh Nguyen
    16 January, 2012 at 4:05 PM

    Oh I totally forgot, to the OP: I really hope that now that you have tracked down which learning ambience is most conducive to your learning, progressing in Korean will take its own course. ^^

    • Reply
      Charles Montgomery
      16 January, 2012 at 6:21 PM

      LOL.. thanks Binh,

      Yeah.. I love my class… I’m one of four students; Another US citizen, an Indian, and a Thai guy. The teacher is great and the four of us will all be sharing classes (I will be taking two) next month.

      Shockingly, I’ve done all my homework so far.

  • Reply
    16 January, 2012 at 8:31 PM

    This series is awesome. I am relieved to know that I’m not the only one who gets easily distracted when I’m supposed to read the textbook that’s sitting right in front of me. Self-studying a language can be quite a challenge for a person who lacks discipline like me. XD Reading a thick textbook with chunks of text can be daunting sometimes. And sometimes, this kind of approach can be too boring. So I decided to change my routine and add some fun activities to keep me motivated, things that will keep my interest to learn Korean burning. I started reading some manhwa and learning some new words through lyrics. I still read my textbooks but I don’t solely rely on them.

    • Reply
      16 January, 2012 at 8:45 PM

      make it more awesome by contributing to it 😛

      Self learning is never easy. For someone like me who ermm likes to study, I find myself getting frustrated and distracted very easily too. ^^

      • Reply
        16 January, 2012 at 8:56 PM

        I’d love to contribute but… maybe next time. XD I’m afraid I might bore people with my post instead of inspiring them or worst, I might end up fangirling. loljk. XDDD Kidding aside, I think I’ll give it a shot but not anytime soon.

  • Reply
    16 January, 2012 at 11:48 PM

    Thanks Charles for sharing your story. It was a fun read!

    And thanks to you I was “introduced” to Korean modern literature. I realized that it is something that I haven’t explored yet. I love reading and I’ve read some Japanese literature that are translated in English (when I was learning Japanese, so that I can somehow get a glimpse of Japanese culture), but I’m wondering now why I haven’t thought of reading English translated Korean literature. Maybe because I’m so obsessed in trying to read the novel “My Name Is Kim Sam Soon” in Korean, that I failed to see that there are a lot of modern literature out there that I can enjoy while I still can’t completely comprehend an entire novel written in Korean.

    I hope the lessons will work well for you and that you will choose to continue with it for a long time. 🙂 화이팅!

  • Reply
    16 January, 2012 at 11:50 PM

    Shanna, congratulations for a successful “launch” of this series! Looks like a lot of people anticipated this, me included, of course. Can’t wait for the next one! 🙂

  • Reply
    18 January, 2012 at 1:30 AM

    Very interesting.

    I would note that for many languages, I have been told that a popular method by which one learns the foreign language is through courting.

    Charles does not mention this.

    Many learn languages by having a loved one who is a native speaker.

    Did Charles try that?

    • Reply
      Charles Montgomery
      18 January, 2012 at 4:23 PM

      I really wanted to try to learn by courting, but when I suggested the idea of a Korean girlfriend to my wife, she was strongly against the idea..^^

      Surprisingly, she was even more aghast when I bargained by suggesting she allow me a Korean boyfriend.

      I don’t think she wants me to learn the language.^^

      • Reply
        19 January, 2012 at 7:58 AM

        HAHA! best. comment. ever on the blog 😛

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