Sunday, July 27, 2008


How to Learn Languages Outside the Classroom

Welcome to the latest installment of Your Guide to Strange Languages, where we’re still looking in vain for one that isn’t strange in some way.

Today, your host will be taking questions about learning outside the classroom. Having studying Hangeul, the language of Korea for six months in a university course, we’ll give you the chance to catch up with him on the progress that can be made without spending a massive chunk of your paycheck.

Let’s take the first question.

Q: Can you recommend a practical way to learn a foreign language without taking a class or living studying abroad?

A: Before I answer, let me ask you: Do you have a natural gift for languages?

Q: Well ... no.

A: Then the answer is: Definitely not. I’ve heard that question asked by Koreans who wanted to speak better (or at least some) English, and by Westerners in Korea who got tired of using their fingers to signal that they wanted chopsticks, only to have scissors brought instead. If every Westerner who said, “I want to learn Korean” actually did so, the natives of this country wouldn’t be nearly so impressed every time one of us said “Thank you” in their native tongue.

In fact, everybody who wanted to learn a new language could do something “practical” about it, then they wouldn’t call it “the language barrier,” would they? They’d call it something less austere, like “the language sliding door” or “the language public bathroom.”

The truth is that there’s nothing practical about learning languages. All of our thoughts and lot of the instincts we develop in the first couple decades of our lives are influenced by the words we use and the way we form sentences. Learning a new language means changing how you think, and for most of us that requires a lot of time, a lot of money and perhaps a drastic change in area code.

Q: Haven’t you ever met people who managed to learn without taking classes?

A: Yes, I’ve met a couple of people here in Korea who seemed to pick up on Hangeul quickly. In just a year or so they were able to understand what the Koreans around them were saying a lot of the time and express themselves effectively. These people, however, are unique. They have a talent for languages, which makes them the kind of individuals the rest of us can only admire (or, depending on your personality, envy with an undying loathing).

Q: Outside of the classroom, what are the methods you’ve employed in learning Korean?

A: First, I tried reading Korean children’s books with the aid of an electronic dictionary. It was very hard to understand at first, because the words were conjugated grammatically in ways I wasn’t familiar with. There were also idiomatic expressions I’d never heard before, and some Korean words have about 12 different definitions, and I could only guess as to which is the correct one for the given sentence.

However, with the help of some supportive coworkers/significant others, I managed to at least decipher the plots of the stories. One was about a tiger that saves a traveler from a ravenous pack of nine-tailed foxes. Another was about a pet rabbit that went through its owner’s house trying on their clothes while they were away. The last was about the ghost that haunts the traditional Korean outhouse.

Q: What was the main thing you learned through this method?

A: I learned that Koreans tell some very odd stories to their children.

Q: Have you talked with the Koreans around you for conversation practice?

A: At my last job, I used to eat with my coworkers in cafeteria that served Korean food. I told myself that I would speak no English between 12 and 1 p.m. As I ate with these ladies, most of whom were significantly older than me, I found myself saying, almost exclusively, sentences beginning with “I am …”, “I was …” and “I will …” Virtually all other types of sentences were beyond my ability, but I didn’t mind that. Even the fact that I understood almost none of the questions they asked me was endurable.

What I did mind was the general sentiment of these ladies, which was that I, a red-blooded, six-foot-three-inch American male in his late twenties, was simply the cutest thing ever when I tried to speak Korean. Thus, I learned from this experience to practice with those closer to my age and also closer to my gender, if possible.

Q: Have you attempted conversation practice with anyone since then?

A: Not really. I suppose it would be easier if conversation itself were one of my favorite things to do. Personally, I don’t think conversing for no reason for its own sake is or ever will be one of my top 10 pastimes.

I also suppose it would be best to find guys my age that I could relate to and try talking with them. Unfortunately, I can’t related to most of the Korean guys my age, because they want to talk about how much they want to get a new job/better job/job they don’t hate so much, and then go into detail about how they plan to get drunk on the weekend.

Q: So ... is learning a new language even worth the effort?
A: That depends. Have you got something better to do?

That is often what most American men your age talk about too.
Yeah, I have trouble relating to a lot of them, too.
I remember a while good friend gave me a Japanese computer program. It was a very good program that I'm sure most people with larger brains than mine would have used to great effect. But not me. No, I just stared at the people that came on the screen and spoke a different language at me and wondered what it would be like to fly. Right off the roof of a tall building. Ah, memories. Who was that friend who tried to better me culturally? He was tall, and quoted movies, and played tennis...
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