As a native English speaker it is possible to go through life set with a language that will either be suitable for most social situations or easily suited to by the assistance of guidance and translation into English. Thus in my life so far I have not been faced with the absolute necessity of becoming fluent in a second language, even though I’m Canadian (officially a bilingual country) and now living in Korea. I was unmotivated to learn French in my youth because I wasn’t living in a part of the country that had French speakers. Being older now and finding myself slightly envious of people who can speak a second language well, I regret my previous attitude towards learning languages.
Presently I’m trying to make up for this lack of a second language by learning Korean. I’m now surrounded by the language so similar excuses I had for not learning French are non-applicable. My study habits have been sporadic over my two year span in Korea. At times I have made studying Korean my main priority outside of my regular job, studying for a few hours every day. At other times I have taken attitude that the time and effort put into learning Korean would not be worth it because I will eventually leave the country, probably never to use the language again. But somehow just living here always motivates me to keep coming back to studying the language, convincing myself that if I speak Korean I will always feel like it’s my second home country, being more likely to come back at any point in my life if I speak well enough.
The main things I’ve learned about studying languages since studying Korean are:
1) If you don’t use it you will lose it (but not really lose it, you can find it, its still there, buried a little bit). The reason why I don’t speak as well or understand as well as I should is because of the lack of real integration into social situations. Teaching English for a job and socializing mainly with native English speaking foreigners and English speaking Koreans for a great deal of my time here has definitely hindered my language development.
2) Don’t spend too much time on grammar exercises and memorizing everything upon initial reception. Becoming aware of words and grammatical concepts and then touching base with them periodically means that you will be as equally prepared to hear it in the real world as if you spend intensive hours on one or two particular items and postpone intensive study of other concepts to other study sessions. Touching base with a wide variety of words and concepts instead intensively drilling each bit step by step is a more appealing and realistic approach for me and I feel better prepares the learner to quickly start discerning language in the real world.
3) Learn the words that people use and the words that will best fit your own reality. In the beginning stages I spent a lot of time learning basic vocabulary that any preliminary textbook on languages offers. I feel like I wasted a lot of time on things like colours, household appliances, clothing, school supplies, sections of the house, animals, and numbers among many other things. Though in the language learning process the learner will eventually have to know these things, what good are these words to them if they can’t form a sentence let alone speak about their personal situation. To start speaking, language must be authentic to the learner so the focus should be on finding the words that apply most to the learner’s situation and interests. To start understanding the language the learner should focus on tackling the high frequency vocabulary instead of tidbits in material categories that don’t give much language capital. This will accelerate the integrative and intuitive development process with the language making the addition of obscure and low frequency (but highly visible) vocabulary much more manageable and less overwhelming.
Though I still don’t use and understand the language as much as I like to, studying Korean has helped me better understand what works for me when learning language in general and has given me valuable experience for not only attempting to learn other languages in the future but also for approaches to take when teaching English.