Learning a language is a journey. We hear it all the time. However, rarely does anyone specify that it’s a journey through different levels of discomfort. That wouldn’t be all that motivating, right?
There are people who embrace failure and actively seek out learning challenges when learning a language. Needless to say, the results of such an approach are reflected in their progress. Philip is one of them. Since college his objective was to incorporate as much language practice as he could into his daily life.
Was it a piece of cake? No. It involved decisions that weren’t always easy.
Philip cut through several layers of discomfort to reach his current level of English. One might say it was a delicious cake of trials and errors. Now, he wants to help others adopt his mindset.
By Philip Kim
Exotic Base of Curiosity
In my generation in Korea we started learning English in the 7th grade. At that time, in middle school, I didn’t like the idea of learning any language! True language learning for me started only in college when an American guy appeared in our school to teach us English.
It was 1997 and there weren’t many foreigners in Korea, especially not in my small hometown of Dang Jin. Perhaps that’s what made Michael, the new American teacher, so exotic to me. The curiosity I felt made me want to get to know him, and for that I needed to communicate.
My level of English, however, was too low to say even simple words or sentences! It was quite embarrassing, but this is what prompted me to study. I started learning everyday by watching English movies with subtitles. It was hard to understand the plot, but I could still match the written sentences to what was happening on the screen. I memorised some sentences, and repeated them to Michael. To my great surprise he understood!
When I ran out of English words I knew, I used Konglish [combination of English and Korean—MK], and he was still able to understand. This really encouraged me. It showed me that the language “works”, it conveys meaning, and that means there is a benefit to learning English.
The problem appeared when Michael replied. At this stage I couldn’t understand his words—they didn’t follow the script of the movies I watched. It took me about six months to get to a place where we could communicate in a simple language.
Layer One: Korean Drug Smuggling
The progress I made this way motivated me to go overseas to continue my education. I was accepted to a university in Melbourne, Australia, to study computer science, and in Korea I studied quality control. I chose these topics convinced that computers are the future. This is indeed the case, but now I know I’d have felt more at ease studying linguistics.
My first experience abroad wasn’t smooth. In 2001 I arrived in Sydney. Not realising I had to transfer, I missed my connection. It was my first time flying, and I was very stressed! The people at the airport however were very kind and helped me find the right plane, my basic English skills saved me here! Little did I know it was not the end of my airport adventure.
My luggage was full of Korean food—my mum thought Australians only eat meat and bread so she prepared some meals for me. One of the food items was Miskaro, rice flour. The border control guards never saw anything like this, and thought it was a drug! I felt desperate. I wanted to explain what it was to avoid the $100 fee, but my English was too limited for that.
In the end I got lucky and they just let me go. That was a rough start, highlighting for me just how important it was to be able to communicate in English.
Layer Two: Detaching from Korean
After finally arriving to Melbourne I signed up for a language course for foreign students. Unfortunately, in my 12-person class the majority of students were Korean, and that meant we could speak Korean to each other. This is not a good environment for practising English, it was too easy to switch back to my mother tongue.
Thankfully, a breakthrough happened quite soon. I ran into a Korean guy from a higher year in the library. His English was excellent, so asked his recommendation. His tip? Speak English with everyone, even with the Koreans.
That advice really made me think about my approach. What is my aim here in Australia? What is my purpose? I realised the purpose was to learn English. At that moment, I made a firm promise to myself to speak only English, whatever happens.
I have to admit, it didn’t feel very natural. My Korean classmates spoke to me in Korean, but I would reply in English. For two months they couldn’t wrap their heads around my reasons, they kept asking me why, but eventually they got used to it.
My dedication went so far that at the end of the course some people were surprised I could speak Korean at all! They thought perhaps I was from somewhere else since I only used English with others.
Cake Filler: Seeking a Challenge in Practising Alone
The course in Australia was the only language course I ever took, as I much prefer to learn by myself. Interacting with native speakers is only a way to practice the language. The actual learning happens elsewhere.
My preferred method is to learn through films, YouTube videos or TED talks. I try to avoid having to use a dictionary, but choose materials where the meaning can be inferred from the context: news or dramas. During my early days in Australia I watched DVDs with English subtitles for two hours every day, memorising sentences.
For practice I mainly use HelloTalk, but whenever possible I also try to talk to people in real life, for example at language exchange meetups. I live close to the airport which is an extra practice opportunity—I take the same train as the new arrivals, so sometimes I get to chat to foreigners on my way to work.
“My teacher is Youtube and my friend is HelloTalk”, sums up Philip.
A TED talk Philip recommends to all learners is “Breaking the Language Barrier” by Tim Doner.
Language practice was also a chief factor for me when choosing a profession. I decided to work in foreign trade where there is a strong emphasis on maintaining harmonious relationships. The fact that I can speak Japanese, Indonesian, and Chinese helps to make meetings run smoothly and to quickly build rapport with business partners.
This line of work also means I often travel abroad which allows me to constantly challenge myself and use the languages in their “natural habitat,” so to speak.
Cherry on Top
When I started learning English there weren’t so many opportunities for language exchange. The cultural interest was only going one way—Koreans were learning English, but not so much the other way around.
The English-Korean culture exchange has been taken to another level in the last years. Hallyu, the Korean wave, took over the world with Kpop, Korean dance, and drama. The show “Descendants of the Sun”, for example, was watched by millions in the Middle East. People now want to visit Korea to see where the Korean dramas take place.
Another factor for increased interest in Korean culture is the economic development we’ve seen since the 2000s. People from South-East Asia come here for better work opportunities. They have to learn Korean, because to be able to work in the country they need to pass a language exam.
Young people coming to Korea can communicate with young Korean people in English—current youth has no fear or hesitation when using the language! However, older people speak only Korean. As a foreigner, if you want to live in Korea, shop on the market and eat in restaurants, you’ll have to learn the language. Those are the people who I often connect with on HelloTalk.
I started using HelloTalk to practice my languages. The principle I follow on the app is: first give and then take. I explain Korean grammar to my language partners always adjusting my language to match their level of understanding. I post pictures and explanations about Korean too, as a way of contributing to the community.
Language learning is not hard, but it just takes time!
Many learners I speak to on HelloTalk don’t know how to learn. So, I not only teach them the language but also motivate to not give up—I share my study strategies and encourage them to practice. This way I made more than 500 connections on HelloTalk. I always tell people “Language learning is not hard, but it just takes time!” I suggest they go to YouTube, whether to my channel or someone else’s, learn phrases and come back to practice with me. When you use new phrases in conversation they become your own.
Learn phrases on Youtube. When you use them in conversation they become your own.
You can follow Philip’s YouTube channel here.
Future of languages?
I enjoy learning languages and sharing my knowledge with language partners. However, I’m not sure if in the future it will be necessary to learn languages at all. The current technological development in translation software and hardware is staggering, just look at things like Google’s Pixel buds, with their real-time voice translation. It makes it so easy, you can communicate with no challenge or effort.
At the same time, I know from experience that it’s showing personal investment in other people’s cultures that builds trust and connection.
A part of me thinks it’s just a question of time for us to abandon language learning. On the other hand I want to believe humans will always want to learn.
Our generation is well connected. While we still have curiosity, we should use this opportunity to travel abroad, learn about other cultures and attitudes.
👉 Challenge accepted?
Interviewed and written by Marta Krzeminska
Feature photo by Vladimir Kudinov from Pexels