I arrived in Korea nearly three years ago not even knowing the alphabet. I’d studied a couple of foreign languages – French and Spanish – before and picked them up with relative ease. I felt a vague sense of superiority over those who couldn’t grasp the concepts that I could so easily, or memorize lists of vocabulary words overnight. During my sophomore year of college, I didn’t even own the Spanish textbook, but still managed to get an A out of the semester by just paying attention in class. I figured that I’d be able to pick up Korean with moderate effort once I arrived. I knew it was more difficult than what I’d studied before, but to me, a bonafide language nerd, it would pose no real threat.
Boy, was I wrong.
I’ll be quite honest – after three years living here, my Korean sucks.
My Korean hasn’t progressed much past the very beginner stages of learning a language. I can make basic small talk and order food and complain that I’m too hot or too cold or too hungry, and that’s essentially it. I know how to conjugate in a handful of verb tenses (though adjectives still confuse me), and am vaguely familiar with the new parts of speech that don’t exist in English and the alien subject-object-verb sentence order Korean has, instead of my natal subject-verb-object.
Korean is a difficult language, for several reasons that I won’t delve into too much here. The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) ranks how long a native English speaker would need to reach proficiency in different languages. It places languages on five different tiers, with one being the easiest for English speakers to learn, and five being the most difficult. Korean is a level five, which means it requires 2200 hours of studying. Compared to the other two languages I’ve studied, French and Spanish (both, at level one, only require 575 to 600 hours), it’s quite evident that Korean is like, really hard.
However, if you know basic math, it’s pretty easy to figure out that I’ve been here for over a thousand days now. If I had only put in two hours a day, I could be pretty damn proficient at Korean by now. This leads me to the
somewhat embarrassing conclusion that I don’t speak Korean quite simply because I’m lazy. I really have no other excuse at this point not to speak Korean well by now.
Where I previously lived, in Namwon, there were no real Korean classes (except the one run by the Office of Education where the adult learners got picture books with stickers meant for toddlers, which taught a handful of simple vocabulary words and no grammar) or language exchanges. I used this lack of physical availability as a ready-made excuse for not studying the language. As online learning resources and classes are readily available, this excuse was about as flimsy as wet toilet paper.
I sometimes tell myself that I’m a lot better at Korean than a lot of the other foreigners that I know living here. I even know a woman who’s been here for several years now who hasn’t learned the alphabet, which was specifically created to be easy enough that peasants could learn it within a week. (It’s only once you progress past literacy that Korean gets difficult.) Of course, the fact that other foreigners speak even less Korean than I do is an awful gauge, as it sates my competitive streak without actually pushing me to be any better than I already am.
The two factors I’ve seen driving most people to learn languages are passion and utility. For Korean, both are limited for me.
I’m a native speaker of English, which is an increasingly global language. There are around three hundred and sixty million native speakers, but 1.5 billion speakers globally. That means that roughly twenty percent of the people can speak and understand English. It’s one of the most widespread languages in the world, and as such, the number of Koreans who can understand English is quite high.
The fact that I’m a native English speaker couples a bit with my white privilege, which I’ve written more about here. Essentially, most Koreans don’t expect me to know any Korean, which has led to sort of a vicious cycle for me. I don’t learn because it’s not expected, and because it’s not expected it doesn’t feel necessary for me to learn.
Korean would be useful to me while living here, it’s true, but the problem is that I don’t plan to stay here forever. In fact, when I first arrived I only planned to stay here a year. However, is it strictly necessary to speak fluent Korean to get by in Korea? Nope. I’ve been here for three years now and I’ve been fine, even with my paltry Korean.
I’ve vacillated with learning Korean for three years now. I’ve taken classes intermittently and had language exchange partners who have helped me work through the self-teaching textbook I purchased for myself online. However, no matter how much I promise myself that I’m going to get better, my attention and will to learn seems to dissipate after a few weeks. My progress with the language just feels so slow, and, comparatively, it is. It’s difficult not to despair at the 2,200 hours needed for fluency or read the blogs that say that Korean is nearly impossible for foreigners to learn, or to know no matter what I do, I’ll never blend in in Korea.
I am truly embarrassed that my Korean is still this bad after three years but as I’m planning to move to a new country in early September, I’ve all but given up on learning it. I have a deep feeling of respect for those who manage to stick it out and become fluent. I just don’t believe it’s ever going to happen for me.
Have you ever studied a difficult foreign language? Let me know how you dealt with it in the comments!