Learning a Language, Taking a Chance

Me at work on a Friday afternoon.

(Multitasking: at work, “studying” Korean)

So as readers know, I’ve been studying Japanese for long while. I am not “fluent”, but I can get by OK. Not great, but I can carry a (sometimes awkward) conversation, or get my way around Tokyo enough.1 But I also started learning Korean about 6 months ago as a third-language.

My reasons for starting to learn Korean are varied. Mostly it was curiosity (how is it different/similar to Japanese), but also because I grew up around Korean-immigrant friends, and never really understood Korean back then apart from a few words or phrases. The whole interest in KPop was icing on the cake. So this was my chance to apply what I learned from studying Japanese (techniques, tools, etc) to something I always wanted to learn.

I’ve been fortunate to have some opportunities to practice my new Korean skills even here in Seattle, and studying has paid off.2 However, even after 6 months of studying, I realize that my conversation skills are terrible.

I have been able to use Korean to help me out of a couple small situations, but recently I was talking with a waitress in Korean. Although she seemed happy that I was learning Korean, I could tell that she really struggled to understand me and my grammar/pronunciation. It was kind of embarrassing, even though it turned out OK. My wife, the bodhisattva, reminded me afterwards that I have no practical experience in Korean, so I shouldn’t be surprised that I still can’t really speak it.

The lesson is so obvious, but so easy to forget: STUDY ALONE ISN’T ENOUGH!

Coincidentally, I follow Khatzumoto of AJATT on Twitter, and he posted some good advice:

You can’t learn a language you’re not exposed to. #exposure #immersion

Good point. It’s easy to forget this. But then I saw Khatzumoto re-tweet something that someone else said:

after 4 mos of being “german for a critical frequency of time” on my own,i think my german is better than my 11 yrs of spanish class.

Wow, that was interesting. It’s one thing to get good advice, it’s another thing to see it work for someone else in real life.

As soon as I read that I thought “what if I spend 4 months doing the same for Korean?”.

I’ve been applying Khatzumoto/AJATT’s methods for learning Japanese for a while: listening to podcasts, trying to daily activities in Japanese, rather than English, and just trying to exposure. It does help. Focusing on honing the basics over and over and over again definitely helps more than studying for the JLPT did.

The trouble is is that it’s kind of boring now. I do enjoy many things in Japanese (certain manga for example, watching NHK, talking with my wife’s friends), but I’ve been seriously studying it for years. My first post on the JLPT was in 2008 when I was living in Ireland. That means I’ve been studying for 4 years!

I guess it doesn’t feel “fresh” and “exciting” lately. Maybe I’m just burned out. Maybe I just need a break. Most of the podcasts I listen to aren’t really interesting,3 and I frequently want to stop and listen to KPop music instead. I love Japanese culture of course, but maybe I am just tired of studying it, or haven’t found something yet that genuinely interests me lately. Studying it just feels like work lately.

Anyway, since I’m interested in Korean stuff lately, and after reading some of the tweets above, I decided I’m going to capitalize on that interest and focus on building up exposure to Korean for a while. I’m curious to see how much improvement I can make in 4 months of constant exposure.

So, my plan, is simple: while Korean is still new and fresh to me, I will take advantage of that and get my “4 months” of exposure:

  1. For listening I use TTMIK which has a segment called Iyagi, which includes 100% Korean conversations. The conversations are a little slower and simpler than adult conversations, but for someone who’s just getting their exposure, I really like this segment. I also watch some K-Dramas with my wife (more on that later).
  2. When I’m tired of studying/listening, I can still get exposure by listening to KPop music I listen to anyway. 99% Korean with 0% effort.4
  3. Also, I found a really good segment on Youtube featuring my favorite group, 2NE1, and their daily lives. Imagine! Watching hours of TV about your favorite music group, speaking in their language which you’re trying to study anyway. Jackpot!
  4. One area I haven’t solved yet is reading. I can read Hangul more comfortably than before, but I don’t really have any reading material yet. Naver and Daum have comics online (thanks to a reader for suggesting previously! ;) ) and I may try my luck there.
  5. I also switched my iPhone to be Korean so I could get used to certain words and reading Hangul more regularly.

Here’s my phone after I switched to Korean (wallpaper was a photo I took when we visited the Tulip Festival in early April):

My phone

The point is two things. One, the more exposure, the better! Two, if you can capitalize on certain hobbies you already like, your language studies will be almost effortless. I mean, I’m spending countless hours studying for months now, I might as well have fun doing it.

P.S. So maybe I should call this site AKATT instead. Katz, if you’re reading, just kidding. :)

P.P.S. For those who like Japanese culture, fear not! I have no desire to change the blog format or subjects. This is just a little side-project (or experiment) for myself.

1 It helps that all the signs are bi-lingual English/Japanese. ;)

2 Thanks Keith and also thank you TTMIK!

3 Humor in another language is actually a really difficult subject, too. Even if you’re familiar with the language, there’s a lot of cultural “in-jokes” you won’t understand, or the types of jokes are different. I am also uncomfortable with some Japanese jokes which are kind of crass or involve hitting someone.

4 Ignore the English hooks you often see in KPop and JPop songs, of course. ;)

About Doug 陀愚

A Buddhist, Father and Japanophile / Koreaphile.
This entry was posted in Japanese, JLPT, Korean, KPop, Language. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Learning a Language, Taking a Chance

  1. Pink Ninjabi says:

    Love this blog! I’ve heard too it helps to think in the language in your head, pronounce out loud each letter as your memorize it, and of course Jackie Chan’s way of learning English was by singing songs, so you’re well on your way! Kudos to you!

    A friend of mine too practices her Japanese by offering free translations for manga and the like, it really helped her language along for some forums (although they can be demanding). They also have this for sitcoms too that you can translate the subtitles for. Just sayin’, could be fun, watch some TV and really reinforce those skills! :D


  2. kelleynymph says:

    I noticed you had Anki on your phone, I had not realized there was an app for that. That would certainly help me in maintaining my japanese. :)

  3. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Hi PN,

    I totally agree: use it or lose it. It’s the only way. :)

  4. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Hi kelleynymph,

    Yeah, I even wrote an old blog post about it:


    It’s 1.5 years old, and the app has undergone some updates, but it’s pretty indispensable. The upfront price of $25 seems like a lot, but I found it well worth it.

  5. Jan says:

    I’ve been learning Japanese by myself for about six months now and I echo your sentiments here. I try to expose myself on Japanese as much as possible, and thankfully that’s easy enough, since I like watching anime and Japanese films, and listening to some cheesy pop songs when I’m too tired for serious studying helps as well. One problem I’m having is that there are no Japanese speakers around here, so I just have to limit myself to mumbling Japanese by myself. Sometimes I go through imaginary conversations by myself.

    Similarities between Japanese and Korean is something I’m interested in myself as well. Particularly since I’ve heard from a lot of Koreans how easy it is for them to learn Japanese. Hopefully you can post something about it when you become more familiar with the language.

  6. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Hi Jan,

    The lack of speaking partners is definitely a challenge. Have you looked up language exchange sites? I did that for a while (work and time zones got in the way), but I did meet some very cool people.

    As for Japanese/Korean differences I have a draft I’m writing to explore more differences and similarities. The biggest difference I have noticed so far is verbs.

  7. I found that when I found myself getting “burnt out” on Japanese is when I really started getting good. That means you are exposed to it so much that it is no longer this new mysterious thing. Also, do you follow Khatzumotos blog? He’s got alot of great stuff in there!

  8. Fiz says:

    I agree that the lack of people to speak the language with is getting to me. I have learnt the language on my own for 4 months now from various websites including TTMIK and I find myself stuck. Although I have memorised and understand and remember the basic grammatical points, I can’t converse well. I can understand Korean dramas without the subtitles but when it come to making my own sentences, I’m stuck and my mind goes blank. I know that I have to speak the language as I learn but no one in my circles of friends and relatives are into it.

    And when I tried to chat in Korean to Korean people or those who are fluent in it, I made a lot of grammatical and spelling mistakes. I’m frustrated.

  9. GlobalSeoulMate says:

    I try to learn korean for 5 months, I watch k-dramas, listen to music the same as you like and cnblue, tvxq, ss501 and also listen to audiowords. I read many facts about Korea but still have big problem with memorizing the words because they are so dificult for me in pronunciation. When I watch kdrama I can understand some words, but I can speak.

  10. What alot of adults don’t know is that speaking a language is the primary skill for learning. Reading and writing is secondary. With that said, I have only been “studying” Korean for about 5 months and I can say my conversation skills are well above my Japanese skills(which I have been self-studying for 1 year and 1 month) because here in West Texas there is oddly a high number of South Korean students. I have befriended many of them and I can tell you that meaningful interaction is the #1 best way of learning a language. You can spend hours cramming yourself with grammar rules but if you arent using them in a meaningful, it is all a waste. Podcast and audiobooks are ok to an extent but there is absolutely no interaction (not even Pimsleur). SO if you are wanting to learn a language, go out and find partners… real life partners, not robot voice on a computer. Good luck in your studies everyone!!

  11. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Hi Everyone,

    Justin M Smith I think you’re definitely on to something about hitting some kind of plateau or some such. I just don’t know where to go from here. Sounds like you’ve been there too. P.S. Sorry for the late reply.

    Fiz: Hello and welcome! 4 months alone won’t be enough exposure. I used that as a starting point for me, but in reality anyone who’s learned a language will tell you need to invest in 10,000 hours of pure exposure. Assuming 16 hours awake, that’s about 2-3 years. :) However, what matters is that every hour/minute counts, even if you can’t see the result. If you stop, you won’t improve.

    GlobalSeoulMate: Hello and welcome! Speaking from experience in learning Japanese through watching endless Disney movies with my daughter, if you encounter vocab/grammar enough times (think hundreds if not thousands of times), you will learn it whether you want to or not. ;) As Khatz from AJATT will tell you, it’s the quantity not the technique that matters most.

    Devon Furbush: Hello and welcome too! I totally agree with you that speaking practice is time well-invested, but exposure goes a long way too. I found when I learned Japense I struggled to communicate and express myself, because there was always this overhead with constructing grammar and such, and sometimes I’d still get it wrong.

    Then I went back and started learning the basics ad nauseum and mainly just exposing myself to how native speakers say it. That helped because I basically just imitated people rather trying to slog through it myself, and helped me express myself more easily.

    Exposure + conversation practice are the best way to go, but if you have to choose one or the other, I’d throw my hat in with exposure (read: 10,000+, to the point of extreme saturation). :)

    Thanks for sharing your experiences. It’s a help to fellow students. :D

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