I am always poking around for the latest tip or trick on how to learn Korean. After awhile, I end up swimming with a bunch of ideas, not sure where to start and wondering whether anything is useful at all.
When a friend of mine, a polyglot of over 4 languages (including Japanese, German and Mandarin), offered to answer a few questions about learning languages to give me a better idea – I had to write this post.
Who better to teach us how to study Korean than a polyglot?
Enter: The polyglot friend (PF)
Ben: Hey mate. Thanks for being open to more than a few questions about learning languages.
It really does help a lot to learn more from someone who has done this more than once.
Just to give everyone a bit of context, how did you get into language learning in the first place?
PF: My first contact with foreign languages was in secondary school in Australia. Australians are usually a pretty monolingual bunch, but the school I was at had significant percentage of first and second generation immigrants, primarily from Asia.
I remember being 16 and marveling at the fact that these kids could come to school every day and speak regular English, then head home and speak a completely different language with their family. This seemed impossible for someone like me, and I thought they were the smartest kids in the world.
I had chosen Japanese as my compulsory language elective (I do not remember why) and continued it to graduation, and when my teacher offered me the opportunity to go to countryside Japan to do a year of Japanese school, I jumped on it.
I accepted without really thinking and was thrown into the deep end in a regular old Japanese school with a family that spoke no English. That’s how my journey began.
Ben: Wow. So how did you go about learning Japanese from barely knowing any at all? What has been your approach to learning languages that you could suggest to people learning Korean?
PF: There are a million and one ways to go about studying a language. All of them work, to some degree.
The problem has more to do with working out which methods are the most effective.
The best thing you can do is put yourself in a situation in which you absolutely need the language you are studying. Total immersion.
This worked well for me, for example, in Japan: I was at school talking to my classmates from 8:30am to 6pm or later every day of the week, and chatting with my Japanese family the rest of the time. I had no option to speak English.
In Germany, on the other hand, immersion was more difficult.
I was in a university full of students from all over the world – everyone spoke English. I had neither a German family to go home and practice with nor was I surrounded by native German classmates all day.
In fact, the best thing I ever did for my German was enroll in a Korean class – I was able to practice more German with native speakers than in any of my German-for-foreigners courses.
Total immersion in Japan was tough, but totally worth it. Uni life in Germany was much easier, but I really had to work to create opportunities to practice speaking.
If you are able to totally immerse yourself and “throw yourself into the deep end,” I recommend you do so. Getting a girlfriend/boyfriend who doesn’t speak English is also immensely helpful, if you can.
As far as concrete study methods go, I’ll narrow it down to one that has always worked well for me: Flashcards.
I make thousands and thousands of flashcards covering absolutely every new thing I come across when studying a language. I go through my stack every day and don’t throw any flashcard away until I’ve gotten it right for a week in a row.
In the end, a language is nothing more than a collection of words, and the more words you know, the better you will get.
Ben: Wow, there are so many gems in there. Thanks!
For those of you looking for an alternative way to use flashcards, I wrote a post about how I implemented PF’s advice on learning vocabulary here.
I know a lot of people find grammar boring and difficult to learn. What do you suggest?
PF: The best thing about grammar is that it, unlike vocabulary, is limited. You are never going to learn every single word in any given language, but you can only learn so many grammar patterns before you’ve mastered them all.
As for how, the approach depends on the language.
If it’s a Germanic/Romance language like English, most of the grammar patterns will be pretty similar and you can teach it to yourself with any textbook or website.
If it’s something else, you will probably need some sort of teacher to explain the different grammar patterns to you.
YouTube is a great resource for this, but it’s always best to have a teacher you can actually ask questions to and interact with.
(Note: Regular native speakers who aren’t teachers are pretty terrible at explaining the grammar of their own language and you’re likely to confuse yourself even more by asking them, so try to stick with real teachers if you can.)
After you’ve learnt the grammar patterns, you need to see them in action to give them context.
It’s all well and good to know grammar, but it’s pretty worthless if you don’t know when to use what. For this, you just need to listen to people, watch TV and read plenty, keeping an eye/ear out for the grammar you have learnt.
Ben: Gotcha. That’s a great point of view in that grammar is limited, I feel a bit more motivated now myself.
In your time studying languages, what do you see as some common misconceptions?
PF: Any product claiming to be able to teach you a language to “fluency” in some absurdly short period of time is almost certainly a lie.
Learning a language requires time and effort and anyone who says otherwise is trying to scam you.
Additionally, there is a lot of confusion around what the term “fluent” means. I’m sure you’ll often hear the phrase “Have you met Sally? She speaks five languages!” over the course of your studies, but beware: This could mean anything from “Sally knows the word for beer in five languages” or “Sally can understand some basic phrases when spoken slowly in five languages,” all the way up to “Sally is a fucking boss and speaks five languages as if they were her mother tongue.” But it’s rarely the latter.
Also, don’t get discouraged by the “Euroglots” who speak [Italian/French/Spanish/Portuguese] or [Danish/Swedish/Norwegian] – when compared to the crazy variance of other languages around the world, these are basically just different dialects of the same tongue.
Most Spanish people, for example, understand Italian and Portuguese reasonably well without ever having to pick up a textbook, and Danish is basically drunk Norwegian.
Ben: In the end, do you think being a polyglot has changed how you think or approach life?
PF: I actually decided to go to Spain and learn Spanish specifically for this: I’m the complete opposite of the passionate, energetic Spanish stereotype, and I wanted to give myself the chance to see the world from such a perspective.
I think being able to speak the language of a certain country gives you an understanding of that country’s culture that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to have, which in turn gives you a completely new perspective from which to view the world.
Ben: Awesome, thanks PF. These were my burning questions so I really appreciate you took the time to answer them (I guess you’ve been asked already a thousand times).
That’s all for now folks but if you have any other questions for PF, feel free to drop them in the comments below and I’ll reach out to see if he can give some more answers!