Some Observations on Trying to Learn a New Language

When I told my American friends and co-workers that I was moving to Korea, they often expressed fear about having to learn a new language. It didn’t make much sense to me. For starters, so many of them were bilingual, though I suppose they had picked both up as children, and, also, if we wanted to talk about fear, America has a lot of places beat. Like, these motherfuckers watched the same mass shooting safety video at work as I did, felt the same damn earthquakes, smelled the same fires while looking up at the same orange sky, and how about that guy who just got pepper-sprayed in the cereal aisle? But I’m supposed to be afraid of a new alphabet? I’ll take my chances.

Now, that’s not to say learning a new language is easy. And, yeah, it’s intimidating. One suddenly becomes illiterate. That can be difficult. In some ways, it’s like learning to swim. And like learning to swim, a lot of people think it’s easier for children.

It might be. I have my doubts. These little humans come out of the womb trying to learn, needing to learn, and it still seems to take them years before they start making any goddamn sense. The ease with which we learn as children learn seems like a myth propagated by people who forgot how hard it was to learn anything. Hell, it took me a morning to learn to spell CAT and DOG. I can remember that morning. For some reason, I found CAT hard to spell than DOG. It was a long morning. But worth it. I think.

All I’m saying is that having to learn a new language isn’t something to be afraid of. It’s an opportunity. That probably does make it scary. The only thing more terrifying than opportunity is freedom. It might be why not having a choice helps. I mean, if you combine opportunity with the freedom not to bother, you just get laziness. But, if you have no choice, opportunity seems a lot less risky and a lot more promising.

But where I think children have an advantage in learning a language is that they can’t afford a lot of pride about it. This is what I think the fear comes from. Adults are afraid of making an ass of themselves. (Sometimes, frankly, they should be more afraid.) We gain a certain dignity (at least, we’re supposed to) and we aim to protect it. Trying to speak a new language is a lot of things but it’s not dignified. Unlike a child, you can’t just babble with words that sort of sound like the language you’re trying to speak until you stumble across the right ones and someone applauds. Not only is applause in short supply for adults, we also have rules about doing that sort of thing. (Good rules too!) There’s also certain time constraints. The grave is always creeping closer. Children don’t need to worry about any of that. They have no manners. They have no pride. Some of them have never even heard of death! These little bastards will make asses of themselves all day long if you let them. That’s probably how they learn so much.

In trying to learn Hanegul, I’m also trying to overcome pride. I have to be fine with using the wrong words, making an idiot of myself, and not making much sense. That’s pretty easy. Really, it’s a lot like writing a novel. (Or a blog post.)

I’m also trying to overcome is a love of fluency. One kind of wants to start off perfect. They think of fluent speakers and hope to be that. It’s a goal, I suppose, but it’s also overwhelming. You get afraid of saying anything because you might say the wrong thing. That just means you learn nothing. It’s hard to pitch if a perfect game is your only goal and your only measurement of success. You just have to throw the fucking ball.

As long as you’re on the mound, that’s all you have to do.

You will not be on the mound forever. Death is coming. You will be pulled from the game. Before you go, you will sit on the bench and watch all that you’ve built and worked for turn to ash. Cheers!

Like a kid, you can’t be afraid of mutating the language. Languages are tools to communicate with. If you have to shave part of the tool off or bend it to do what you need to, that’s just how it works. That’s how languages change, grow, and adapt.

Right now, fluency is no sort of problem of mine. I’m just starting to learn how to read. I’m learning a few words every day and trying to memorize them. Picking up a few basic things to say and saying them. Like hello, goodbye, thank-you, left and right, spicy, and that’s good. You know, the simple shit you need. Manners, directions, food. Asking where things are. That sort of thing.

Just doing that much requires the sort of psychological adjustments that I’m talking about –getting into the notion of yourself as moron– and it’s also taken some work. I can’t take classes yet, since I need to wait for some paperwork to arrive by sea. (This is taking some time and the typhoons aren’t helping. If the weather is any indication, I’ve somehow made an enemy of Poseidon.) While I wait, I’m trying to teach myself.

Hangeul is an easy alphabet. To help me learn to read it, I’m watching Deep Space 9 with Korean subtitles. That show has some words that won’t be translated – names like Odo and Kira, that I can spell and sound out and have learned to spot. These act as guideposts and, as I’m searching for them in the subtitles, I’m picking up other things and increasing my reading speed too. It’s helping. Or it was until New Dax showed up. Swear to God, I cannot handle New Dax. She was bad then and aged worse.

The other thing is just trying to speak it. These days, with the phones and all that, there’s an unfortunate tendency for people to go straight to the translation software. This stuff has some limited utlity. But it also has a problem. Half the time, when everyone is looking at their phone, the thing could have been figured out through pointing, context, and commonsense, with everyone picking up a couple of new words along the way. Phones are the fucking enemy. They just create a barrier.

Humans have been meeting other humans speaking other languages for as long as there’s been humans. Trying to talking to strangers in strange tongues is probably one of the most human of experiences. Translation is a foundation of culture. We’ve muddled through all that pretty well. Communication is not a problem in search of a technical solution. It’s an experience. It’s a challenge. But it’s not a problem. It’s part of how we become who we are. In other words, it’s fine. It doesn’t need a phone. It doesn’t require fixing. It just needs learning. And learning is good for it’s own sake.