Saturday, January 14, 2012

Self Study?

My acquaintance Shanna, over at Hangukdrama, asked for a piece on self-studying versus structured studying. So this morning I whipped out the following piece detailing my hideous failures as a self-studier...

One of the remarkable things about Shanna is that she is using (well, til last semester) primarily self-study to learn Korean. I, on the other hand, am the living example of how self-study can be a failure. Which is odd, because in most other arenas, I am a complete self-studier. When I was a webmaster I learned to code all alone in my office. When it came to literature, I just sat in my office, coffee shops, bars and at home, and read. But with language? I am not a self-studier.

I came to Korea over three years ago, and my Korean is still shameful. Prior to leaving I took a few months of Korean at a hagwon in Sunnyvale California, but its classes were inconveniently scheduled, and I had a more than fulltime job. So when I got to Korea, I could say ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ and that was about it.

I did quickly learn to say “Cass오백 씨씨 세요!” but that was about it. So, I bought a Korean textbook and brought it to my little apartment. I opened it once, diligently worked away at the first chapter, memorized about 15 words, then tossed the book on my desk until “the next time.”

The next time was about 10 days later, I could remember none of the vocabulary I had ‘memorized,’ and the work I had done looked like hieroglyphics. So, I plunged in once more, and with three phrases memorized (“nice to meet you for the first time”/ 만나서 반갑습니다 and “goodbye” in two forms depending on who was departing 안녕히 계세요/ 안녕히 가세요). I then marched out into the world and tried to practice my exciting new knowledge.

Alas, this turned out to be harder than I thought. As it turned out, I worked primarily with English speakers (except in the classroom) and even when I met Koreans, it was incredibly artificial to try to force my phrases into conversation. I mean, how often did I really meet someone for the first time? So I might learn a few phrases, but I could rarely use them, practice pronunciation, or learn what the responses to them might be.

I was also in Daejeon, which I will just say, trying to be polite, is not that cosmopolitan, and the natives seemed to have no interest at all in my cruddy Korean. So, I buckled down to reading translated Korean literature, which became my little window on the culture (did I mention my blog at is all about modern Korean literature? Well, now I have.^^)

Next year, I moved to Seoul and repeated the textbook/desk/real-world cycle about three times.

Even when I did sit down with the textbook, I found that I was easily dis--- hey, did you know that you can find streaming NFL games on the internet? And I wonder what my friend Martin is doing right now? Hmmm… do I want a snack? --- tracted.

And when I went out to practice my Korean, I ran into several problems. The first was that I still only had this list of artificial phrases to use, and they were rarely relevant to events in life. I could scarcely use them in real situations. The second problem was where I worked, in the English Interpretation and Translation Department at Dongguk University. The professors and students I worked with were all effusive in offers to help me, but their English was simply too good for this to work out. Everyone in my division is an excellent English speaker and when my Korean faltered, they would just code-switch and, bang(!), we’d be back in English.

As it turned out, cabbies and restaurants DID want to engage me (the lure of easy !) so like many expats, I did self-learn taxi-Korean and some restaurant-Korean.

On occasion I took a tutor, but fitting them into my schedule was difficult and they were expensive. In addition, many of them didn’t really seem to have taught before, and this meant a lot of time was wasted.

I met Steve Revere, whose Korean is brilliant, and he gave me copies of his two “how to learn Korean” books. I repeated the textbook/desk/real-world cycle yet again. And got distracted. And got busy in the translation area. And traveled. And drank. And generally just passed my Korean textbooks as I whisked myself out the door.

I also looked at the many resources on the internet, but as my interest in one waned I would just skip to another, and I couldn’t settle down with any one (or two, or three, or four…..) site and make any progress.

I made one abortive attempt at doing Korean pen-pal with my best friend back in the States (he’s Korean by birth, and bilingual), but as soon as he returned my first email, I just let it sit there, with other emails to answer, and in a language I’m OK at.

As it turns out, I am not a self-learner. The mighty intarwebs (via Wikipedia) says self-learners have these characteristics.

  1. self-observation (monitoring one's activities);
  2. self-judgment (self-evaluation of one's performance) and
  3. self-reactions (reactions to performance outcomes).

To me that first one is all about discipline… watching what you do and scheduling what you do. Let’s just say that I suck at that.

The second one is also problematic for me. Language-learning takes time, and I’m a short-attention-span-theater person. If I study something and don’t see immediate progress? I move to something else that has an immediate payoff, like a popsicle, beer, or watching downloaded episodes of Trailer Park Boys. So in the short term I judged progress (which is the improper scale) as insufficient, and lost the will to continue.

The reaction? I’ve described it above: on to pursuits with quicker results; putting down the textbooks.

Sure, in three years I did learn something’s, but as last semester ended I re-indulged in step 2, and realized that my silly expectations and lack of discipline had conspired to pretty much halt me in my tracks.

Twice, I had entered formal classes in Korean, and in the three weeks that I had stuck with that (Yeah, I know, lame), I had achieved most of my progress. My university did not have me teach a winter-session class this break, and that gave me the opportunity I had been evading. As I type this I am halfway through my first month of formal classes. That is, the first month of formal classes that I will complete. The formal classes impose upon me the discipline I lack, and the instructor’s responses are based on rational calculation of how anyone would be doing two weeks in. If she says I’m doing well, I can ignore the evidence of my lying eyes.^^ This means that steps 1 and 2 of the “self-learning” characteristics are (thankfully) being imposed on me.

In that two weeks I have learned more Korean language (as opposed to vocabulary, a surprising amount of which it turns out I have picked up along the way) than I did in the previous three years combined. Even better? I’m enthusiastic about the process and intend to take two classes next month. In the Spring semester my schedule is a blessing – I will be able to continue my lessons if I choose to.

For the moment, I choose to!

So, while I give mad props to the folks like Ms. Tan, who can buckle down and teach themselves, I have to say that it is bricks and mortar for me.


Anonymous said...

I really relate to that, chaz. With me it is exercise: I have stretching mat, workout tapes, small "bodyfit" stepper, etc. etc. and they lie fallow. I look at them a lot, though.
Now I am enrolled three days a week in a Zumba class which I have attended faithfully since late October -- and I love it, look forward to it, and am definitely improving my health.
Your father was very self-directed. I guess you got my genes.

Anonymous said...

I'm trying to learn some Spanish in advance of our trip to Panama in February.
I'm doing OK, so far--can do the whole: hello, gladtomeetcha, samebackatcha, where'sagoodlocalrestaraunt, orderfood, thanks, bye" thing. My biggest problem is falling into French or Italian and also being overwhelmed by the answers I get. Dan is great at listening comprehension so our brilliant plan is I ask the questions, then he listens and interprets the answers. I think this will work.....


Anonymous said...

so we are in the tile store on the freeway in Brownsville, ordering three?? tiles to finish a project, talking about travel, and as we leave the young man says "merci" and without thinking I say "de nada"
multi lingual or what?
or what, I guess.