I am by no means an authority on this subject, but because I have been spending all my free time lately studying Korean, I figure it would be a pretty good time to consider the ways in which I work to improve.
I spend so many hours each week studying Korean. I have more than half a notebook filled with notes I have taken from different websites and apps, and I am always adding to it. Even when I listen to Korean music or watch Korean shows, I try to think of how I could write certain words in Hangul or I pick out phrases I recognize.
For example, in a song by my favorite group, one line says 난 부산에서, which I knew meant “I’m from Busan” because I had read the English translation of the lyrics, but now that I am learning it for myself, I can actually understand it without a translation.
It is an incredible feeling when you can understand something for yourself, and I become so overjoyed when I can pick out phrases and sentences for which I don’t need a translation.
Whether you’re learning Korean or Spanish or English, practice is definitely important. Reading and rereading notes and studying for hours means nothing if you never speak it. Perhaps you’ll be great at reading the language (That’s how I am with Spanish.), but you will never be able to speak it if you don’t practice.
Small bits of practice can be good if you don’t have a conversation partner. Sing songs in the language you’re learning; read books and example sentences aloud. The author of the blog that I read and from which I take notes uploaded recordings of himself speaking the example sentences, so I can actually work on my pronunciation and accent.
Find a Partner
This sort of falls under the Practice category, but I felt it needed its own separate description, as well.
Firstly, I will say this: Do not be rude. If you want one of your friends to help you with the language, do not make your relationship just about that. Even if it’s just a person that shops where you work or someone at a restaurant you frequent, you can’t just talk about the language with them. They will feel like they’re being used or that you are only interested in them because they know something you want to know.
However, if the opportunity presents itself, you are more than welcome to interact with people in that language – as long as you set boundaries.
Today one of my good friends told a native Korean speaker about what I have been doing, and she spoke to me a bit in Korean. It was the first time I have ever spoken to someone in Korean, and she gave me a bit of advice on one of the two things I said. She was very kind and actually was the one who wanted to meet me.
I was so nervous, but at the same time, I was so unbelievably grateful for the opportunity, and I am even more fired up about this than I was before.
Practice is obviously very important, but speaking with someone who knows the language fluently and can give advice is significantly better than talking to yourself. Even if you’re just speaking sporadically with random people or you’re Skyping a pen pal, it will be extremely helpful to have chances to speak with people who know the language.
Music and TV shows and movies exist in all sorts of languages, and many of them will also have slang and commonly-spoken terms for that culture. You can pick up on certain aspects of the culture, and while you are watching or listening, you can see if you understand what the people are saying without a translation. It’s a good way to quiz yourself while becoming more familiar with the culture.
Do Not Translate!
This is difficult for me personally because when I took notes in high school Spanish, I would immediately translate everything to English. That was a horrible way to learn because it forced a halt in my understanding because I would have to stop whenever I heard something and translate it to English. Then I would consider what I wanted to respond in English and translate it to Spanish, which became so difficult and makes it nearly impossible to have an actual conversation.
I know it’s difficult. Trust me, I know, but directly translating every time is not good.
It is better to have a general understanding of things than to know exactly what each word means.
An even better option is to put yourself in a foreign language frame of mind and force yourself not to translate. ChonunMigookSaram describes it as considering the foreign word as an alternate word for the English one, in the same way that we learn synonyms. We consider “go” and “move” as synonyms, and she proposes that we view 가다 as another word for “go” in the same way.
I started doing that, and it has honestly helped so much.
Keep a Notebook
You will often hear phrases or words that you do not know. Carrying a notebook and writing down the word will be a big help, and if you manage to learn what it means from context clues, writing it down will help you remember it. If you don’t know the meaning, you can always look it up later, and next time it comes up, you will know what it means.
This one is kind of a blanket tip, but it’s the most important.
Don’t expect to speak a new language well with sheer willpower.
That won’t work.
While it’s not absolutely necessary to study from Rosetta Stone or websites or anything of that sort, it is important to practice. You have to speak it and practice and step outside of your comfort zone in order to achieve anything, and even if it makes you nervous or embarrassed, you just have to remember that nobody just wakes up and knows a new language.
There are also more people who will be kind to you than will make fun of you for trying to speak another language. Many native speakers will be happy to speak with you and give you tips if you just ask.
I was terrified to speak Korean for the first time, but I am so happy that I tried because I learned something new and met a woman who was very sweet and excited for me.
Don’t be afraid.