Story by: Sun Hyun-woo, Photos by: James Kim
If you ask people “Why are you learning Korean?” or “Why do you want to learn Korean?” the answers will vary: Some might want to learn because they love K-pop, some want to communicate with Korean friends or family, while others live in Korea and feel it would be useful to speak more Korean instead of relying on English all the time. Whatever the reason may be, and no matter how impossible it may seem, as long as you have a clear idea of what you want to accomplish and apply some intrinsic motivation, you will succeed.
What I’ve found most interesting is that the more clear-cut a person’s reason or goal for learning Korean, or any language, the more likely they are to learn successfully. Learning a language without pinpointing a specific reason is certainly possible, but without a big picture, vision or clear purpose in mind, other things will get in the way and it will never be a top priority. This is a very common problem that I see among Korean people who want to learn English; they feel the need to learn English “just because” — just because everyone else is learning it or just because they feel it will be useful one day. Such a vague goal only hinders the learning experience, causing a lack of motivation, which leads to never learning to read or speak.
Everyone learns an incredible amount of new things every day. Some things are simpler and quicker to learn than others, and some are more complicated subjects that can take years of learning and practice. For certain things, such as using a camera, riding a bike, or making scrambled eggs, the required learning period is fairly short. A person learns to use a camera because they want to take pictures. Why does a person spend time learning to ride a bike? Perhaps getting from one place to another more quickly than by walking is a priority. Why learn to cook scrambled eggs? Perhaps someone in the family wants to eat them for breakfast. Although it is impossible to learn to do any of these things without some sort of a learning process, the purpose is simple and crystal clear.
Apply the same principle to learning a language: Have a clear goal in mind for
learning. Sure, the process is much more complicated than learning to use a camera, and the required amount of time and effort is much greater, but the task becomes much more manageable if the big picture, or the main goal, is broken into bite-sized chunks, otherwise known as short-term goals.
Let’s say, for example, that you want to complete an Ironman Triathlon. You will need to swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles and then run a full marathon of 26.2 miles. I hate to break it to you, but there’s no way you can just get up off the couch today and successfully complete an Ironman Triathlon without having previously trained for it. Surely you can try, but if you try too much all at once, you will ultimately have a hard time, get frustrated and you might even nearly drown, pass out or throw up a kidney. To combat this, you set short-term goals so that you will be training hard every day to build up your stamina and endurance.
Swimming 2.4 miles won’t happen by swimming a couple laps once a week. First you need to learn to swim properly, and then start training to build endurance, increase your training to swim half a mile, eventually complete a 1-mile swim without stopping and so on. It might take a long time and be quite demanding, but the success of reaching your short-term goals make it more fun and motivating to continue. If you ask any aspiring triathlete, “Why do you train so hard every day?” chances are they have some sort of intrinsic motivation to keep training, such as wanting to reach the finish line or break their own personal record.
The same goes for learning Korean. With intrinsic motivation and a clear vision, you will be able to break down your main goal into short-term goals. You don’t need a 12-page plan detailing exactly how you are going to accomplish your goals, but if you’re that type of person, then by all means make one! Scaling the huge, steep mountain that is the Korean language is a much more doable task when you know where to start climbing.
If you are interested in learning Korean or are already learning, do you have a long-term goal? A clear-cut reason? Below are some examples of some great and specific reasons why people learn Korean.
How does yours match up?
“I want to speak to my Korean friends in Korean”
Instead of saying, “I want to speak Korean to some Korean people someday, but I don’t know when that’s going to happen,” knowing exactly who you want to talk to gives a better, clearer reason for learning the language.
“I want to talk to my spouse’s family in Korean”
Knowing exactly who you want to speak with gives you an opportunity to work on a very specific set of words and expressions, making the processes much simpler.
“The job I want requires that I speak fluent Korean”
If speaking Korean can help you in your current job in Korea, or if you picture yourself working in Korea someday, then studying Korean is an obvious first step.
“I want to watch Korean movies and understand them without subtitles”
Korean movies are fantastic, and it is safe to say that you will only understand everything if you speak nearly perfect Korean. It’s not necessary to study for exams and fluency certificates if this is your main purpose, so start small. Learn some basic vocabulary and phrases, which you will continually build upon as you progress through your studies. You’ll be understanding every Park Chan-wook movie in no time.
“I just want to understand the lyrics in Korean songs”
If this is your main reason for learning Korean, there are a few hundred (overused) Korean words and expressions in Korean songs, so make the most of your effort by breaking down the lyrics to learn vocabulary and common expressions.
“Just for fun”
After reading the reasons above, you might think that it’s a bad thing if your reason for learning Korean is “just for fun.” However, learning Korean just for fun is absolutely fine as long as you know and remember that you are just learning it for fun. Learning is fun, but if you are feeling more stressed about not being able to study or practice much, then perhaps you are not learning it for fun anymore and need to find a new reason.
People say that it is important to have fun while learning, and while that’s entirely true, it doesn’t have to apply only when you are learning just for fun. For some, having fun while studying or preparing for a job interview in Korean is just as much fun as dancing around the house while singing a K-pop song into a hairbrush.
If you haven’t really given much thought to your reason for learning Korean before reading this article, I challenge you to spend a little time today coming up with a specific reason and writing it down. Post it in a place where you can see it every day. Let it motivate you to keep training your brain for victory. What you need to do next — or even right now — is up to you, but can you clearly answer the question, “Why are you learning Korean?”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sun Hyun-woo works for Talk To Me In Korean, a website and community that offers free Korean-language lessons. In a little more than three years, it has built a following that numbers in the hundreds of thousands. Learning Korean may not be easy, but if you find a way to make it fun and exciting, you’ll get more out of it and learn faster. Talk To Me In Korean will submit a monthly column on studying Korean. — Ed.