Language Learning Journey
I’ve spent the last 480 days learning Korean. I’ve spent 1,500 total hours studying. I had my first conversation last week. This morning I shared my knowledge of Greek mythology with a tutor 6,000 miles away. I leave for Korea in 10 days. It’s been a wild ride.
The story starts as many good stories do, with a lover fated to become the enemy.
You snuck your way onto my phone all those years ago. I fell in love. So easy. So gamified. His name was Duo. I downloaded Duolingo for Spanish as an intellectual exercise and to head-fake my Colombian ancestors. The green owl was the friendly face that invited everyone to begin their language learning journey. I learned nothing. The app lingered on my home screen, the dregs of an ambition long since drank away.
The beginning of my Korean learning journey was with Duolingo. Duo taught me the alphabet. He taught me the word apple. That was all I needed. That was all I got.
I spent my free time in the early days of quarantine watching cooking shows about recipes I’d never cook, reviews of games I’d never play, and drawing tutorials for images I’d never attempt to replicate. I played video games until five in the morning. I’d work. I’d repeat. My brain was melting and starting to ooze out of my ears.
Language Learning YouTube
Eventually, though, the algorithm steered me in a different direction. Duolingo had sat almost fully unused on my phone for a year at this point. I’d forgotten most of the alphabet. I could barely remember the word for apple.
The green owl had let me down, but with YouTube’s help, I had fallen in love again. Not with learning, but rather with the idea of learning. The algorithm was overjoyed to deliver me a plethora of content to excite my fantasy of learning a language and of engaging more deeply with Korea.
Slowly the picture became clearer. Not only should I learn one language; I can learn dozens. I’ll unlock a new social world with strangers. I’ll become famous for speaking Korean or just learning it. I’ll become a student of Korean culture. I’ll master Korean cooking. I’ll become more intelligent, stave off dementia, and become a far more attractive mate. Thanks, YouTube.
No End In Sight
I spent the pandemic largely distracting myself with other people’s lives and wallowing while my life was put on pause. Not much changed in the last year and a half, I just decided to distract myself with language learning instead.
Spanish was too easy. I was seeking a challenge that would demand my full attention and test my willpower. I wanted anything to focus on besides the overwhelming feeling that the precious years of my youth were slowly draining away doomscrolling and playing forgettable video games. At least something hard would feel real. I’d already learned the alphabet on Duolingo a year prior so it was time to commit to Korean.
Little did I know what I was in for. A love affair. An addiction. A transcendent experience. A life-affirming commitment. An unpaid full-time job.
Somewhere in the deluge of language learning content, I found Pimsleur, a set of recorded lessons to learn the basics of a language.. Pimsleur would be my next step.
For 30 days I sat alone in a room and repeated sentences I didn’t understand to myself while pacing. It was uncomfortable and it was ineffective, but it was a habit. It was a start.
Matt v. Japan
After my 30-minute sessions of repeating inscrutable nonsense to myself in the dark, I would keep chasing the rabbit. No longer would polyglots and generic advice suffice, I wanted to see someone who had done the thing, had crossed the chasm and could converse in a foreign language like a native. YouTube offered him up to me on a silver algorithmic platter: Matt vs. Japan.
Matt had been part of the AJATT movement, a community of online learners who eschewed all of the traditional language learning advice in favor of the methodology set forth by Khatzumoto, informed by the research findings of linguist Stephen Krashen.
Matt had learned Japanese to a near-native level almost exclusively by watching, listening to, and reading in Japanese what he would have been watching, listening to, and reading in English (his native language) anyway. Just do what you want to do – an alluring prospect. Every way I had learned a language before had been to read what I didn’t want to read, memorize vocabulary I’d never use, and wrestle with conjugations in a vacuum. Matt was now sharing the lessons of his journey through a language learning methodology he coined as The Refold Method.
I was willing to dive deeper. So I did. I studied his Refold Roadmap like it was my bible. I joined his online community and sought mentorship and guidance from more veteran Refolders.
It seemed like it was working for people. And one man’s hypothesis lay at the heart of it all.
A question inevitably surfaced: Who was this Stephen Krashen character?
Stephen Krashen’s ideas were the scientific and philosophical core of a whole host of language learning methodologies that countered what he identified as the “skill-building hypothesis.”. Skill-building understands language as math and language learning as learning each independent skill necessary to solve each linguistic equation. His “input hypothesis” flew in the face of the prevailing wisdom in academia. The input hypothesis understands language learning to occur only when messages are understood by a learner. Each time a learner comprehends a message (an input) their internal model of the language strengthens and they are better able to understand the next input and eventually produce it.
All context makes input more comprehensible and gets the learner closer to the moment where it clicks. Where a message is comprehended as it was intended in its delivery.
Tone, visuals, hand gestures, facial expression, plot, vocab, and grammar; all are just levers to pull for the sake of comprehensibility. When a message clicks, it clicks. That’s the only way to learn.
So, as Matt vs. Japan and his AJATT contemporaries would have it, the solution is to just inundate yourself with messages. So I did just that.
I force-fed myself massive amounts of input in pursuit of that click.
I drowned myself in input.
I exposed myself to on average, four hours of Korean a day for a year.
I watched 43 TV shows (Korean Dramas, Translated Cartoons, and Reality Television) and 47 movies, read some beginner textbooks and some webcomics.
Every time I encountered a sentence where I knew every word but 1, I would generate a flashcard of that sentence highlighting the target word.
Today I have 6,678 flashcards. I’ve reviewed those cards 76,000 times.
Crescendo (16 hour day) to 1 Year
As I approached one year of learning I became increasingly antsy, excited, and anxious. One Friday, I came upon an open weekend, I decided to put myself to the test. Could I immerse myself in Korean for every waking hour? That day, I spent 16 hours studying Korean. Every waking moment.
That weekend, I spent 36.5 hours on Korean.
I was beginning to lose my mind. I crossed a year and my world fell apart. I’d dedicated more than 1400 hours to Korean at that point. A year of my life. And I still felt I was years away from being able to have a conversation.
I went from averaging four hours a day to averaging 10 minutes a day.
I never lost the habit, but it was a moment of forced reflection. What else in my life had fallen aside while I was pursuing fluency at all costs?
Retreat to Steady State
My method needed to change. Luckily the intensity of my studies had provided me with a tremendous gift. At one year in I could finally enjoy the content I wanted to consume for my own entertainment and development. Certainly not at the same speed or rate of comprehension as English but enough to properly enjoy a novel, movie, or show.
Thus began the new era. No more force-feeding. I now just followed my curiosity.
In this new era, I read the first three Harry Potter books in Korean, reading when I wanted to read, before bed, in the park, on the plane, anywhere.
I bought my first paper book in Korean that I would have read in English otherwise.
I was living my life how I would naturally and when a piece of Korean content sparked my interest, I would enjoy it, pressure-free.
Just as I crested onto this new wave, a new challenge arrived.
I’ll be the first person to land in Korea once they lift the quarantine. - Me
You know they’re lifting the quarantine tomorrow, right? - My Therapist
Oh shit. - Also Me
Korea lifted its mandatory quarantine, the artificial limit I had been using as an excuse to avoid having to put my abilities to the test.
I got a phone call from my friend just weeks after the quarantine was lifted. “Do you want to go to Korea on June 3rd?”
Of course, I do.
The excitement faded fast and that familiar antsy anxiety set in.
I can’t speak Korean. I never have.
I knew I wasn’t comfortable enough to pester a stranger or to take time from a friend. So I turned to Italki for a tutor.
In 2 weeks, I attended 15 tutoring sessions.
All in Korean.
30-minute long conversations about my story, my life, my interests, history, mythology. I’d been sitting on a year’s worth of learnings that had gone unspoken, unactivated.
Speaking allowed me to see for real the progress I had made. It allowed me to connect with others. It gave me the confidence to make mistakes. It empowered me to undertake this next adventure.
I leave for Korea in two weeks because I was bored a year and a half ago, because I formed the smallest habit I could and because I pushed as hard as I could.
The most important lesson I learned was how to learn. I learned how to do hard things. The way that doing hard things is uniquely hellish and uniquely easy.
It was as simple:
- building the small habits to get the big things done
- controlling my environment (digital and physical) so that it serves me, not the other way around
- tracking my progress over time for accountability, inspiration, and motivation
- celebrating the little wins with a community and using community to hold myself accountable
So what’s next?
I guess I’ll just keep pushing.
In fact, I already have. I applied this same set of principles to a whole new set of goals:
- Climbing Kintsugi in Red Rock Canyon, Nevada
- Moving people to action with my words
- Mastering a handstand
- Running a marathon
When learning Korean begins to bore me, it’ll be time to tackle Spanish head-on. My ancestors can settle back down into their graves (I believe they are rolling in them while I still talk like a gringo).
If you just want to learn Korean, or any language for that matter, start with Refold, they’ll take care of you: https://refold.la/roadmap/