My name is The English Teacher. The English Teacher has a question for The Korean. The English Teacher read the Korean's recent post about the interesting 바보 Ray. In that post, The Korean said that he came to America at the age of 16, without knowing English. The English Teacher can judge by The Korean's prose that his written English is for all intents and purposes, perfect (unless The Korean employs an editor to raise said prose, which The English Teacher thinks is unlikely). The English Teacher wonders about The Korean's spoken English. Do people know that The Korean is a non-native speaker when they hear him talk? If so, how noticeable is The Korean's accent? How old is The Korean, if he doesn't mind The English Teacher asking?
As a teacher of English to Korean high-school students, The English Teacher is merely curious about how much he can expect from his students, and what he can tell his students when they ask how much improvement they will see if they go to the US to study English.
The English Teacher
Dear English Teacher,
The Korean is very happy to see the third-person speak catching on. It is the Korean’s wish to have AAK! sounding like a discussion among enlightened pro wrestlers.
But yes, the Korean did come to America at the age of 16 years and 8 months. He is now 28 years and 10 months old. But saying he came “without knowing English” is an exaggeration, since the Korean received regular English education in Korean public schools before he came to the U.S. (Although many readers would know that does not mean a whole lot.)
And no, AAK! does not have a copy editor. (But that does not stop the grammarians from emailing the Korean with grammatical mistakes in his post. Keep them coming!) As to the Korean’s spoken English, you can be the judge. Here is an interview that the Korean did with UCLA radio about Barack Obama’s election. People who hear the Korean have said that he has a West Coast accent, characterized by slightly slower speech and a stronger r sound. The Korean also has a fairly obvious Korean American inflection. (Not a Korean accent, mind you – those who have spoken to many second generation Korean Americans know what the Korean is talking about.)
Map of American dialects, based on the PBS special Do You Speak American?
To give a self-assessment, the fact that he learned English relatively late still subtly bothers the Korean in certain situations. The Korean has a really hard time reading people’s handwritings unless they are extremely neat, because he just has not seen enough of them growing up. Also, he often stumbles on scientific/medical terms that persons with his education would generally know. (For example, the Korean can never remember which leg bone is the “femur”.) Idioms give the Korean a hard time as well – it took him years to figure out what the phrase “cut the cheese” meant. The Korean still hates talking on the phone in English because he has to concentrate extra hard compared to speaking face-to-face. Careful readers of AAK! also may have noticed that the Korean still slips up on the usages of articles and prepositions.
But in the grand scheme of things, all of the foregoing are just minor annoyances. The Korean obviously feels pretty comfortable in English, and he rarely has a difficult time expressing any concept in English.
Would the English Teacher’s students be able to do what the Korean did? The Korean thinks they can, although it won’t be easy. The Korean will describe his English acquisition below. Despite his commendation of the third-person speak in the beginning, the Korean will now switch to first person – because this process was a rather personal affair.
How the Korean learned English, and the Korean’s guaranteed method of achieving fluency in another language, after the jump.
Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Process of the Korean’s English Acquisition
It must be first said that I am not a genius. Far, far from it. All my life I have been an A-minus student – decent, not brilliant. This was true in elementary school, middle school and high school in Korea, as well as in college and graduate school in the U.S. Nor did I ever attend a foreign school (like Seoul International School, for example,) where instructions were given in English. I went to a regular Korean elementary, middle and high school, receiving regular public school English education that any other Korean student received.
(Aside: the only time I was better than an A-minus student was during the 2.5 years in my high school in California, when I could not speak English for half of that time. And it’s not as if my school was a bad one with low expectations either. If that’s not an indictment against the deplorable state of K-12 education in America, I don’t know what is. The reverse of my situation – a 16-year-old American coming to Korea and getting straight A’s without knowing Korean at first – could never, ever, ever happen. Ever.)
Nor was I situated in an environment that was particularly conducive to English learning by immersion. According to the 2000 census, my town in California has the highest percentage of Asian Americans in the continental United States – an incredible 62.5 percent. (I attended University of California, Berkeley – which “only” had 48 percent Asian Americans – and thought the school was infested with white people.) There was – and is – absolutely no need to speak English anywhere in my town. I might as well have lived in Korea and attended a foreign school. There are four huge Korean supermarkets in our small, 55,000-resident city. Korean restaurants of all kinds are everywhere. My brother and I would play a game we improvised, called: “What is in Korea that is not in our town?” The only thing that we could come up with was a go parlor (giwon). Sure enough, a go parlor opened several months later, much to the delight of my father, a huge go fan. My school was filled with many, many Korean speakers who staked out their own corner in the schoolyard to hang out among themselves, speaking Korean. It was a hard task to avoid them intentionally for the sake of learning English. To this day, I have few friends from my time in high school.
(Luckily, being at a Korean-heavy school meant that my high school had a Korean-speaking biology teacher, who graded the quiz on behalf of my regular biology teacher. I scored 100 percent on that quiz – the only one in the class to do so. Did I mention American high schools are soft?)
I organized the cards into bundles of 50 cards. I memorized a set until I got everything right without regard to the order of the cards, then moved onto the next set. When I completed five bundles, I re-did the entire five bundles before moving onto the next. Within a year, I did not even need the flashcards for the initial bundles – I could recite them all by heart, backwards and forwards, with words matching the definition. Boxes upon boxes filled a wall in my room. By the time I graduated, I memorized more than 30,000 words.
I also needed to be able to listen and speak. To develop speaking and listening, I watched at least 3 hours of television every day. God bless the closed caption, and the endless reruns of The Simpsons, Home Improvement and Full House – I had the caption on, and mouthed the word exactly as they sounded like. I said the difficult words over and over again until I got them right. (It took years to get “girl” and “rhythm” right.) I got into the habit of talking aloud to myself to make sure what my speech sounded right. (I still do this often, which initially creeped out my fiancée.)
I can still recite a number of Simpsons episode by heart because I repeated them so many times.
Then came reading and writing. I began by reading my favorite books that were available in English, starting with Les Miserables, then Brothers Karamazov. Even after I built a decent-sized mental storage of vocabularies, I still had trouble reading a long sentence with a complex structure. Well then – you can guess what’s coming. Whenever I had trouble deciphering a sentence, I wrote it down and memorized it whole. Whenever I had a chance to write, I tried to incorporate the new sentence structure I learned, plugging in different vocabularies that I memorized.
I did all this for roughly two years. (By the last semester of my senior year I no longer felt the necessity.)
I dislike being immodest, but the description above about my efforts would be meaningless if I did not discuss how far my efforts took me. I became an assistant editor of my high school’s very competitive journalism program in my senior year. My Spanish teacher wrote for me a gushing letter of recommendation, noting that I knew neither Spanish nor English when she first met me but I was her best student by the end of the semester. I graduated as a salutatorian, with a single B-plus on my high school transcript. I took SAT I almost exactly one year after I came to America. I scored 1590, with 800 in math and 790 in verbal. I was admitted to a number of elite colleges, and chose to attend University of California, Berkeley. At Berkeley and afterwards, I had no need to study English the way I did during my high school years, except for the occasional “femur”s that still bedevil me. In other words, I went from basic English skills to college-level English proficiency in two years.
The Myth of “Fun, Immersive Language Learning”
Switching back to the third person...
The Korean knows that gaining this level of proficiency at this speed does not happen often, and many language students fail trying to achieve what he achieved. Again, the Korean is not a genius. Then what was the difference?
Looking back, the Korean can think of two things that set him apart. First is motivation. The Korean Parents – particularly the Korean Father – abandoned many great things he had in Korea for us to move to America. Now that the Korean has had several years of career, he can truly appreciate the magnitude of the sacrifice the Korean Father made for the education of the Korean Brother and the Korean. Even as a relatively ignorant 16-year-old, the Korean Parents’ sacrifice was obvious. The Korean had to succeed, because a failure would be the ultimate insult to the Korean Parents. The Korean understands that this factor is not easily replicated with other students – while many students are motivated, few would consider it a matter of life and death as the Korean did.
But the second factor, in the Korean’s opinion, can be replicated relatively easily with other students of language. The second factor that set the Korean apart was this – not for one second did he buy into the myth of “fun, immersive language learning.” Instead, the Korean structured his language learning entirely around rote memorization and repetition – the methods that are often renounced by many language teachers and students.
The myth of “fun, immersive language learning” usually takes on this narrative: “Children learn their first language nearly effortlessly. They do this by being constantly surrounded by the new language. So when learning a second language, you must surround yourself with that second language, with emphasis on a lot of listening and speaking. (Because children do not pick up their first language from books.) Once you are immersed the second language, you will pick up that language as if through osmosis.”
Innumerable language-learning books, software and curricula were created pursuant to this philosophy. It seems to make sense, because we all know at least one language, and we think we remember how we learned it. The philosophy also has an irresistible appeal of inertia – without having to actively learn, one can pick up a very useful skill simply by sitting around and absorbing.
But this is wrong, all wrong. It is wrong mostly because it is fundamentally based on an erroneous assumption -- that an adolescent/adult can learn a language the same way as a child can.
Harvard professor Steven Pinker’s best selling book, The Language Instinct, shows just how wrong that assumption is. (If you are interested in language, The Language Instinct is a must-read. Heck, it is a must-read even if you are not interested.) The central theorem of The Language Instinct is that humans are born with a capability for language that we lose after a certain age. This innate capability for language affects all aspects of language, namely: sound, vocabularies, syntax/grammar.
Seriously, just read this book. You will thank the Korean later.
First, sound. Pinker describes an experiment where certain sounds were played to 6-month-old infants while they were sucking on a bottle. One could tell if the infants detected a change in sounds by observing how vigorously they were sucking on the bottle. (If they were sucking on a bottle at a speed of 1, for example, they sucked on the bottle at the speed of 2 when something around them changed. Over time, they gradually go back to the speed of 1, until something else changed.) For example, the tape recorder droned on with ba ba ba… for several minutes, then would change to pa, pa, pa… Sure enough, infants would suck more vigorously when the sound changed.
Astonishingly, the 6-month-old infants reacted to the changes in sound that adults could not detect. English-learning infants could distinguish the finer sounds used in Czech, Hindi and Inslekampx (a Native American language) that English-speaking adults could not. To give a more familiar example, most adult Koreans cannot distinguish the long and short i in English, i.e. the difference between fritz and freeze. Similarly, most adult English-speakers cannot distinguish the sounds of 파 (Romanized as “pa”) and 빠 (Romanized as “ppa”) in Korean. This study suggests that, for example, an infant in an English-speaking country who has never heard Korean around her can distinguish 파 and 빠 although her parents cannot; similarly, an infant in a Korean-speaking country who has never heard English around him can distinguish fritz and freeze, although his parents cannot.
But when the same experiment was performed on 10-month-old infants, the infants lost their ability to distinguish those sounds that do not exist in English. In other words, the ability to learn which sound belongs to a language and which sound is a random white noise happens between the ages of 6 months and 10 months.
Equally astonishing is a child’s ability to learn vocabularies. In order for an accurate count, grammarians Anna Maria Di Sciullo and Edwin Williams came up with a concept called a “listeme,” which is a unit of memorized vocabulary that cannot be produced mechanically by rules. (For example, if a person knows two words, “bucket” and “buckets,” the person knows one listeme because one can derive the meaning of “buckets” from “bucket.” But the phrase “kicking the bucket” is a separate listeme from “bucket,” because one cannot draw the meaning of “kicking the bucket” from knowing the word “bucket.”)
How many listemes do you think a six-year-old child knows? Here is a hint – the most distinguished English-language writer of all time, William Shakespeare, used about 15,000 different listemes in all of his plays and poems. Surely, Billy Shakespeare has to be several times better than a six-year-old, right? Actually, no. According to a study by William Nagy and Richard Anderson, the best estimate shows that an average six-year-old child knows 13,000 listemes.
"What? I used only 2,000 more listemes than a six-year-old? Preposterous!"
Recall that an average six-year-old cannot read books on her own; any word they learn comes from ambient speech. Given that word learning does not start until the age of 12 months, children learn a new word every two hours they spend being awake just by listening. Pinker puts it this way: “Think about having to memorize a new batting average or treaty date or phone number every ninety minutes of your waking life since you took your first steps. The brain seems to be reserving an especially capacious storage space and an especially rapid transcribing mechanism for the mental dictionary.” This pace of word learning lasts until adolescence, and tapers off afterward.
But for the Korean, the most incredible component of the language instinct is an infant’s innate ability to learn grammar. For example, babies who can only speak in single words still have a grasp of syntax. An experiment seated babies in front of one screen that shows Big Bird tickling Cookie Monster and another showing Cookie Monster tickling Big Bird. A voiceover said, “Oh look! Big Bird is tickling Cookie Monster! Find Big Bird tickling Cookie Monster!” (or vice versa.) The babies invariably looked more at the screen that depicted the sentence in the voiceover. This means that infants have an innate sense of an essential part of English grammar – that is, the fact that the word order in a sentence determines which word is the subject, and which word is the object. (“Big Bird is tickling Cookie Monster” and “Cookie Monster is tickling Big Bird” are made up of identical words – we know the two sentences mean different things only because of their word orders.)
Word order is how we know "Dog bites man" is different from this picture.
In another experiment, psychologist Karin Stromswold analyzed sentences containing auxiliaries (e.g. “can”, “should”, “must”, “have”, “do”) from the speech of thirteen pre-schoolers. In English language, there are 24 quadrillion logically possible combinations of auxiliaries. (For example, “He have might eat” or “He did be eating.”) Out of the 24 quadrillion choices, only around a hundred are grammatically correct. (For example, “He might have eaten.”) Stromswold analyzed 66,000 sentences from the pre-schoolers where the children could have made an error. The number of errors found in those 66,000 sentences? Zero.
What does this all mean? It means that second language acquisition is not like first language acquisition at all. First language is learned like breathing is learned. When you are no longer a child, your brain simply went past the stage where you could absorb language without extra effort. Simply put, a fun, effortless second language learning is a pipe dream. It does not exist.
The Most Effective Way for Second Language Acquisition, Guaranteed
To be sure, the Korean’s method is only for those people who want to have a mastery (which, according to the Korean’s own definition, equals college-level proficiency) over a second language in a short period of time. If all you ever wanted is to have survival-level language skills, this method is probably an overkill.
However, since learning English, the Korean has spent some time learning Spanish, Mandarin Chinese and Latin to differing degrees, applying the same method he used for learning English. For each language, the result was unmistakable – the Korean always gained greater proficiency in those languages at faster clip compared to other students who were in the same classes as he, which confirmed to the Korean that his method is indeed the best one. If your aim is to gain mastery over a language in the shortest amount of time possible, the Korean absolutely guarantees that the following is the best and most efficient way:
1. Start from reading and writing simple sentences, and gradually move onto reading and writing increasingly more complex sentences. Remember that a single noun could be a good enough sentence when the situation is right. (For example, saying “water” when you are too hot, as in “please give me water.”) You can expand that single noun into an increasingly complex structure, like this: “Water”; “Water, please”; “Give water, please”; “Give me water, please”; “Give me cold water, please”; “Give me a glass of cold water, please.”
2. As you go through the first step, learn all the grammatical rules such that you are expanding the sentence correctly. Here is a comparable example of expanding sentences in Korean: “물”; “물 줘”; “물 주세요”; “물 좀 주세요”; “찬 물 좀 주세요”; “찬 물 한 잔만 주세요.” In this simple example, no less than five grammatical rules can be identified: (1) object-predicate word order; (2) use of honorifics (주세요 conjugated from 주다); (3) verb conjugation (주다 --> 주세요, 차다 --> 찬); (4) use of “counters” (물 한 잔); (5) use of particles (한 잔만). Memorize how these rules operate in different sentences.
Then maybe you can learn the song 물 좀 주소, a classic by 한대수 pictured here.
The list will be long, but it is finite. And without knowing these rules, you cannot use complex sentences. For example, there are many Korean students, having studied in America/Canada, who appear to have mastered English because their accent is slight and they seem to be able to write without misspelling things, but rarely use a slightly complex grammatical structure like a dependent clause in their speech or writing. This is not a mastery over language.
3. Memorize words. This is the most important part. Once you have a firm grasp over grammar, all that stands between you and language mastery is the number of vocabularies you can punch into the different sentence structures. Memorize every word you encounter and do not know. Have a very high bar for “not knowing” a word – if you cannot produce a definition under 3 seconds, you do not know the word. Be ready to memorize at least 30,000 words, if not more. Just to give you a perspective, the Nagy-Anderson study that the Korean mentioned above found that an average high school student knows around 60,000 listemes, and a superior high school student knows twice as much. You need to make up that ground somehow.
4. Listen and speak the language every day. This is the part where immersive language learning can be helpful. You need to develop a careful ear to recognize different sounds, because again, you no longer have the amazing infant sound sensor anymore. Listen to words that are difficult to distinguish, and imitate the sound as you listen.
5. Do it over and over again until the desired mastery is achieved.
The Korean can already hear the protests. Why does it have to rely on rote memorization so much? It sounds excruciating! Shouldn’t learning be fun? To those protests, the Korean has only this to say:
SUCK IT UP, YOU SOFT SACK OF SHIT!
Mind you, the Korean loves America. The Korean practically writes a love song to America every chance he has. But there are certain things about contemporary America drives the Korean crazy, and this is one of them: the idea that the process of learning is somehow supposed to be fun. Just drop it. Forget it. What is fun is the result of learning – the infinite amount of fun when you finally put the finished product to use. And truly, that applies to second language acquisition as well as anything else. Your horizon will expand beyond the limit of your imagination. You will gain perspectives that you couldn’t have even dreamed of. Don’t be a whiny bitch. Your sacrifice will be worthwhile.
Another objection that will surely be raised is this: “Doesn’t the Korean’s method for the most part rely on rote memorization?” No, that’s not correct – the Korean’s method relies entirely on rote memorization. The Korean cannot see why “rote memorization” became a dirty word in education somehow. How else are you going to learn words and grammar? Again, high school seniors know as many as 120,000 words. Do you think you can learn 120,000 words in one or two years just by “surrounding yourself with the language”? Please.
Language learning is like dieting. There might be tons of advertisement about fast results and magic formulas, but at the end of the day, honest effort is the only thing that works. Only the undisciplined deludes herself into believing that some other magic might work. Want to lose weight? Eat healthier and exercise more. Want to master a second language? Memorize grammar and vocabulary. It is that simple.
Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at email@example.com.