Monday, March 07, 2011

If Immersion Works So Well for Language Learning...

One of the most popular posts on AAK! is about what is the best method for learning a new language, based on the Korean's own experience of learning English at age 16. Many people found it to be helpful and correct, and just as many found it to be wrong and misleading. And the objector's points usually go like this:
I agree that memorization if vital but studying under stress will harm the learning process. So, why torture yourself memorizing invidivual [sic] words in flash cards... filed in your wall. Exposure in English is just the key and there are lots of means to do that. Listening, watching, reading aloud, speaking beginning from simple to complex. As how you learn your first language.
Or like this:
Learning languages well is NOT a simple matter of "memorizing grammar and vocabulary." Believe me, millions of learners have already tried and failed to learn languages this way (just look at how few English learners in East Asia emerge from a decade of formal study unable to understand or speak the language?) Memorizing grammar rules and vocabulary does little more than expand your declarative knowledge ABOUT the language, but does very little to help you actually ACQUIRE the language and be able to both understand and use it for communicative purposes. The key is getting lots and lots of interesting, comprehensible listening and reading input, and then doing lots of speaking and writing output once you're ready.
All this recently got the Korean thinking -- aren't the ESL teachers in Korea ideally situated for the alternative theory? Are they not completely surrounded by Korean language, all the time? Couldn't they listen, watch, read aloud and speak Korean, as they would learn their first language?

If "immersion" method works so well for language learning, shouldn't all ESL teachers in Korea leave Korea after one or two years, being completely fluent in Korean?

Something to think about.

-EDIT 3/9/2011-

Having read the (numerous and furious) comments, the Korean thinks he should clarify a few things.

1. The term "immersion" needs to be clarified. A lot of commenters understand "immersion" to mean "active engagement with the language." That is a fair understanding of the term. But that is not the way the Korean used the term "immersion." (Hence, the quotes around the term in the post.)

What the Korean wants to caution against is the attitude that as long as one surrounds oneself with the language, one would absorb the language to the level of fluency as if through osmosis -- "as how you learn the your first language." In other words, it is the attitude expressed by commenter Jo-Anna's friends: "Of course everyone said the same thing to me when I left for Korea. "wow! You'll be fluent in no time!"" That is just not true, and the comments seem to be near-unanimously in agreement with the Korean there.

So, to clarify, let's use the terms "active engagement" and "passive immersion." The Korean believes that active engagement is necessary to achieve fluency. But passive immersion will give you next to nothing, which is the point of the post. ESL teachers in Korea go through a huge degree of passive immersion in Korean, but they do not come out fluent in Korean unless they actually study. (A stark example from a reader email to the Korean about this post: "I knew an alcoholic who had been here six months who didn't know what 맥주 ("beer") meant.")

2. The way the commenters understand the word "fluency" is also different from the way the Korean is using the term. Commenter brutus got it exactly right: "I think the point tK makes about memorization is there is no shortcut to learning a language to a high level of fluency." (emphasis added).

The level of fluency that the Korean's "best method" seeks to achieve is very specific: it is the level of proficiency possessed by educated members of the society, i.e. college-level. It is the level at which one can comprehend and express complex concepts. That level is much higher than the ability to make small talk.

This, to the Korean, is a crucial distinction that determines the relative importance of rote memorization and active engagement. A method that largely relies on active engagement can get you to the level where you can make small talk. But only rote memorization will get you to the level at which complex ideas can be discussed. Even the most active engagement -- the kind advocated by commenter ohmygodimmike, i.e. cutting off everything in your native language -- will not get you the college level fluency. Think about it -- how often in your life do you discuss complex concepts with other people? Unless your job is the type that involves dealing with words and concepts (e.g. law, media, etc.), most of your conversation will be small talks.

And sure enough, available academic research bears this out: you only need about 4,000 words (listemes) to cover 95% of all words known in a text. Remember, a six-year-old child already knows 13,000 listemes. That means you can know LESS than a six-year-old, and still carry a conversation. This is not college level fluency.

Commenter Eugene precisely hit the point that the Korean wanted to make:
Immersion [TK: here, used for "active engagement"] will only get someone so far. There is a point where you will hit a wall and the amount of language you absorb from your surroundings will slowly decline. You'll start to notice that you're perfectly fine watching movies or TV shows, but still don't totally understand the news. And that's when it's time to break out the books. People can bitch all they want, but anyone educated in English has had to do plenty of rote memorization in English! Remember all those vocabulary and spelling tests in elementary school? Remember reading classes in middle school? Remember having to look stuff up in the dictionary in high school because you didn't understand what it meant, even though the book you were reading it in was in English?
Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com

49 comments:

  1. What a silly *wink-wink* style argument from AAK. "Hmm just something to think about!"

    Of course the ESL teachers are not learning Korean. That's because 1) they don't want to, BECAUSE they know they will leave in a year's time and don't see Korea/China/Japan, etc as anything more than an extended tourist-cum-job stay, 2) they really dont NEED to, as they are in a very globalized place with just enough English markers + English speakers, and 3) every Korean/Japanese/Chinese, etc wants to converse in English whenever they see a non-Asian (which is understandable from their POV, I guess).

    Furthermore, I find AAK's repeated and passionate defense of a memorization-only or primarily-memorization style learning of languages to be eerily insecure and nationalistic. Maybe he is hurt by all the expat criticism of Korea's tragic, tone-deaf education culture, and feels the need to defend Korea? If so, he wouldnt be the first.

    Don't mean to brag, but I speak four languages fluently and am well on my way to a fifth. Trust me when I say: there are many ways of learning, and different paces as well. Choose your methods, and choose your pace. There are ways to make this fun, engaging and meaningful. You dont need to torture yourself Korean-style, unless you hate life, want to feel depressed, and end up slashing your wrists.

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  2. When I was fifteen, I stayed for a month with my grandparents in Israel. My parents told me that by the end of the trip, I would've picked up some Hebrew. I picked up one phrase: "I don't know Hebrew." And that only because I asked my dad to teach it to me!

    Conversely, after about a month of textbook study, I could form simple sentences and catch a few words in others' conversations.

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  3. I've lived in Korea for three years. I've probably studied Korean actively for two of those years. I'd rate myself as about an intermediate level speaker. There aren't many everyday tasks that I would feel uncomfortable about trying to carry out in Korean, but I still can't verbalize complex ideas very well.

    I started to follow your advice about language acquisition about a year ago, and I can honestly say that it has helped. With that said, living in a rural area with very few English speakers nearby was probably a more important factor in my Korean acquisition. Motivation is a big part of learning a language, and without immersion, motivation usually isn't going to be there. When I was living in Yeonsu-gu, Incheon with 15 other foreigners in a ten-block radius, studying Korean always got pushed onto the pile of "things to do next week." On the other hand, when I was the only white guy in Sintaein, spending two hours a day memorizing vocabulary lists suddenly seemed like a really good way to spend my free time...

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  4. One of the reasons many English teachers here are not fluent or even proficient in Korean is because most of them don't try much. Beyond learning specific phrases on how to order in a restaurant or how to tell a taxi driver to drop them off near their apartment, a lot of foreigners rarely engage with the language in a meaningful way. From anecdotal experience though, I think this trend is reversing.

    The notion that a language can be learned without relying to some extent on rote memorization of vocabulary or grammar seems pretty ridiculous to me, and I've never understood why some teachers try to discourage you from using your native language at all - why do I have to listen to their five-minute explanation of a simple term when I can get the exact meaning by looking at a dictionary for ten seconds? (Yes, I know that the nuances of some words can be different between languages.) But at the same time, I don't know how you could ever expect to become fluent in a language without having an opportunity to express the language; namely with a native speaker, or with someone who has at least achieved fluency or near-fluency.

    If I recall, your initial post mocked the attitude that 'learning should be fun and engaging' (totally paraphrasing here), and while there's definitely a condescending, 'please don't hurt the delicate learners' school of thought that people subscribe to, surely you'd have to admit that where the opportunity exists to make learning more engaging, it ought to be taken? This is especially true of students forced to learn a foreign language in their own country; most Korean kids aren't motivated to learn English beyond the desire to get the highest possible score on the English test. This is why ESL teachers love to play language-based games; they encourage kids (and adults) to engage with English in a way that they don't when simply aiming to answer questions on an exam.

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  5. Cornflakes, I am really interested in your method to learning languages, since you speak four fluently. Can you boast mastery of these languages, like the Korean can with English?

    I've tried a slightly more active style of "immersion" with Rosetta Stone in Korea, and it hasn't worked very well at all. 6 months in and I can say very basic phrases and have a base of vocabulary, but still can't understand 90% of Korean when I hear it. As far as I can tell, this method is only slightly better than going into the country thinking "Yeah, I'll just pick up everything I need to say."

    Moreover, most of the phrases I know, I repeated, several, several times. Rote memorization for me has been more effective, when I bother to use it, of course.

    I agree that it's not fun, though. And so did the Korean in every post about language acquisition since his first one. So Cornflakes, tell me about your foreign language acquisition method.

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  6. My issue has been that I feel completely discouraged when I try to speak out loud. I was enrolled in a Korean class and was receiving tutoring from a co-worker as well as studying from a text book on my own. I've spent time in a few foreign countries and I have to say that for me, Korea has been the only one I have had trouble making myself understood.

    Often times when I have attempted to speak in public, I get stares of confusion, as though I'm spouting gibberish, even if the very same phrase was understood by a coworker or my Korean teacher earlier in the week. When I attempt to speak to everyday people (shop keepers, postal workers etc.), no one knows what I am saying. I could chalk this up to my accent etc., but I never had this problem in Japan, Italy or France, and I don't really speak any of those languages either. It is hard to keep learning Korean when I am finding it difficult to apply what I've learned to everyday life.

    Maybe this has something to do with the relatively few numbers of foreigners who speak Korean? Perhaps many Korean people aren't used to hearing Korean pronounced with a foreign accent, or perhaps I am just terrible at it. Either way, I applaud those of you who have moved beyond the beginner's phase.

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  7. shotgunkorea's comment could have been written by me. I can't make myself understood at all, even after two semesters of Korean classes four hours a week - and people are /rude/ about it. Students make fun of me, people hang up on me... it's really discouraging. I'm pretty shy to start with so it's really limited my progress.
    I'm trying a new route this year - one of my trusted coteachers has been kind enough to agree to meet with me in the afternoons in a study room so we can work on my comprehensibility without teachers/students mocking my attempts.
    Immersion has done my listening skills a great deal of good - I can catch the gist of most office conversations from constant active eavesdropping (not tuning things out). I have a feeling that when I get to the point where I'm pronouncing things clearly enough to be understood, the immersion atmosphere will help a great deal more.

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  8. I have picked up quite a bit of Korean since living in Korea, but I had 1) the foundational knowledge, based on classroom learning and repetitive vocab drills, to improve more, and 2) the occassion and necessity to use Korean in every day life. Not a day goes by without me having to listen to or speak some Korean, and every week I probably learn 1 - 5 new words.

    The downside is that my vocab is made up of a lot of baby talk and infant care-related vocabulary, as probably 80% of my Korean conversation happens with my son's daycare teachers. But still, it's helped in other areas too, especially since I teach first graders, and I can understand more of what they're saying behind my back now.

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  9. Rote memorisation vs immersion depends on the person as much as learning anything else. Some people prefer reading text, while others find it easier actually participating and doing it themselves in a 'hands on' way.

    I recall a guy I went to high school with, who was an exchange student from Hong Kong. After 3 years of living here, going to an entirely English speaking school and eventually 87.6 TER score (Australian scoring system, out of a maximum of 99.8) he was only barely conversational in English. In fact, after studying Korean, in Australia, for the past 4 months I would probably consider myself more proficient in Korean than he was in English at the time.

    Then again, he didn't really have any friends outside of one other guy who also a Hong Kong exchange student, so maybe the motivation to learn simply was not there.

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  10. I think the quantity and quality of time spent on immersion and also the one's willingness to immerse are important variables to consider for language learning

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  11. If the foreign English teachers in Korea were children whose minds were still highly susceptible to acquiring language from the environment, yes. But as any fully developed adults who have just only begun to study a new language, it's a bit more complicated than that.

    Just as two children from the same family a couple of years apart in age can move to a foreign country for a couple of years, live in the exact same circumstances, but come back speaking completely different levels of the language based on where they were in their language development while they were in the foreign country.

    TK learns best while incorporating rote memorization. That's fair enough. But TK had the advantage of *also* being immersed in the language he was learning.

    Not everybody learns the same way that TK does, and not everyone has the advantage of immersion.

    I think the argument is not that memorization should be taken completely out of language learning, but that it is not much good if it is not taken to the next level of being applied. Only staring at notecards for hours on end is not going to teach you how to speak a language fluently. Or even semi-fluently. Ever. Unless you are a very, very unusual learner.

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  12. Obviously the best way to learn a language as quickly as possible is to study it and use full immersion.

    FULL immersion means you don't speak/hear your native language at all. This is nearly impossible. My friend who lived in Japan for almost 3 years got about as close to full immersion as possible.

    He erased all english music from his ipod and listened to strictly japanese comedy shows/stand up and whatnot. He eliminated as much english as possible from his life and replaced it with as much Japanese as possible.

    coincidentally he also had a girlfriend that didn't speak english at all really. This probably helped. Now he's totally fluent and he believes fully in the immersion technique.

    This doesn't mean this would work for everyone and you should always supplement with traditional studying in my opinion.

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  13. I am an English teacher in Gyeonggi-do and I am learning more Korean from listening to my co-teachers' conversations these past 3 months than I had studying at Yonsei for a semester and another semester at my home university. Not to mention with the help of K-dramas and K-pop. I can catch bits and parts of their conversation and reply in English. Speaking is at an elementary level, but I can at least converse with my students outside of class.

    Another thing I find helpful is following Korean celebrities on Twitter and reading their tweets in Korean. I had no idea what they were tweeting, but it helped with learning and reading Hangul more fluidly. It helps me understand how Korean is used informally and how the younger generation communicate socially via social networks, because you can't find that in textbooks.

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  14. Of course everyone said the same thing to me when I left for Korea. "wow! You'll be fluent in no time!" but as we're ENGLISH teachers we're encouraged to use ENGLISH in the workplace. In fact, most bosses would be quite pleased if we didn't know any Korean at all because it makes the parents feel as though their children are getting a complete immersion. People in public use us as if as free English tutors, practicing their English on us, our co-workers and bosses are usually conversational if not fluent in English and basically Koreans don't EXPECT a foreigner to study Korean. So, after 8 months of waiting to magically pick it up (along with studying 1.5 hours a week at a free class on the weekends) I realized that it wasn't going to cut it.

    That's when I put in some effort and started to go to a Korean hagwon. Even after that, my school mainly focused on conversation during class time, so I can speak Korean and understand Korean quite well (in my humble opinion) But, I never spent enough time on reading and writing and I still struggle in those areas.

    Another example is if you look at many foreign workers and foreign wives of Korean men here. I am now studying in a class meant for migrant workers (사회통합프로그램) and these men and women all speak Korean extremely well because they are immersed in it. But, it's more of a survival thing. They know what they need, but they don't study, so they don't know any vocabulary that they wouldn't use in the workplace or with their husbands. They often don't read or write well because, just like in any language, there's a big difference between speaking well and writing and reading well.

    In my opinion, yes, you need some memorization (and I'm taking the Korean's advice about studying for the TOPIK, and it is working so far) but you also need to use it in the real world. As many other of your readers have mentioned, many Koreans suffer from lack of real life practice using English. Sure, they can ace any test you give them, but they can't even hold down simple conversations when you speak to them.

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  15. sorry, I didn't mean to say that the 사회통합프로그램 is meant for migrant workers, but there are many in the classes. It is for anyone wishing to get Korean nationality or people like me looking to change their visa status.

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  16. I'm a believer in the opposite. I speak Korean at an intermediate level, which I've learned mostly from immersion. I listen to what I hear, read advertisements and practice with friends and co-workers.

    As a teacher, I believe my greatest asset is that I can teach an entire class in English, but I don't think the idea works well for lower-level students or very young students. Or, put another way, when I learned the basics of Korean, such as how to write the language or ordinary verbs, I learned it in English.

    I would also question how much immersion a typical Westerner has. They work in an English-language workplace teaching English in an English-only classroom and socialize with other Westerners or English speakers.

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  17. I'm in Daegu, Korea now, and most of the people I work around, or people I am around, are speaking Korean. About 98% of the time I am listening to Korean. The thing is I still only recognize the words and or phrases that I've taken the time to study, whether on index cards, or audio lessons explaining how to say such and such a term. And beyond that I still only use what is practically usable every day, which right now is mostly, "hello" and "thank you." I want to intentionally develop my vocabulary and have goal's for it so I know it will/is happening, but I'm becoming more aware of communities where expats/foreigners congregate to party, drink a lot, whatever. This gives people plenty of opportunity to not learn Korean.
    My point is, people are going to learn what they want to learn, and even if people teaching in Korea think they want to learn Korean, if they only hang with the English speakers, and never challenge themselves to step outside the comfort zone of their past, their future will only hold more of the same.

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  18. Now let's put this all in a neutral state.
    Both of those method has to be used in tandem to create the optimum result, at least in my opinion. Rote memorization only or immersion only will end up with an unbalance distribution of knowledge (eg. you might be only good in speaking but not writing and reading or vice versa). I find many of the readers here misunderstood The Korean's point and think that he learns ONLY by rote memorizing. Immersion does play a part in the process of learning a new language (in The Korean's case for example, he watched The Simpsons millions of time to get used to the accent), but at the same time, rote memorization play an equally important role as well in learning new language. Imagine that you are sick and needs flu tablets. What are you going to do if you cannot remember the word "flu tablet"? From my understanding, this is The Korean's point that he wished to make.

    Other than that, the effectiveness of learning new languages by those mentioned method really depends a lot on what do you intend to do with the language. Like for academic purposes, students tend to memorize the grammar and vocab so that they do not make mistake in their exams. Immersion here doesn't really play a big role, as most of the time, students do not need to be high-fluent in those languages, all they need is to be able to write well and make as less mistake as they can. Immersion, or I would better classified it as exposure of the particular language to the student might be a plus point, but not all students are subject to that.
    On the other hand, if you are planning to use that new language for daily-to-daily conversation, then immersion plays a bigger part when compared to rote memorization. Yes you have to know the vocabs, and sometimes you might even needs to memorize them, however rather than memorizing the definitions of each vocabs and grammer rules, you desire to able to communicate will be higher. Hence, when compared to the effort of taking all sophisticated phrases and words into your mind, you only want others to understand you. In this case, you might need to the immersion method more in order to understand how to make others understand what you are trying to convey.

    It really depends on the how you are going to learn, and what are the purposes that you are taking up a new language. Of course, other factors like willingness to learn new languages take in account too, but that will be other story already.

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  19. While I totally agree with the Korean's posts on language learning, I think that there has to be more than one way to learn a language. Also some people are wired to acquire languages more easily than others.

    To that end, I've studied Korean almost not at all. I had one semester in University, then one semester at the KLI where I was placed in a really low level because I can't spell. Needless to say, I didn't learn anything in there.

    Almost all of my acquisition of Korean language has come purely from immersion, through international student Korean friends in college, through Korean friends after college, and through Korean friends after moving to Korea.

    I'm pretty damn good at Korean considering the amount of time I've put into actually studying it out of a book (less than 6 months).

    While I admit that I'm not as proficient in Korean as the Korean is in English, I have only myself being lazy to blame for that.

    Immersion will only get someone so far. There is a point where you will hit a wall and the amount of language you absorb from your surroundings will slowly decline. You'll start to notice that you're perfectly fine watching movies or TV shows, but still don't totally understand the news.

    And that's when it's time to break out the books.

    People can bitch all they want, but anyone educated in English has had to do plenty of rote memorization in English! Remember all those vocabulary and spelling tests in elementary school? Remember reading classes in middle school? Remember having to look stuff up in the dictionary in high school because you didn't understand what it meant, even though the book you were reading it in was in English?

    Memorization certainly isn't necessary for simple vocabulary and grammar acquisition. For advanced vocabulary it is an absolute necessity.

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  20. Of course the ESL teachers are not learning Korean. That's because 1) they don't want to, BECAUSE they know they will leave in a year's time and don't see Korea/China/Japan, etc as anything more than an extended tourist-cum-job stay, 2) they really dont NEED to, as they are in a very globalized place with just enough English markers + English speakers, and


    That's an excuse. And really, if that is their attitude, then they can only blame themselves. They can learn a few phrases to get around as a common courtesy. Koreans can be very understanding of language mistakes, foreigners who do not speak or understand Korean perfectly, which is much more than some countries. Too many foreigners like to blame their own ugly attitude toward Korea on Korea, but really, the only people they can blame are themselves. Why don't you try to appreciate and respect the culture? Then, maybe you would get the respect that YOU are not willing to give.

    Furthermore, I find AAK's repeated and passionate defense of a memorization-only or primarily-memorization style learning of languages to be eerily insecure and nationalistic. Maybe he is hurt by all the expat criticism of Korea's tragic, tone-deaf education culture, and feels the need to defend Korea? If so, he wouldnt be the first.

    Your whole post sounds bitter. I think the article struck a nerve in you because you haven't learned Korean. Maybe a few phrases here and there, but I'm sure that your Korean is not "fluent" as you other "languages". For someone who saw the value of learning and speaking 4 languages fluently, one would think that you would see the value of being a respectful guest and adapting to the environment in Korea. Koreans can be very hospitable and accommodating to foreigners. It is unfortunate that too many of them see it as a license to not adapt to the larger culture. When you get respect and consideration, you should give it as well.

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  21. Hmmm, maybe Calculus, Trig and Biology should be taught in more "fun" ways so everyone will learn better. "Fun" will help me memorize that endless list of biology terms...

    I suppose keeping it fun is one way of keeping oneself interested in learning something. Unless you have a large base of words to pull from your memory, you're never going to become fluent.

    Combining memorization and actual use is the only way to learn a language. If someone has some other proven method, feel free to share.

    (We are talking about ADULTS learning another language right? Not how young language absorbing kids learn?)

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  22. I don't think you can compare The Korean's experience in America with an ESL's experience in Korea. The language learning environment is very different among both countries. There's English all over the place in Korea, while you'll only find Korean in certain areas throughout the States, let alone those speaking it. Also, there's the age difference, the situational difference (student vs. English teacher), and many other factors.

    On a side note, you think ESL teachers are bad not being able to speak Korean after only 2 years? What about the Korean Americans who've lived in the States since grade school that can barely speak any English at all? With such little Korean found around the States, whether lack of Korean in pop culture, commercials and products, signs, or people just speaking it, you'd have to go through great lengths NOT to learn at least decent English. But somehow, I've met/come across Gyopos who have done just that.

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  23. @Joshua

    The Korean mentions in his 'English Acquisition' post that it was possible to live in his town only speaking Korean, so the immersion was limited to his school life.

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  24. There's English all over the place in Korea, while you'll only find Korean in certain areas throughout the States, let alone those speaking it. Also, there's the age difference, the situational difference (student vs. English teacher), and many other factors.

    Excuses. English also has nuances that one cannot pick up from a dictionary. A lot of English is situational just like other languages. Anyways, the English in Korea is limited to store names, etc. You really cannot expect to function in Korea without basic conversational Korean.

    On a side note, you think ESL teachers are bad not being able to speak Korean after only 2 years? What about the Korean Americans who've lived in the States since grade school that can barely speak any English at all? With such little Korean found around the States, whether lack of Korean in pop culture, commercials and products, signs, or people just speaking it, you'd have to go through great lengths NOT to learn at least decent English. But somehow, I've met/come across Gyopos who have done just that.

    All the reasons you list are just excuses. I bet the Korean Americans you talked about also lived in Koreatown their whole lives and speak better English than your Korean. I know that all the ones I have met spoke average or excellent English. Just another way to deflect the personal responsibility of English teachers to adapt to their host country. So funny how some Americans expect everyone to speak English in OTHER non-English speaking countries, but refuse to learn it when abroad. And then, make excuses for not learning. It's the colonial mentality. Get off your English privilege. If you expect others to learn your language when in your country, as you do, then you should put in some effort to learn theirs when abroad. You think English teachers have it hard? Try being a foreigner in America where locals can be unkind if your English is not perfect. At least most Koreans can be accommodating and don't expect perfection. They don't have the default mentality that foreigners should know the local culture/language perfectly as some other countries do. So quit your whining.

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  25. I think the point tK makes about memorization is there is no shortcut to learning a language to a high level of fluency. Sure immersion may make picking certain things faster and may engage you to speak in casual everyday conversation, but it will not be able to teach you everything. In the end you need to have the desire to learn for any technique to work. The language will not just be absorbed into you automatically by osmosis, to learn a language completely you must put some effort into it, no matter which method you use.

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  26. What about the Korean Americans who've lived in the States since grade school that can barely speak any English at all?

    They do exist, but they don't speak English very well relative to, say, the university level.

    Many Westerners in Korea speak about a dozen words of Korean. That's the low standard for people who have lived in Korea for two years. Any Korean who graduated elementary school can speak that much English. They can also read it, while it's easy to find someone who has lived here for two years but can't.

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  27. I saw your original post about language acquisition and nearly screamed and shouted with joy. I admit, I thought your memorization of massive vocabulary was a bit excessive, until I read your other post about your fiancee--when reading a novel, does one remember when it was that they learned most of that vocabulary?

    I think those that criticize your so-called "rote memorization" method are missing the other half of the argument. Not only did you memorize vocabulary (and sentences) but you then did your best to immediately utilize it. This is the key. You read and wrote down sentences, then tried to find places to apply said structure. You watched the Simpsons and continued to repeat them time after time. Those who don't take note of that part are only paying attention to that which they don't like.

    Immersion is wonderful, especially for very young children, but is essentially useless for language acquisition among adults unless one has a VERY inquisitive mind and a basic existing grasp of the language. I've been working at a 유학 in Vancouver for almost four years, and I have picked up essentially NOTHING despite making friends with several Korean coworkers and students. I didn't start actively learning Korean until spending time with a student's family and having them actively teach me things like the alphabet and the like.

    I teach adults, and one of the most frequent questions is much the same as you were getting--"How can I improve?". I recommend much what you did--memorization combined with use and revision. My students tell me that they memorize words constantly, and when I ask them what the words mean, they start, stop, then think and say "Uh, I only know it in Korean...". Memorization is wonderful for passing FITB or MC tests, but for writing and speaking, MUST BE COMBINED with use of English. Writing sentences, repeating what you hear on TV, reading novels or newspapers...




    TK's "Best Method" really is an excellent baseline for language learning. It may not work perfectly for everyone, nor for every situation, but it's an excellent starting point. And those who say that it is "exclusively a rote memorization style" really need to read what you wrote more carefully.



    As a sidenote, I spent HOURS in front of a mirror and with a recording of a friend of mine trying to master my pronunciation of 복어. I feel your "girl" pain.

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  28. lol I definitely wonder about the english teachers

    however with that....i'm pretty sure they aren't really trying to learn. They aren't putting forth the effort.

    I'm one of those that thinks immersion is the best way. However it's nothing but confusing when you have no context or when you have no foundation to give meaning.

    I only vouch for immersion, because I've actually tried products like Rosetta Stone and have learned so much that it's ridiculous..and all without translation or flashcards...in simulated immersion. But like I said...Rosetta Stone doesn't just throw random stuff at me random info in random order like living in another country does. they give you universal cues, and teach you meaning with pictures instead of translated it, but they also put those pictures in a logical order so that you can figure it out.

    I'm doing pretty well in korean, and could definitely get around in korea. I talk to my korean friends all the time, and they're always shocked at how much I understand and can speak. This is with 75% of my learning being with an immersion program like Rosetta Stone and watching dramas, and listening to lots of korean.

    With that said I think you can learn ALOT and get an awesome foundation in a language with immersion however...to really be fluent to the Korean's standards, I think you HAVE TO approach it somewhat like The Korean did and hammer some things into your head. Though I learned alot of advanced grammar in korean through Rosetta Stone...I'd have to say that a full grasp of it didn't come until I used sites like Talktomeinkorean.com where they fully explore grammar and go in depth. That's where the other 25-30% of my learning comes from.

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  29. i wish there was an "ask a mormon" blog, they seem to have lots of experience becoming fluent in the languages they spend their 2yr mission trips on =)

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  30. The way Jehovah's Witness and Mormon missionaries learn languages so fast is that they talk to people every day in their preaching. Regular vocal use of a language does wonders to learning it.

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  31. @itissaid

    I'm not going to make ignorant assumptions about you based on what I think you're trying to say, but I will try and clarify what my thoughts and subsequently, the point I meant to get across.

    In my first paragraph, I made a quick comment about my thoughts towards The Korean's original question. If he did it, why can't ESL teachers? I merely stated that the conditions are different. It was meant to be a purely objective statement. I'm not sure how you got the idea that I was defending the idea that English teachers didn't need to learn another language (or anything else, for that matter), I was just stating how things are.

    Secondly, I wrote another paragraph to take my observations further, and suggest that even though people are immersed in a society of another language, they can not only carry on life in their native language without adapting to a new environment, but can also actively resist.

    For the record, I think it's a shame for someone to relocate to a different country for years at a time, and pick up nothing. I think it's a shame that the US is "the most diverse country in the world," yet the average American can barely speak English correctly, let alone other languages. But I also meant to point out that conversely, just as bad as Americans are at picking up a language in a foreign country, Koreans can also be as bad, if not worse, than the Americans that are being criticized.

    I agree with you on many points. There's no need to attack me for misinterpreting the point I was trying to get across. And I'd also appreciate that you wouldn't make wild assumptions about who I am or how I feel about certain things, whether it's because you feel a certain way about the whole issue and subconsciously try and project your negative assumptions onto participants of the discussion, or because you didn't quite get what I was trying to say, or whatever.

    And finally, I apologize if my post(s) were/have been unclear.

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  32. It's not immersion if you aren't actually engaged in using a second language all the time, with next to zero opportunities to use your own language. The key is being forced to communicate in another's language in order to survive. Pity us poor native English speakers: it's harder for us to find places in the world where conditions of this sort obtain.

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  33. I think there's a consensus that a combination of immersion and memorization is needed.

    To develop true fluency both your immersion and your memorization need to be "active": you have to actively seek to understand how a word or expression is used, how it is integrated into the language, and only then memorize it. Just rote memorization without "context" is pretty useless except maybe for very straightforward nouns. (This is why a lot of people from Asia pass the TOEFL but don't actually function all that well once they actually have to "live" in English). Try viewing figuring out the _exact_ way the language works as a kind of "puzzle" you have to solve -- the effort involved in coming up with a "solution" will help you remember. It's like a game with highly intricate rules that you have to master.

    Try watching tv shows and movies on your laptop with vlc media player (it's free, google to find it). It has excellent hotkeys which let you easily "jump" back. When you don't understand something, try listening again a few times until you do. Keep your browser open so you can easily look for any new words that come up in an online dictionary (make an effort to seek out the best one for your language, wordreference.com is best for most european languages to English). And then reinforce any new words with flashcard memorization.

    When you're still a relative beginner, good video to start out with is the nightly news, since the anchors and reporters tend to use grammatically orthodox sentences, pronounced reasonably slowly and clearly. Most countries' news is now streamed online, allowing you to jump back when you don't understand something. So start with the news and work up to popular tv shows and movies.

    Remember that understanding the language as spoken is very different from the written language in a newspaper or a classic novel! People slur their words, they speak fast, they use slang, ambient noise can obstruct your understanding, etc. -- you have to master all that to be fluent. And remember that passive recognition of someone else using the language is a LOT easier than active generation of grammatically correct and fluent oral or written sentences by you! Work on generation, not just passive recognition. The effort of generation helps with memorization also.

    Also, physical flashcards are pretty cumbersome. I recommend the freeware flashcard program anki (google to find it). This lets you organize your computerized flashcards into "decks" (broad subject areas like French, Korean, etc.), and then give individual flashcards tags (like how you tag emails in gmail). Anki will use an algorithm to systematically ask you specific words again after an interval of time, depending on how hard the word was for you to learn (there's details on the "scientific" basis of this on the site). It also has a "cram" mode which lets you study all the words with a given tag or set of tags (like "Latin textbook lesson 1" if you have a test coming up).

    Above all, work, work, work at all aspects of the language. No one activity holds the key, you have to do them all. Memorize grammar and vocabulary. Watch video. Talk to people. And be active not passive: when you aren't sure if you have something exactly right, force yourself to get it right. Give yourself challenges to figure out (like "I will understand EVERY word in EVERY sentence in my favorite French movie") and then use the flashcard program to memorize everything you discover while completing your challenge.

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  34. Oh, also, make a friend who doesn't speak English or wants to work on their English, and then get them to correct your writing or speaking. (You can also pay a tutor for this, of course, but that gets very expensive!)

    Then make "deals" with your friend: I'll correct all the grammar in your 20 page translation into English if you'll correct all the grammar in my 20 page translation into Korean. Make sure they promise to explain their corrections.

    Or, perhaps you friend has an area of interest, and will agree to correct your grammar in exchange for you translating something into their language. It can even be something silly: suppose they are fascinated by Charlie Sheen's meltdown. Well, offer to translate one of his online rants into their language, in exchange for them correcting your mistakes. Even the challenge of finding equivalents for some of Charlie's bizarre neologisms can help you learn. You remember stuff better when it's an active challenge reinforced by flashcard memorization, not just passive memorization of a list of words whose precise nuances re. usage and meaning you don't understand.

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  35. itissaid,

    This post is about the effectiveness of a language learning method, not about whether or not NSETs are supposed to learn Korean. With your irrelevant comment in the "union" post, that's two strikes in two back-to-back posts. If you are not capable of giving a relevant comment, shut the fuck up and go somewhere else.

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  36. Based on the discussion in the comments, the Korean made some clarifications in the OP.

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  37. Immersion works only if you are combining it with regular studying, or you are 10 or under. I am in a unuque position to attest to this, because I learned English through immersion only as a ten year old. I learned Spanish through memorizing grammar and vocabulry later. Still, no amount of memorizatio does you a bit of good if you do not start using it. The things you memorize have to be put in context, by using them they become readily accessible in the brain.

    Still, I am no linguist.

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  38. If you are not capable of giving a relevant comment, shut the fuck up and go somewhere else.

    That's very Christian of you.

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  39. Ha! Being a Christian does not mean I have to tolerate every rudeness and stupidity. Bye, itissaid. Don't let the door hit your ass on your way out.

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  40. You didn't expect furious comments? I thought that was your whole point.

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  41. I think my problem with the original post had to do with rote memorization being held up as the best/only real method towards true, adult-level fluency. This, I think, does not take into account how different people learn, and generalizes one style as being superior because it worked for The Korean (as a sidenote, this method also works pretty well for me). There are many other people (adults and children) for whom rote memorization causes their brains to shut down and they learn terribly little, because that style of learning is not something they adapt to terribly well.

    Whittled down to the core, the argument, I think, is better: that language learning as an adult is not for the faint-of-heart. That it's not easy, and it takes hard work, and study, and dedication. I still don't agree that rote memorization has to be in there, that there are other methods that might be best for other people, but I will absolutely agree that determination and hard work are necessary no matter what style in which you study.

    On immersion, there needs to be something else besides just being surrounded by the language. There needs to also be environmental pressure on the learner to learn and use the language. Children pick up their first languages for a couple of reasons: because their brains are gooey piles of sponge waiting to do that, because they are fully immersed in a language environment, and because there is pressure on them. They need to learn to communicate in order to get what they want.

    Despite itissaid's claims, in the larger cities in Korea, it is entirely possible to get by without speaking any Korean. There is remarkably low pressure on myself and my friends to learn any Korean (obviously, this will be different for smaller towns). English is just common enough, and people are pretty accommodating even when things get taken down to charade-level communication. The NSET program, in most cities, even sets itself up to remove any pressure to learn Korean, by providing each new teacher with a generally serviceable English-speaking co-teacher/surrogate parent. People who go on to learn are either particularly interested, think they'll stick around longer, or have enough Korean-speakers in their lives that environmental pressure starts to build.

    It is incredibly difficult to maintain the motivation to learn a language without the environmental pressure to do so. If you don't have to, you can easily ignore the immersion you're in, and set fire to your flashcards. If the path of least resistance is to not bother, most people are going to do it.

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  42. @TK: A small point of order.

    The level of fluency that the Korean seeks to achieve is very specific: it is the level of proficiency possessed by educated members of the society, i.e. college-level.

    This statement uses the wrong tense. It should read:

    "The level of fluency that the Korean sought to achieve was very specific: it was the level of proficiency possessed by educated members of the society, i.e. college-level."

    Your written English as it stands is indistinguishable from that of a well educated native speaker.

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  43. "It was the level of proficiency possessed by educated members of the society, i.e. college-level" might imply that this level of proficiency is no longer held by such people.
    Apologies for being pedantic.

    I can attest that rote memorisation is crucial in learning a language beyond a certain standard.

    Being part of the younger generation of Singapore, I'm expected to achieve fluency in both English and my mother tongue (Mandarin).

    Somehow, in my early years, I managed to grasp the grammatic aspects of both languages.

    Given that I had little to no exposure in Mandarin in the first 8 years of my schooling life, I had a low proficiency in Mandarin.
    Upon entering a school which placed much more emphasis on Mandarin, I was forced to speak and write more of the language, and I did notice some improvement. Not much, but at least I spoke much more fluently. I even gained a slight accent when speaking Mandarin.

    Of course, I'm leaving out the awkward pauses where I forget how to say certain words in Mandarin. Most of these words were taught during Mandarin lessons. I failed to memorise them because I was a lazy kid.

    So yes, the environment does help one to improve in a language. However, there's no way one can truly grasp a language well without some form (actually, a lot) of memorisation.


    As for English, refer to this comment. I hope it's not too bad...

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  44. anageonism,

    There are many other people ... for whom rote memorization causes their brains to shut down and they learn terribly little, because that style of learning is not something they adapt to terribly well.

    Their brain might shut down, but only because they are undisciplined and lazy. Allowances should be made for people with differing abilities, but it should not be made for people who are not willing to work hard.

    Take a look at this NYT article about the new book Moonwalking with Einstein. Good memory is not some god-given gift. It is something that develops through work.

    Ryan,

    Thank you for the comment -- grammatical corrections are always welcome. But the whole sentence was not written clearly at any rate. It was supposed to talk about what the Korean's method is aimed toward, not the Korean himself. The OP was corrected to reflect that.

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  45. TK -- Undisciplined and lazy? Well, maybe. But if a student is able to absorb new vocabulary or learn a language more easily by using a method that is not rote memorization, what does it matter? Is learning only valuable if it's a pain in the ass?

    I will never understand people who need to get a little bit vicious about different kinds of learners being accommodated into the system. What about that is threatening enough that it needs to be balked at? If the kid is learning at their highest potential, one way or another, what does it matter?

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  46. INP,

    if a student is able to absorb new vocabulary or learn a language more easily by using a method that is not rote memorization, what does it matter?

    But the student will NEVER reach college-level proficiency without rote memorization. That's true even with the first language, and even truer with the second.

    I will never understand people who need to get a little bit vicious about different kinds of learners being accommodated into the system. What about that is threatening enough that it needs to be balked at? If the kid is learning at their highest potential, one way or another, what does it matter?

    Ah, the heart of the question. This connects back to the "discipline" point that the Korean always emphasizes. Here is the point: If a kid never learns to overcome her own tendency to despair, procrastinate or quit at every difficulty, she will NEVER, EVER, EVER reach her highest potential.

    That is the thing that the Korean finds so threatening -- the constant attempts to find easier, easier ways so that the person gets lazier, lazier. Human learning is not like computer learning. It's not skill-by-skill. (Deep Blue is incredibly good at chess, but it cannot even tie shoe laces.) Human learning completely depends on attitude and willingness to learn. Cultivating that willingness, which stays true in the face of adversity, should be the first order of any learning.

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  47. That's fine and a good point, but I think a lot of the people who are criticizing rote memorization are not working with students who are anywhere near college level proficiency. Take my students, for example: Memorizing 200 words in English is a week is going to do them literally zero good. They may retain a few, randomly, but for the most part, those words are going to go into the short term memory only to be dumped out again to make room for the next ones. That's time wasting.

    As for your second point, I just don't agree. And this is a point of personal frustration, I can admit. Not for myself. I was always top of my class in school. But I watched my very intelligent little brother be told over and over again that he was undisciplined and lazy. And he's anything but. But if a student cannot learn in the only one narrow way that is provided, and is continually berated on all sides for it, it's not fair to expect that student to persevere. It's a student's job to learn, but it is a teacher's job to teach. And not to teach only in the easiest way. That is the teacher being lazy, not the student. I'm not talking about easier ways of learning -- I'm talking about different ways of learning. If you give a student a chance, you'd be surprised the passion and endurance they can pull out. Not even trying is what happens when a student has put in everything that they have, and are still not able to do things in the "right" way.

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  48. Ah, the heart of the question. This connects back to the "discipline" point that the Korean always emphasizes. Here is the point: If a kid never learns to overcome her own tendency to despair, procrastinate or quit at every difficulty, she will NEVER, EVER, EVER reach her highest potential.

    That is the thing that the Korean finds so threatening -- the constant attempts to find easier, easier ways so that the person gets lazier, lazier ... Human learning completely depends on attitude and willingness to learn. Cultivating that willingness, which stays true in the face of adversity, should be the first order of any learning.


    My job is directly related to K12 education, and that thought expressed clearly is one of the most profound I've ever heard in the context of education and parenting.

    All rational and emotional arguments for or against "Tiger Parenting" aside, unless your child is exceptionally talented or driven or gifted with genius level intelligence (and perhaps still then), it's impossible to disagree with this.

    My 한국어 학교 starts next week. Let's see if I've got what it takes. ^_^

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  49. Theres something the Korean has missed that i'd like to point out, and that is that a majority of Koreans refuse to speak in their own language with foreigners. A common (and quite frustrating) scenario here is this. I say or ask something in Korean. The Korean person completely understand s but they respond in English. I politely ask them to speak in Korean. They become confused or lose interest in the conversation. Koreans are rather eager to practice English and i've walked away from such types on many occasions. I've had people even demand that i speak English with them. For 6 months i pretended to be French and not understand English. The result? Many more opportunities to speak and practice all the vocab and grammar structures I've been learning through countless hours of flashcards on the subway. It can see how it could be discouraging to an esl teacher just starting to learn korean. Koreans are not used to hearing their own language with a foreign accent. They also dont seem to think of their language as important in the world. I agree that wrote memorization is a key tool in language acquisition but so is plugging those words into meaningful conversation with native speakers. I need to use a word about 10 times before it sticks and i can reach into the memory banks and pull it out instantly. I also need to use it with another human being to know if my use of that vocab is appropriate. For example i discovered today that saying 누가 방귀 했어? Who farted? Was all wrong. The pronunciation is 누가 방구 낐어? Interestingly older korean people have always a source of inspiration to me (although i struggle with honorifics) They'll listen patiently and teach you more than the younger generation os generally willing to.

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