Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Korean's English Acquisition, and the Best Method to Master a Foreign Language, Guaranteed

Dear Korean,

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

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.

I began my American schooling at the beginning of the second semester of the tenth grade. I recall the despair of my first few months at school. I was literally Charlie Brown in a classroom as my teachers spoke “wah-wah-wah.” I had to join the school choir, not because I liked singing but because it was one of the few classes that I could take without knowing much English. One time, after being at a loss facing a pop quiz in my biology class with a picture of a leaf absorbing carbon dioxide and expelling oxygen, I filled out the entire quiz in Korean just to confirm to myself that I did not suddenly become stupid by moving to America, and the knowledge of photosynthesis that I had in Korean did not disappear somehow.

광합성이 뭔지는 알고 있었는데 말이죠.

(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?)

On top of that, I was expected to take the SATs, and score high. What an absurdity that was, that I had such an expectation. I took an SAT diagnostic exam, and faced the lowest score of any examination that I have ever taken in my life. And that’s with the perfect score in math. (This is back when SAT I was just verbal and math. In fact, I could not believe that American high school students struggle with SAT I math, which I covered in sixth grade in Korea.)

English had to be learned. I tackled this problem like a good Korean student – rote memorization. It seemed obvious to me that without knowing words, my English would go nowhere. I decided that I should memorize every single word in my sight that I did not know. I bought many boxes of empty flashcards and wrote the words I did not know on one side, and the definition on the other side.

This was not an easy task. Finishing a simple homework would create a pile of cards, since I probably understood one out of ten words in my textbook. Working on one diagnostic SAT took weeks, because I was so terrible in the verbal section to the degree that it was comical. In a typical sentence completion question where I was supposed to choose the right word for an empty space in a sentence, I did not know all five of the possible choices, and two more words from the sentence itself. And there were a hundred questions like them.

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.

Go Bears.

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:


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


  1. I concur with the Korean that memorization is key to learning a language, but the most effective means of memorization are somewhat dependent on the best learning style of the student. For some, rote memorization, like making and reading flashcards, like the Korean did early on is the most effective. This is how my Korean father learned what English he knows.

    For me, I've found that I learn words most effectively by learning a word (or grammatical structure) and immediately applying it, both in writing/speaking and reading/listening. Context appears to be the strongest link in my own language learning, once I've advanced beyond the most elementary stage of language learning (phonics and script).

    In that sense, immersion is very effective for context-based learners, because it creates repetition of words in context, but it still requires the initial memorizing of words, or the memorizing of words as you go to fill in the gaps. And the discipline to look up words that you don't know and practice putting it in context.

    Of course, this does nothing for accents, which just requires careful listening and practice. To this day, I still cannot roll my "rr" in Spanish nor am I able to ditch my American accent, but I imagine if I cared enough to practice it methodically, I'd be able to make it happen.

    1. Yes, education & adult education, (what teenagers are becoming), has 5 sense styles, auditory, visual, kinetic or hands on... We are not using this well yet. It is not part of traditional way but more and more teachers try to engage all so larger group can benefit.

      Some are combo, audio-visual. Must see and hear.

      Also, memory using all senses is reinforcement. Writing notes, reading, speaking out loud to self while writing engages hearing and touch, plus visual memory of written notes has touch and sight.

      I believe this should be all used, each one of us different. There's quizes to learn your learning style. But involving parts outside of your learning style while employing it is harder but much more efficient. The Korean used writing, reading, definitions and memory tricks, to make visual cards, but also watched tv and repeated sounds... Every style therefore can and does benefit from repetition and memorization.

  2. Best post since 'Fan Death' - and actually goes along with something I wrote about hagwons and learning not too long ago at

  3. Really nice article. I still think 'fun immersion' is an important part of learning a language, but there's no denying active memorisation of vocabulary is essential.

  4. Thanks for this amazing post, Korean! I've been living in Korea for 1 and a half year now and I've been struggling to learn Korean. Although I can read and write enough to communicate, my girlfriend says I sound like a 5-year-old child when I speak (which is not true, because I'm sure my fluency is much worse).

    Your article was good to make me realize I have to drop this idea that pure "immersion" will make me speak Korean. Especially because my immersion is partial, since I study in a GSIS and all my classes are in English.

    But I will take this chance to ask you for some help. You mentioned watching The Simpsons and other shows, which helped you learning words and pronouncing them the right way. I feel that learning a language has this "muscular" issue that has to be overcome, and in this point I have to say that having fun while practicing makes a lot of difference (come on, you too had FUN watching The Simpsons!). When I think of my English learning experience, I realize how much singing and repeating lines said on TV shows helped my pronunciation improve.

    My question is: Do you know fun TV stuff in Korea that you'd recommend? Anything other than cheesy dramas and movies. Funny stuff that don't include an audience saying "oooohhhh!!!" to everything the stupid host says. It could be anything, as long as it inspires me to memorize and repeat sentences. English has this advantage: you can find ANYTHING to watch. But in Korean, oh God, it's hard.

    Once again, congrats for the post! Keep on the good work!

  5. Good stuff!
    I use to live in Berkeley for 2 years. Miss that place so badly! sigh...

  6. great post. reminds me of my fob days: 9-years old and only knowing "yes; no; i don't speak ing-gu-rish." took me months to understand what voltron's "and i'll form the head!" meant...

  7. Any really funny sitcom, or serial would help to improve my Korean as well...

    I guess memorization gain bad reputation because there must have been too much of it in older education systems. It happens, you are just memorizing all the stuffs, but you can not apply that knowledge. Indeed, that is more difficult than memorizing.

    Thank you for the post!

  8. Korean-
    This is the best thing I've read online this week (maybe longer). I'm a 33 yr White lady from the Midwest. I have been taking Korean lessons for about 6 months, with limited success. To be honest, I've been lazy about my studies and have long suspected that your method was probably required. Thanks for the wake up call.I appreciate it that you've backed up your key points with literature and research - I'll definitely check out those books. Now, I'm off to Target to buy more flashcards.


  9. I never understood why people were against memorizing things like multiplication tables and vocabulary. Certain things, you just need to have ready in your arsenal.

  10. Couldn't agree more. I know current linguists snub their noses at rote memorization (mostly because it creates "stiff" language), but it's really the only way I learned my other 2 languages (German and Japanese). I would make lists of vocabulary and study/memorize them. I learned hiragana, katakana, and kanji by writing them repeatedly. And once you can decipher patterns of grammar, syntax, and conjugation, the only thing really left to do is expand your vocabulary. I was the best student in my languages classes (and even when I dabbled in Russian, although I could barely speak the language). Why? Memorization.

    Lately I've been trying to learn Korean, and I've found it much harder than the previous languages I've studied. It's only after I read this article that I realize why - I've been trying the more current immersion tactics. It just doesn't work - no matter how much Korean TV or music I listen to, I'm only able to decipher a couple of words and barely any phrases. Sure, it helps with pronunciation and listening comprehension (especially with Japanese - my teachers would tell me I sounded like a native speaker), but it just can't replace the rote memorization method (at least for me).

    Glad to see others are keeping the good ol' rote memorization method alive.

  11. Well, at the time I'm trying to learn Korean and I started by learning Hangul consonants and vowels, a lot of people say that It's impossible for a non Korean to learn the language, is it really impossible?

  12. In response to Nov: no, it's not impossible for a non-Korean to learn Korean fluently. Korean is not some gift from god to Koreans that only they are genetically programmed to understand, although some would like to believe this. I'm studying Korean and still have a ways to go- would put myself at high school level now (though there are weird gaps in my vocabulary since I didn't grow up speaking Korean- I know the word for photosynthesis but not windowsill, for example).

    I think the biggest problem for non-Asians in particular learning Korean in Korea is that most people cannot believe that you would know Korean, and speak to you like a big child (as well as speak about you in loud voices when you are RIGHT THERE). This also makes entering into conversation with any new person discouraging. I am willing to bet this impedes Korean language learning to a level not found in English learning in the US (as at least where I'm from, it's terribly rude to talk to someone of any race as if they cannot possibly understand "for here or to go?"). I did not encounter these problems in China, and to a much lesser extent in Japan.

  13. Thank you for this post on both a personal level (reminding me to get back to my two hours a day regime with the Korean study since I actually want to learn the darned language) and a professional level. Your dedication to language acquisition is impressive.

    However, I disagree with one point you've made (that I've seen you make before) which is this: that displanting an American high school student into the Korean system and watching them (inevitably) fail would somehow suggest that this is entirely because the Korean academics are superior to U.S. ones. Although I agree with you that it would be near impossible to accomplish in Korea what you did in America, I believe that has more to do with the Korean system's civil rigidity. Korean school systems prepare students for a single test and not much more than that. American high school students, encouraged to value choice and practical, experiential learning, would resist such a system. However, going from the more rigid system to the more flexible one (one that, it must also be noted, supports and nurtures the transition of alien residents), meant that you had the opportunity to succeed that an American in the reverse situation would not have received. (This is in NO WAY disparaging your hard work that achieved this result. Many others in your same situation have not succeeded).

    Having taught at elite schools in both countries, I am well aware that the technical level of knowledge required of average Korean students is higher than that of American ones, but I have seen little difference in the abilities, knowledge, or skills acquisition of the top students in either country. America would do well to support education as Korea does (to the extent that it is practically worshipped, and as you describe your own father's sacrifices for your education, which is very common in Korea and almost unheard of in the U.S.) and to raise the standards especially in math and science, but Korean middle and high schools would benefit from an introduction of more rounded and practical education. I find it disgusting that at a top academic high school, Korean literature is taught out of test prep books and that students do not perform experiments in their science classes. A top (or even fairly average) high school in America would never allow that.

    Both systems have advantages and flaws, but an American student's failure in a Korean high school would not be a sweeping damnation of America's soft standards as you imply. It would be the inevitable result of a school system designed to support a homogeneous culture of which said American is not a part.

    Sorry for the digression and mildly off-topic response to this post, which as I've said, I admire. I've seen this statement before in your blog, and I guess I'm finally choosing to respond.

  14. Diana, thanks for the thoughtful comment. There will be another big series about Korean educational system generally, but the Korean finds your point interesting. Let us have a little discussion, as long as it does not go out of hand into a larger debate.

    The point about going from a rigid system to a flexible system is an interesting one. In that case, the Korean's question is: does this mean that "value choice" and "experiential learning" are relatively easier skills to pick up, while discipline and rote memorization are relatively harder?

  15. Well, experiential learning is, in its very nature, learning from experiences. So in that way, yes, it is easier to pick up from life. And students in America are no longer trained in disciplined memorization, so only a few students figure out how to do it (in America, I spent a LOT of time teaching students study skills that they had failed to "pick up" in school... and these were 11th graders. Often successful ones at that. They'd just never had to study anything so they never learned how to do it. I actually personally never learned to do it until university--and even then only because I chose a major that I'm not particularly naturally talented in--English lit.).

    However, I find that in Korea, not having been trained in critical thinking and how to reflect and process the lessons life teaches (something good American teachers routinely teach and require in classes) puts some Korean students at a distinct disadvantage when having to deal with something new and unfamiliar. I think this may be one of the reasons that Korean foreign university students in the U.S. have some of the lowest graduation rates (I've been following some of the articles from awhile back). Here are some of the BEST students from Korea, and they can't manage school because all of a sudden school is about more than just studying.

    But more than that, you were in a school where writing your Biology quiz in Korean still earned you a 100%. If a kid at my school readjusting to Korean life flaked out and wrote in all some other language, our Biology teacher would simply fail him/her. No consulting. Just fail. And we are a foreign language school that HAS the foreign language supports in school. This is what I mean by success is possible moving to the more flexible system, but not the other way around. The very flexibility (softness, as you call it) of the American system is what ALLOWED a student like you to succeed. I don't see this as a failure of the system. I see it as one of the few glowing reviews of its success.

    Your process reminds me of a Japanese foreign exchange student I had one year. She was in my grade-level English 11 class (NOT an ESL class), and despite how hard she worked, her first quarter she got a D in my class because it took her 5 times as long to do all the assignments as the other students in my class. I was heartbroken because I knew how hard she was working. But she was disciplined, like you, and by the end of the year, she was earning Bs across the board. Did I give her 88% an A in the fourth quarter? You bet I did. Softness? I don't think so.

    Just some more thoughts. I look forward to your post on the system.

  16. wow - I have to say this is the single most useful piece I have read since coming here 5 months ago - I've forwarded it on to all of the English teachers that I know - thank you, thank you, thank you

  17. In that case, the Korean's question is: does this mean that "value choice" and "experiential learning" are relatively easier skills to pick up, while discipline and rote memorization are relatively harder?

    Heck ya!

    Granted, Diana already answered your question very well. I totally agree with her about critical thinking skills. (I teach at a public high school in Seoul.)

    On a personal level, geez louise, I wish I stayed in a school that used memorization longer when I was younger. My sister and I were fortunate enough to go to a ridiculously old-fashioned Christian school for my early education where when recited the times tables and phonics daily kindergarten through 1st or 2nd grade. When we transferred to public school in later elementary, we were both no less than a grade level ahead in every single subject area (and higher in most subjects).

    These days, I'm trying to learn Korean and for the life of me, I wish I could summon my stellar memorization skills again but it's literally been DECADES since I was expected to learn that way. Now, living here in Asia, the womb of "learning by memorization" I'm getting killed in classes where the teachers have it in their minds that people working 40 hours a week are seriously going to be memorizing buckets of words each lesson.

    So the real question is, how does someone taught to learn through process (ie. experimentation) and immersion rewire their brain to learn by rote memorization?

  18. oh...(it's not my intention to hurt anyone, but our education system)...anyone who wishes to learn how to memorize, you can come to Hungary too. from elementary school to the end of university, you can memorize long-long texts, wonderful numbers and: names! your suffering is guarenteed! and as a reward: you won't need any of these information anymore during your whole life! so as you don't use it, you will be able to really test yourself like: twenty years passed, since I heard that last, but still I do remember? how beautiful! I know, this skill sometimes can be very useful. I'm using irony because I'm exhausted of studying at this moment T_T

  19. So I guess, Fi, that the trick is making sure you memorize long lists of things you'll actually use later, if you have a say in it.

    Great post. You've inspired me to start making flash cards, and stop making excuses.

  20. hands down, your best. post. ever.

  21. Did the Korean family use the same methods (particularly the Korean Brother) and did they generate similar results?

  22. One key factor is your natural aptitude for language. Despite a similar level of effort using similar methodology, some people catch on more easily and completely. I believe this is especially true with pronunciation.

    I came at 7, and my brothers at 11, 12 and 13. The 12 yo was always more facile with language. He picked up English much faster and better than the other two, and then 15 years later was able to reconnect with Korean faster and better than the other two.

    Having been so much younger, you'd expect me to do better and I did. But I've also met people who immigrated around my age who never lost their Korean accent. Although, I too, believe I have that Korean-American intonation.

  23. to Roboseyo:
    that means, I should have emigrated by now. because inside the education system, I don't have a choice. and if I want to study by myself, I can do that anywhere in the world.

  24. Diana & t-hype,

    The Korean is still sorting the issue through, but right now this is his tentative thinking:

    The Korean agrees that American system could use more rote memorization, and Korean system could use more critical thinking.

    But the Korean's thought is that Korean system only needs a little bit of this much-hyped "critical thinking," as essential as it is. The Korean, entirely a product of Korean educational system, never had a moment in America where he thought: "Gee, I would do better in school if I had more critical thinking skills." In fact, the Korean was one of the best students in his HS although he had no more critical thinking skills than what was provided to him through Korean educational system.

    (On a side note, the Korean does not think the "lack of critical thinking" rationale only explains a tiny bit of why Korean exchange students graduate at a low rate -- but that's too big of a topic to tackle for now.)

    On the other hand, moving the American educational system toward the direction of more rote memorization would be nearly impossible without causing a riot. Just imagine the howls of the parents!

    Separately, Diana's point about American system being more supportive and flexible is certainly valid. But the Korean still thinks that the standard is awfully low if a Korean student at age 16 can beat out all but one student without knowing English for half of the time he spent in school. What the hell were other students doing in all those years?

  25. well, The Korean,

    I'd posit that coming from a highly contextual language to one that is hella low-context is a tad easier as well. Especially if memorization is your primary tool.

    Bottom line though...The Korean, you're a sample size of 1. You got into Berkeley and your command of English in written form is better than that of some natural-born American college grads. You're not normal. But you didn't need me to tell you that. ;)

    I know you hate K-pop but here's a couple of comparisons: Se7en studied English for two years in America. He sounds like this. Rain studied English for MORE than two years. (I even talked to one of the guys who worked VERY hard with him) and he sounds like this. *poor baby* JYP's Wonder Girls claim to have been studying English 6 hours a day with a tutor and they sound like this...1.5 of them can speak in complete sentences.

    Don't underestimate the power of a good memory. President Bush couldn't process information very well but people said he had an excellent memory. You have to know something to keep a "C" average, right?

    Anyways, it's obvious both processing AND memory are required for superior intelligence. That's just one reason why I voted for Obama.

    Thank you.

  26. I agree with t-hype in that your natural abilities come into play here. I was never "trained" in memorization, but I found it a relatively simple skill to pick up (I used to memorize whole acts from Shakespeare plays for fun... I kid you not), just as you lacked formal training in critical thinking, but as this blog so clearly demonstrates, have quite a knack for it.

    We are the exception. Most students don't just randomly "pick up" skills like that. Just as they won't just randomly "pick up" a language through immersion and "fun" alone. However, I have met folks talented enough to learn this way.

    And you like to claim you were an "average" student in Korea, but while an A- might not make you 엄친아, it is far from "average." I know quite a few A-/B+ students in Korea who would be A+ students in the U.S. and more than a few B+/A- students in the U.S. who would do better in a Korean-style system based on memorization and test scores (not Korea itself, as I noted, but an education system designed around the same principles). Not dreadfully surprisingly, most of these students are second-generation Asian or African immigrants where parents tend to place higher values on education in general.

    Which reminds me of the MAIN difference I see between Korean and American education: parental emphasis. You had support for your studies at home in both Korea and America, and you readily admit that it was a major influence in your desire to learn. Even American families that support education (such as my science Ph.D., book-hoarding parents who still can't understand why I went into English education of all things), just don't make it the only priority for a young person. I remember my Asian friends in high school thought my parents were abusing me because I had to do chores every day and find other times to do my homework. Some of the students I taught at age 16 were expected to be the "man of the house" and have a job and support their mom and siblings. I don't think any of them even cared about valedictorian rankings. For them, it was amazing if they graduated.

    Different values at home make a huge difference. Once homes in Korea stop being as supportive of education (and some of the social trends indicate this is coming--many of the teachers at my school tell me it's already here), Korea will see a similar decline in the education of average level students who never had a hope of getting into SKY in the first place.

  27. Fi, there is no such thing as "useless knowledge". All knowledge is useful. Don't envy Americans -- they may have fun during school, but they often turn out not knowing anything.

    Daeguowl, the Korean Brother did, but in a little less hardcore manner. His English development was a little slower than the Korean, but he is fine now. You would not be able to tell he did not speak English previously.

  28. t-hype & Diana,

    You are probably right. And it's freakin' hilarious that you refer to umchin'a. The Korean can see you are starting your slow but sure march to ajumma-hood.

  29. I can probably shed some light on how you were able to excel in high school and why you thought American high school students were slackers. There's a huge range of American high schools and you probably attended a mediocre one.

    I'm guessing that the Korean went to a mediocre public high school such as Gahr/Cerritos High School. If the Korean went to Whitney, the rest of my post should just be disregarded and the Korean really is a genius. I went to a mediocre public high school in good, old Downey, CA. It's not far from your old stomping grounds, Cerritos. Mediocre public high schools are not teeming with competitive, ambitious students. Magnet public high school such as Stuyvesant in NYC that require an entrance exam or a public high school in a really rich area such as Peninsula in Palos Verdes provide very different experiences than mediocre high schools. It's a huge difference in teachers' attitudes and students' goals. Many of the students who attend the aforementioned high schools are very serious students and enter the most selective colleges here in the US.

    My point is: Non-slacker American high schools students exist and they generally attend magnet public high schools, public high schools in wealthy neighborhoods, or elite boarding preparatory schools in New England.

  30. One other comment...

    Learning can indeed be fun and it should be fun. As a fellow Korean-American who was taught math from her Korean father at home for 10 years, I slightly disagree with the Korean about America's attitude about learning. I think Koreans too often associate doing anything honorable such as learning with suffering. Learning does not have to be equated with suffering. People spend at least 12 years of their life in elementary, middle, and high schools. All of those hours in the classroom do not have to be terrible. The process of acquiring knowledge can be fascinating especially if one independently figures out a concept instead of being lectured. I often compared my dad's attitude about learning and my teachers' attitudes about learning. I've concluded that my dad, whose attitude seems indicative of many other Koreans, too often just saw any academic challenge as pain instead of a unique mystery.

    Just my $.02.

  31. mich,

    The Korean did not attend Whitney; he was too dumb for that. :) In general, the Korean just can't take seriously the idea that he is some kind of a genius. He is not. He is not even that bright; he has met countless number of people who is smarter than he, both in Korea and in America.

    And your point about school differential is definitely valid. But the Korean is willing to bet that even the top Stuyvesant HS student would not be able to graduate second in class if she was dropped into a mediocre HS in Seoul like, say, 언북 or 상문 at age 16. (Not that the Korean was ever a "top student at Stuy" material.) She probably would not be able to take the beating.

    The Korean also agrees that learning can be fun. In an ideal world, that would always be the case. But not all aspects of learning can be fun all the time. Trying to make it so is unproductive and harmful.
    It erodes discipline and maturity -- the ability to do well the things one hates. The Korean hates to sound like Phil Gramm, but America indeed is becoming a nation of whiners, bitching and moaning about every small discomfort. There is a tremendous value in learning early on that life is not always fun and games.

    1. I agree with the Korean. He’s probably above average, not a genius. I’ve hosted many Korean High School exchange students and lived in a very affluent suburb of Chicago where 30-35% the High School Juniors scored above a 1400 SAT (with a lot less test prep than the Korean students.) The Korean students could memorize, but often their problem solving skills were pathetic.
      I served on the affluent suburban School Board and I can explain where the notion that learning/school should be fun—the schools of Education in the US (supplying most k-8 education) especially since 1980 when the smartest and most academic women rejected teaching as a profession, leaving mostly the very ‘nurturing” or camp counselor types to enter the K-8 classroom. Many k-8 teachers are pretty weak academically.
      Most of the better education generation are appalled by the decline in public education ( I myself received an excellent public education in circa 1960s’ and it was not always fun—but often challenging and interesting.) I am NOT a memorizer but I scored pretty well on the SAT (before adjustments) with NO test prep. Took it cold in 1972. Memorization has a definite role in knowledge mastery--but I've learned the memorization can masquerade as critical thinking when the SAT is the benchmark.

      The focus on ‘suffering to learn” does not pay off (ultimately) in the best jobs in the US or the most professional achievement when people skills are a factor. The Korea High School students for example were very unhappy about the possibility and actuality, that often the most ‘hard working” student did not win all the prizes nor were they very popular or socially adjusted. Very disturbing. They were tone deaf to social nuances (often born in the US but raised by native Koreans). This resulted in an odd sense of entitlement which raised resentment among other non-Korean students.

      The unveiled focus on money—earning the most while being the least generous also proved to hurt the Koreans socially. They did not understand that ‘capitalism” is supposed to be softened by a Christian attitude (see founding fathers) of generosity and reciprocation.
      They were self centered and did not understand teamwork. They did not understand how ‘team players’ often achieved leadership roles. The Korean HS kids expected academic achievement to qualify them for leadership positions.
      Many of the Koreans openly derided the military service, even when in the presence of US military veterans or their families. (Another big zero if you want to be accepted into American society.) Of course very liberal Americans might not notice this character trait. Korean students told me the only reason the US fought for South Korea was to maintain global supremacy. Wow, say that to an American veteran of the Korean War!!
      I could go on. Suffice to say; I learned a very good lesson through my relationships with Korean students. While I respect the ‘work ethic”, I learned the dark side of that work ethic and became more accepting of less academically oriented (or gifted) kids.
      I’ve always had great respect for the HS football lineman that becomes a fireman or enlists in the Marines. Then again, President Gerald Ford was a lineman for his college team at the University of Michigan.
      I would even go so far as to support immigration policies that require military service to become a citizen. That would challenge the ‘work ethic” of many Koreans. But I’ve also let go of much of my academic snobbery as a result of learning close up, the dark down side of total focus on academics Korean style.

  32. Check this article I read about a kid from Zambia.

  33. The major difference between rote memorization and critical thinking is outside the school. Critical thinking is taking the knowledge you have and twisting / changing it to make it applicable to a task at hand. Often this task is not something you've done before, do you might not have knowledge of the task. But by analyzing the task and applying critical thinking you know which pieces of knowledge to apply in which order to accomplish the task.

    Very few serious business's want employees who just memorized a bunch of numbers / facts / math to get a high score and a shiny degree. They want people who can think fast and have the skill sets required to learn new ways of doing things. This is especially true in the Information Technology field.

    But on the subject of language, because learning a language is a static thing, then rote memorization works wonderfully. It will give you the basic building blocks required to expand into the more liquid parts of a language.

    And yes some people are gifted in learning things by rote, especially language. I am an example of someone who is bad at learning language's / rote memorization, yet extremely good at analytical learning. I learn by taking things apart and understanding how and why they work the way they do, then reassembling them, then altering their configuration to make them to things they were not originally designed for. I've been trying to years to better my Hangul, and its slowly (like at glacier speed) getting better. Rote memorization is extremely difficult for me, I could never learn tables and lists, instead I learned the how and why the list was created and how to structure the list in my head rather then just memorizing it. Because of this I learned sentence structure, the Korean thought process, and many constructs before being able to make a complete sentence.

    In short, I can design complicated electronic / computer systems on a napkin, but have the hardest time memorizing a ten item grocery list.

  34. Here is a link to some heavy mental discussion.

  35. palladin,

    Thanks for the comment. Allow the Korean to push back a little bit. You seem to take it as a given that you are just an analytical learner. The Korean does not think that's true. Wouldn't you say that if you had been in an educational system that emphasized rote memorization, you would be a better memorizer than you are now?

  36. But that is the thing, my school taught to memorize by rote, I just was never good at it. It was easier for me to just learn the why behind the information then to just memorize the information itself. Nobody taught me to learn by analysis I just did it on my own.

    Case in point, I never memorized multiplication tables in elementary school, instead I just did the math in my head. This way any multiplication involving numbers bigger then 12 (12x12 is the limit on the standard multiplication table) I was able to do it quickly. My hardest subject was spelling because it required large amounts of memorization of list items rather then just spelling according to phonetics (English has too many special situations that don't follow the standard rules).

    Rote memorization has its place but it should never be the center piece of an education system. Just think about it in the context of a school system. The purpose of the class's is to teach you to pass a test, the purpose of the test is to check how hard you prepared for it (how much you memorized). Neither has actual value after you finish the school itself. The purpose of primary + secondary education is to prepare a youth to be a productive member of a society and to teach them valuable skill sets that need to be practiced / applied to a real function.

    To this end I believe our current education system is very broke, people are to focused on scores and not on the actual material learned and the skill sets taught. As for learning being fun, IDK about everyone else but I actually enjoy learning new things. My rule is to learn something new every day, and I mean something useful and not a bunch of random facts. My favorite subject in school was Physics followed by Chemistry and Calculus.

  37. Well, when you were not doing so well in rote memorization during school, that's when a healthy amount of beating would have straightened you up :) But that's a post for another day.

    But the Korean has a huge issue with this: Rote memorization has its place but it should never be the center piece of an education system. Just think about it in the context of a school system. The purpose of the class's is to teach you to pass a test, the purpose of the test is to check how hard you prepared for it (how much you memorized). Neither has actual value after you finish the school itself.

    The idea that rote memorization is useless is just not true. It teaches the most important skill in life -- discipline. Truth is, no one likes memorization. But sitting through it builds discipline (which is really just a fancy word for "being able to tolerate the shit you hate.") And truly, discipline has been the most important life skill that the Korean has ever learned.

  38. >> The idea that rote memorization is useless is just not true. It teaches the most important skill in life -- discipline. <<

    and broadly speaking, that s exactly what East Asians are good at and have an edge over Westerners.
    (no disagreement with what you said, this thread just shows that different cultures emphasize different aspects in their respective education system).

    my experience from living in Japan, arguably an advanced nation (but with an education system similar to the one in Korea), is exactly that: people are good at performing and perfecting routine procedures but fail once confronted with an
    unusual task.

    the productivity is appalling low in both countries, i see a clear connection between education system and strength/weaknesses of the work force.

  39. Thank you for sharing your experiences in learning/teaching yourself English. I was born in Korean but immigrated when I was 3 months old to Illinois. I then moved to Los Angeles when I was 16 and was truly shocked by the immense Korean population. My town is very similar to the town you moved to.

    Now The Commenter will write in Korea to The Korean:
    다짐을 하지 않고 열정이 없으면 새로운 언어는 절대 못 배우는것 같아요. 님이 쓰신 글을 읽고 느낀게... 아무리 주위에있는사람들이 "아 너 한국말 잘한다~"고 해도... 아직도 배울게 너무나도 많다는것, 그리고 제가 지금 7년제 스페인어를 배우고있는데 정말 원주민 처럼 얘기를하고싶으면 제가 훨씬더 열심히 해야된다는 다짐을 하고 갑니다.

  40. 열정이 없어도 제2외국어를 배울 수는 있어요... 졸라 맞으면서 ㅋ.

  41. 우와, 형 정말 짱이네요. 전 만 15살에 와서 이제 7년 좀 더 됐는데 네이티브 처럼 말할려면 아직도 멀었네요. 저도 미국에 처음왔을 때는 티비 보면서 많이 따라하면서 발음이나 억양은 빨리 좋아졌어요. 근데 그 이후로 책도 많이 안 읽고 단어 공부도 잘 안해서 영어실력을 더 향상시키지 못한듯 싶네요. 형이 논박할때 상대방의 의견을 인정하면서 자신의 생각을 펼칠 수 있는 형이 글 솜씨가 많이 부럽네요. 저도 앞으로 공부 부지런히 해서 형처럼 영어 쓰고 싶어요. 실례하지만 전공은 뭘 하셨나요? 대학원은요? 석사까지 하셨나요?

  42. 시간이 갈수록 한국식으로 두들겨 맞아가면서 무식하게 외우는게 역시 최고라는 확신이 듭니다. 대학 전공은 정치학이었구요, 대학원은 갔습니다. 어디갔는지는 비밀입니다. ^^

  43. I never said rote memorization was useless. I enjoy a good debate as much as anyone but please do not put works in my mouth (or on the screen).

    Discipline can be learned many ways, for me it was my father doing exactly what you suggested (although bad grades usually involved revocation of privileges for months). Usual punishment for poor grades was grounding + no video games + no friends over + no TV. It was just me and books, thankfully I always enjoyed reading.

    Also I believe there is a disconnect in the meaning of the word "fun". Learning can be "fun" without involving all that cutesy stuff you see with 7yr olds. For myself it was the enjoyment that I had gained knowledge that I didn't have before, the knowing that I had expanded my own inventory of usable knowledge. Its a proven fact that people will learn more in depth if they enjoy the subject their learning. They will seek to expand further into the subject itself and ask questions that are outside the presented material. This is seen in the difference between the physics teacher who writes out long equations on the chalkboard and drones on in a monotonous tone while telling the kids they need to memorize all of it vs the teacher who actually demonstrates the effects of those equations and has the class participate in those experiments.

    I remember my high school physics teacher using football to explain conservation of momentum (he was one of the football coaches and all the football guys attended his class, but he actually had his degree in physics and knew what he was talking about).

    My entire point about rote memorization is that its over hyped importance is just to prove the system its a part of. Basically you memorize a bunch of stuff without knowing the why and what of it, just to pass a test. The purpose of the test is to prove you can memorize a bunch of stuff without being able to apply it. This just creates a person who is capable of really good memorization, but is incapable of altering their thinking to adapt to a new unlearned situation.

    Case in point, me at a Korean burger king.
    Me > Can I have a double whopper with cheese
    Food Service > Ok

    again but slightly difference
    Me > Can I have a double whooper, no mustard
    Food Service > uhhhh ... ummm .... (goes to get manager).

    I'm not joking, this happens on a weekly basis. Thankfully I tend to visit the same restaurants in an area, so after awhile they memorize me as the "unique customer" and know what I ask for.

    [The Korea] I respect your knowledge of South Korea culture and language, but being surrounded by the results a pure "rote memorization" education system I can say without any doubt that it is not the way to go. It has its place, but as a central place it force's the mind of a young children into a rigid static structure.

  44. palladin,

    You are right, the Korean did not phrase that correctly. You never said rote memorization is useless. Apologies.

    He thinks that a lot of what you see (including the Burger King employee example) actually has nothing to do with the educational system. It is not as if the Burger King employee out here is a paragon of creative thought.

    At any rate, this discussion is really bleeding into a post about education that is already in the pipeline, so the Korean will pause here for now.

  45. Emm... I just wanted to express my onpinon about these whole education thing. First of all, I'm Korean and has been in North America since 2007.
    Oh, Like the Korean I also came to North America, to be more specific one year in US(2007) and two years in Canada(2008 and 2009), at the age of 16.

    Here people's opinons on the matter of education are largely separated into two poles, rote-memorization and liberal learning/creative learning.

    Recalling my experience in Korean High school, I was average student who are trained and taught in rote-memorization. That is how Korean school teach students. But! when I came to US I realized that I was one of the creative student in the class. Still I recall my fellow Korean students are as creative as students in here who presumably as you guys say trained and taught in creative/liberal education. Empirically speaking most of the time those people are who read lots of books and study materials that they are taught in the school again and again. I think creative thought rote memorization go along together. Please take note that of
    course I am not advocating rote-memorization without UNDERSTANDING. Well, what I mean by understanding is understanding through repetition. For sure you guys have studied more years than I did(I am still in high school.Thank god I am going to university next year! yay) then don't you guys read material again that you didn't understand at first sight? That's what I am talking about by repetition. Your retention rates significantly increase by simply re-reading.
    Even if you didn't understand the materials that you learned, by memorization you get them and understand them later by associating concenpts you learn later. Single variable calculus will be great example. Let's say you didn't understand chapter 1 of the text book. But by memorization even if you din't know what you are doing in chapter 1 you will get it in coming chapters(2,3 and so on) by associating materials you memorized in chapter 1 to chapter 2,3 and so on)
    That is my case but I am pretty sure most of the Korean students feel the same way. After all isn't that the creative thinking? We are human we are not robot and we got brain that means every body can think freely. After all those who critically think are the people who got lots of things in their brain. Once you accumulate knowledge critical thinking is just matter of a second.

    For the matter of Buger King employee case, I think that is just matter of cultural differences. However I do really appreciate the educational environments that North America promote, namely SPEAK UP. I was not used to expressing my opinons in front of lots of people(now I do here in Canada) while I was in Korea although I and lots of sutdents spoke up a lot while I was in elementary school but it suddenly changed once they enter middle school, high school, university? I don't know. I don't know why that happend. But it is true from my expreince.

    Oh by the way, the Korean I appreciate your advices and methods on language acquisition.

    Viva La Rote-memorization and Liberal education! I believe they go along.

  46. The end of the comments section begins to get into the difference between Korean and, let's say, Canadian culture. And that is, the value of discipline.
    It seems as though Koreans value discipline for discipline's sake. I remember reading in a book that Grammar Translation method (translating entire textbooks from English to Korean) was valuable on some kind of spiritual level. If you go to a typical Korean English classroom, you'll see a lot of discipline, but you'll also see a lot of glazed over eyes and hear many a droning, monotonous teacher. Where's the passion? My students are very diligent in rote memorizing, but outside of class the majority profess to HATE English.
    The idea that school must be horrendously boring, but long, to create disciplined people that have the ability to put up with endless boring work days, actually scares me quite a bit. That's life?
    What is the value of discipline if it is not accompanied by passion? I'd be interested to see some stats on the levels of job-satisfaction that Koreans feel relative to people in other countries.
    I get the feeling that Korean high school students, as a whole, are remarkably disciplined, but wholly unsatisfied. I wonder if this translates into the work world.. But this is off topic.

  47. Dear AAK,

    I'm currently studying Japanese and Mandarin Chinese, me being a native English speaker with some knowledge of Cantonese due to my mom's family being immigrants but no formal schooling. I was curious as to how fast you were absorbing and learning English.

    I'm currently learning vocab. and verbs from flash cards but Japanese and Chinese both incorporate characters in different forms. Seeing as how rote memorization is not particularly dominant in the USA, I was wondering if there was a way used in Korea for learning these languages?

    I'm currently 23 years old and would like to be fluent in either language by the time I reach 30 (or at least conversational). Also great post, I stumbled across your blog about a half year ago and have been a consistent reader since!

  48. Great post. Came upon it from Marginal Revolution. I am actually reading Crime and Punishment right now, incredible book. The Brothers Karamazov was pretty fantastic, but this is in its own right solid.

    I have a buddy who is similar to you. Came to the states with no English in HS. Rocked the SATs. Told me he would spend most of the time in the library reading and memorizing words he didn't know.

    As a Korean-American, I know how hard (native) Koreans work and can only say how I am spoiled compared to them. Memorizing is definitely not the sexiest way to do things but I think like all things, this strategy is tough to beat. Even to be creative requires undoubtedly a baseline of vocab and understanding of syntax where again I think repetition is key. I am studying for a few months in Korea to hopefully get decent at it (don't need to be an academic) but certainly this post is pushing me to spending a little more time memorizing and a little less trying to think immersion will be my saving grace.

    That being said, I do think that Koreans might "over-emphasize" the education card, especially within the context of what the US system and what it rewards. I don't mean this to say its necessarily a bad thing, just perhaps not the most optimal.

    Check it here:

  49. > 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.

    You can thank us hard-of-hearing and deaf folk for that one.

  50. To everyone interested in using this method: The Korean's advice is sensible as far as it goes, but his specific method is suboptimal in a psychological sense.

    Memorizing one stack at a time is inefficient (in terms of how many repetitions it takes to get something into long-term memory).

    Psychologists have known since Ebbinghaus's work in the 1880s that 'spaced repetition' is more effective than 'massed repetition':

    Fortunately, there's plenty of Free software like Mnemosyme which handles the flashcards for you (

  51. My comment, due to its length, does not fit in here.

    Please read here:

  52. Then came reading and writing. I started by reading my favorite books that were originally in English -- started with Les Miserables, then Brothers Karamazov.

    I'm nitpicking here, but Les Miserables was originally written in French, while Brothers Karamozov was written in Russian.

  53. If rote memorization was the key to learning a new language, than all Koreans would speak beautiful flawless English. God knows, how hard those students work to memorize all new words in English. Unfortunately, this cannot be further from the truth. By the way, I visited Korea a couple of years ago and it was a problem to find an English-speaking person in a store. As a language teacher with many years of experience, as a Russian who speaks English almost with no accent (I had to prove that I was Russian just today!)I will tell you what works: COMPREHENSIBLE INPUT. Learning any language is easy. Our brains are hard-wired for it. But just listening is not enough, the brain takes does not register things that we do not understand. You have acquired English not only due to your hard work, but because you provided yourself with huge amounts of comprehensible input - by listening and reading. I highly recommend one method that I practice myself as a teacher - TPRS. You are welcome to believe whatever you want to believe, but current research does not support your statements. Other than this, it is fun reading your blog, even though I do not know why you have to be so secretive about your real name. Comsummidah!

  54. "Suck it up..."

    First time reader here, born in the United States. Thank you very much for your "Suck it up" attitude -- if there is one thing more than anything else missing from our culture right now, it's this attitude. We used to have it, but we lost it -- maybe we can get it back from good folks like yourself.

  55. Much more efficient than using your flash cards is to Spaced Repetition Software

    You can concentrate your effort in the most difficult thing to memorize.

  56. I think rote memorization is underrated but out of your 5 steps for learning a language, only one of them is based on rote memorization. Maybe you were able to learn English so quickly because of the other steps, like watching television for at least three hours a day. Most likely it's a combination of all the steps, but the Korean's claim that it's relies entirely on rote memorization is just false.

    I think another factor is that although the Korean claims not to be a genius, perhaps he has much better than average memory. You don't need to be a genius to learn a language, but you do need a good memory.

    With that said, even if one does have poor memory, that's just more reason to suck it up and work even harder. The Korean's method also does sound effective and I will be trying them out.

  57. is the method really important? Maybe its just my own problem, but the biggest hill between me and learning or doing anything is always motivation. If I can get enough motivation to sit down on my lazy ass to do something for 8 hours a day, I have no problem reaching any goal. Good method or not. But normally even the best method can not help me, because I just put in too less hours. And that is actually what I also see in your post. You just sat down and fought for the success of your whole family, giving up many other opportunities to learn better english (like hanging out with your korean friends). In my eyes that is what gave you the proper skill.
    What do you think about it? Am I too emersed in my own experience or is that really the most important point?

  58. I wonder if I should’ve waited for your “education system post” to put this up - since you said that you will end the discussion here already but I ended up posting this here anyway…^^ Maybe I will end up posting the exact same thing in the education post too...

    First I need to say I agree that memorization is an essential part of learning a new language.

    Still I’ve also got to agree with palladin that rote memorization has its place but should not be the center of any education system. If rote memorization was THE way to learn then why is practically every single Finn who has graduated from high school fairly fluent in English? That is even if they went through an education system that, while it does require some rote memorization (we do learn timetables by heart in Finland too), definitely does not depend solely on it. Their fluency is of course nowhere near the Korean’s though, more along the lines of mine. (Just as little side information since usually people know close to nothing about Finland: the Finnish language differs from English just as much as Korean does so our surroundings are more like the Korean’s when he was still going to school in Korea, not America.)

    Being an education system with some of the shortest school days in Europe (my typical high school day consisted of about 7-8 hours of studying which is nothing compared to the hours my Korean friends have told me they spent studying) and practically no discipline at all (God, teachers aren’t really even allowed to kick badly behaving students out from the classroom nowadays because they’re not allowed to touch the children) it still produces not only fluent English speakers but top results in other subjects too according to PISA. This is obviously not because Finnish people are magically smarter than others. To me it seems we just happen to be doing something right by chance. It also seems that this “right” is not only rote memorization. If it was, Koreans as well as many other nations would have beaten the Finnish people badly in these comparisons.

    However, I agree with everything you said about rote memorization teaching discipline and the importance of it. Why is it that the same people who get such excellent results in PISA as 15-year-old school kids tend to graduate from university only when they’re already nearing their 30s? It’s a subject that is constantly under debate in Finland. Old people say that university students are lazy and lack self-discipline. University students say that they take such a long time to graduate because besides studying, they’ve also got work in order to make money to be able to support themselves. For goodness’s sake, all universities are FREE in Finland. No tuitions AT ALL. I bet students in many other countries have to work much more just to be able to afford to study. Someone even suggested we should introduce university tuitions to Finland too just to make people graduate faster! I say they should just save people the money and teach us Korean-like discipline at school :) Who cares whether we’re the best in the whole world when we're 15 if we're losers later :P

  59. Go Bears! I need to improve my Vietnamese, and in the end....I just need to work on it and put in the effort.

  60. Yet,this is exactly what ESL has traditionally done by introducing grammar, listening, writing, and reading as segregated activities. It is not surprising that it takes ESL students so long to learn to speak fluent English. This is according to the study of Lynn Lundquist. It is already observed that there are lots of students though they were able to get high score in TOIECand TOEFL and get perfect score in grammar but they cannot speak the language. Which is also proved in the article
    written by: David A. Leaper - assistant professor at the English education department of Hankuk University of ForeignStudies and teaches language testing on TESOL certificate and post graduate courses. It was said, “An April 2 front page article, ``Korea Ranked Bottom in English Proficiency Test,'' said that out of 120 countries, Korea placed 78th, despite the ``colossal amounts of time and money learning English.” “The article goes on to detail the awful evidence: Korea placed 136th out of 161 countries in speaking, scores in listening and writing were lower than the world average and the only section better than the world average was reading.”

    Most of Koreans knows a lot about grammar things and memorized thousand words but they can't even express even simple sentences.

    Grammar and memorization of words is not the best method!!!

    1. Well, for any readers who are just going to believe his claim, the professor mentioned the article in order to say that the article's claims are bunk! Check this out. I hope this commentator did not take the rest parts on purpose.

  61. Yet,this is exactly what ESL has traditionally done by introducing grammar, listening, writing, and reading as segregated activities. It is not surprising that it takes ESL students so long to learn to speak fluent English. This is according to the study of Lynn Lundquist. It is already observed that there are lots of students though they were able to get high score in TOIECand TOEFL and get perfect score in grammar but they cannot speak the language. Which is also proved in the article
    written by: David A. Leaper - assistant professor at the English education department of Hankuk University of ForeignStudies and teaches language testing on TESOL certificate and post graduate courses. It was said, “An April 2 front page article, ``Korea Ranked Bottom in English Proficiency Test,'' said that out of 120 countries, Korea placed 78th, despite the ``colossal amounts of time and money learning English.” “The article goes on to detail the awful evidence: Korea placed 136th out of 161 countries in speaking, scores in listening and writing were lower than the world average and the only section better than the world average was reading.”

    Grammar and memorization is not the best method!

  62. I don't know if this is true, but I remember someone telling me that the reason American school's no longer have the memorization aspect of learning at school is because the baby boomers despised it and made away with it. We also had classes for arguing properly. The inner geek in me is crying it's eyes out with out it. Memorization works a lot better as well as if you explain the context of something before asking everyone to derive it. We do that for math as if it were history which you come into contact more in your life than most mathematical equations. Maybe I should leave math equations all over Central Park...hmmm...As it is though, since I know the runs of my education I take it upon myself to figure how I should learn it and make use of it. I'm combining it all to learn Korean right now. Hopefully to also get a B.A. soon too. I watch Korean music and dramas for entertainment but it doesn't help too much to use it like the Simpsons because of how fast a word goes. Songs are especially hard to sing a long with even though I love the ones I know. I have to chalk this up to vocabulary as you have mentioned and many others here have said. If someone else can do it so can I. I just wish I had someone to speak to.

  63. It is strange that people think this post is about praising the way Korean schools teach English. It is not. It should be pretty obvious that Korean schools do not do a great job teaching English.

    Rather, this post is about praising a critical skill that Korean school system generally teaches, applied into a specific method that the Korean came up with.

  64. 재미있게 이 기사를 읽었다. 35 해 전에 뉴욕에 태어났을때부터 저는 한국에 한 달도 살지 않는 재미교포 입니다. 어릴때 한국말를 배오고 싶었지만 한국어 교과서를 찾기가 어려웠다. 한글 방송도 미국에 없었다.

    2006 년에 한국말을 배우겠다는 마음을 먹었다. "한국 아저씨" (아니면, "한국인"? "Mr. 한국"?)처럼 flash Card을 만들기 시작했다. 하지만 flash card을 수집하기 밖에 다른 한국말을 배우는 방식을 한 가지도 했지 않았다. 정말 이해력 부족 있었다. 최근에 재가 새 아내와 같이 우리 친척을 만나러 한국에 갈 관심했다. 그니까 더 열심히 공부한다. 동영상을 시청하니 한국말 듣기 더 났습니다. 아깝다..."딩동댕 유치원", "뽀뽀뽀" 따위 정도밖에 이해할수 없다! 10월에 한국에 갑니다. Wish me luck!

  65. I don't claim to have any expertise on this subject but it's interesting that the Rosetta Stone language software, which seems to be highly acclaimed, relies totally on the immersion method and specifically states that it involves no memorization. I wonder if you or any of the commenters have tried this software and have any comment on it.

  66. Ask yourself:
    Are you an Auditory Learner?Are you a Visual Learner?
    Are you a Tactile/Kinesthetic Learner?
    Know your preferred learning style.

    Then, do you have lots of time to study in front of a computer? And last, do you have financial capacity to spend for Rosetta Stone or Pinsleur?

    Why are you going to spend so much with those programs since there are lots of various language learning program in video, audio, printed lessons etc. for FREE! Just be patient surfing the net to look which is interesting and enjoyable.

    If you are a busy person you can't use those language programs when you are driving, walking, riding or while removing your doo doo.

    While through MP4 or tapes or printed materials, flash cards your learning will be flexible.

    Better to spend your money to look for a personal tutor or go to the country of your target language.

  67. Interesting post. I've actually adopted your flashcards method for learning Korean vocabulary.
    I wanted to ask, though, if I could have the permission to translate it into Romanian and post it on my blog to share the knowledge.


  68. Memorizing words and merorizing a complete phrase or sentence...the efforts are the same. So, as a language teacher, I'm discouraging my students to memorize individual word but rather phrases. Comprehinsible input through meaningfull phrases or sentences will bring you to places.

    Several Koreans that I encountered saying, " English vocabulary are just floating in my head but I can't speak it out".

    I agree that memorization if vital but studying under stress will harm the learning process. So, why torture yourself memorizing invidivual 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.

  69. Go Bears. I found your blog yesterday and i can't put it down. You sound a lot like me. I came to the US when I was 10. I went to Cerritos High School when there were only around dozen other Koreans in my graduating class. I also went to Berkeley. I now live in Northern VA. Your comments are very insightful and refreshing. Please keep up the great work.

  70. While I found this to be a great read, I can't help but notice a hole in the "'fun immersion' doesn't work" and "we lose our ability to learn" arguments. Other than the very young infant experiments, much of the examples revolved around toddlers in the 4-6 year old range and how the extent of their natural grammar was so impressive relative to a non-native speaker. However, to use this as an example against immersion, you'd have to compare a 6 year old's grammar to someone who was also exclusively immersed in a language for 6 years and making actual effort towards learning it (as opposed to simply being resigned to not learning it). I'm more than willing to bet that an adult who spent 3 years in a country actively trying to learn the language (through conversation and basic study, not pure memorization) would certainly surpass a 3 year old toddler, and in 6 years should be at least as competent as a 6 year old. In addition, if an adult was trying in earnest, I see no reason why they wouldn't far surpass that level. Now, to be certain, ideally an adult would not have to go to those extremes, and hopefully they could reach their goals more efficiently, but this doesn't change the fact that immersion seems just as viable as memorization depending on your circumstances. As a final thought, I won't link it directly, but I do recommend checking the "all japanese all the time" blog for a very interesting counter position to your own (no affiliation)! Have a good one!

  71. You are right on the rote memorization and "what is fun are the effects of learning" parts! That's what I'm doing now while studying Japanese. I admit, I can study so much to the point that I just want to vomit, or sleep it off, and to tell the truth, it is NOT all fun. But then, the courage to study instantly comes back once I am able to read with ease entire stories and texts in Japanese which I previously couldn't, or struggled to.

    :D I guess it's not too taxing to my "feelings" too much because I think I've already been doing this even when I was doing self study with math in my early years.

  72. I agree that many people spend more time complaining than learning, but I think the article sends the wrong message and just reinforces tired, ineffective advice.

    " the end of the day, honest effort is the only thing that works."

    Absolutely, but make sure you are spending effort DOING THE RIGHT THINGS, which is where the rest of the article falls short...

    "Want to lose weight? Eat healthier and exercise more."

    Weight loss is not a simple matter of eating less and burning more calories. This seems logical until you actually delve into how and why the body decides to store or burn fat. It's all about insulin, so the key to losing fat is making sure you limit your intake of foods cause rapid spikes in insulin (sugar, alcohol, rice, wheat, etc.) For more on this, read "The Primal Blueprint" and "Good Calories, Bad Calories".

    "Want to master a second language? Memorize grammar and vocabulary. It is that simple."

    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.

  73. First, let me just say that I love this blog, and I hope it doesn't reflect poorly on me that the first comment I'm making isn't a resounding "Yay, Korean!" I do think you are awesome.

    I also agree that language learning, as with any learning, requires hard work. However, your argument for the efficacy of rote learning involves a bit of a non sequitur. Here's how it goes: The Korean's language learning involved rote memorization. The Korean developed a good grasp of English quickly. Therefore, rote memorization is a good way to learn a language. Here's a similar leap of logic: Hard work is necessary for learning. Rote memorization is hard work. Therefore rote memorization is a great way to learn.

    I would like to suggest that these conclusions, right or wrong, are founded on faulty premises: that rote memorization was the aspect of the Korean's education that contributed the most to his success, and that rote learning, being hard, offers benefits equivalent to hard work.

    Memorization has its place. Particularly in the beginning stages of language acquisition, it is necessary to have enough of a vocabulary to begin the speaking, listening, and reading practice that the learner needs in order to progress. Rote memorization is an effective way to build such a base.

    My real issue with rote memorization is two-fold: it can take the emphasis off long-term gains and focuses on immediate and measurable success and too much focus on it discourages linear thought by raising the importance of the information being taken in and lessening the importance of sorting contexts and applying information. Too often I have marked essays full of vocabulary words that are far beyond the grasp even of many native speakers, but the words are used inappropriately because the writer has memorized a meaning without regard for context.

    I would respectfully suggest, O Motivated Korean, that the daily three hours of TV you were watching with great intensity likely offered you just as much language-acquisition value as your 30,000 flash cards. Moreover, I'll bet that a little TV makes learning less daunting to someone who is less motivated than you obviously were. Hard work will guarantee almost anyone a reasonable degree of success - but most of us are charged with teaching effective communication skills to students with less than monk-like discipline.

    I have never lived in Korea, but I do teach a lot of Korean kids in Vancouver. From my observations, the super-learners share this: they are all motivated. The rest almost all lack motivation. Since Canadian teachers don't have the luxury of beating discipline into our students, we have to do something with the ones for whom learning ISN'T a matter of life and death. It seems to me that they aren't likely to get more motivated over a stack of flash cards, but if they are having fun, who knows? we just might be able to capture their imaginations. I went from a C- to an A in 11th grade French because I switched from a grammar focused class into one that was all about communicating. Yes, I should have worked harder, but before I switched teachers, my plan was to never again take another French class. Instead I got an A in honours-level French the next year and ended up studying French in university. That's the kind of chance I want to offer my students, and I'm doubtful that merely asking them to pore over the dictionary is going to do it.

    Can you memorize AND analyze? Yes, and that is what really successful learners do. I think that's what you did, Korean. But I'd suggest that a lazy and unmotivated student (like plenty of mine, much to their mothers' collective chagrin) has a better chance with holistic learning than rote drilling. And the motivated ones are going to be fine anyway.

  74. I highly disagree. I'm a 16 year old spaniard who was raised in a mostly spanish speaking enviroment, just like mostly every other spanish teenager. I was kind of good in English class, but that doesnt mean anything. My english skills were just as good as any other spanish kid until I turned 13. Then, I decided to start watching movies and shows in English with spanish subtitles, and I stopped listening to any music that wasnt in English. My English skills were improving noticeably, but I still didnt have that good of a language level. Then, I decided to go as a foreign exchange student to America.

    So a couple months after I turned 15 I was heading to Ohio. I was capable of expressing myself from the first momment, but I had a horribly strong accent and I had sort of a hard time understanding what certain people said. Yet I kept progressing throughout the year and by the end of it my accent had improved like a LOT, my grammar wasn't as messed-up like it was at the beggining, my vocabulary had grown exponentialy, and I could understand roughly 90% of what I heard and 95% of what I read.
    I consider myself fluent in English, and even though I'm far from a native level, I think I'm close enough to be proud of my English skills. I don't have the skills of the Korean, but I didn't need any memorization in the process of achieving my own.

    I only stayed in America for my 10th grade school year (10 months), but I'm sure that, had I stayed another school year, my english skills would be VERY close to those of a native by now. And I'll say it again, no memorization needed.

    So, what did I do? I don't know. I guess there weren't (luckily) any spanish speaking pockets at my school so I did all the socializing in English. Also, I read a lot. But probably what it was its that I every single day I tried to make sense out of what people around em where saying. For example, "figure out". I struggle with phrasal verbs but if you use your imagination they can make sense. Whenever I heard the expression "figure out" I pictured the speaker painting a FIGURE OUT of what he or she was figuring out. After a few repeating this a few times I didn't need it anymore.

    So my point is: I dont think hours and hours of memorizing are necessary. Sure my English is not even close to being perfect: my grammar is messed up, my vocabulary is small and I use it in a wrong way plenty of times, etc. But, guess what, I enjoyed my stay in America. A lot. I learnt it while enjoying it.

  75. Thank you for this post. I am currently in Korea learning Korean. When I moved here a few months ago with no prior knowledge of the language, I actually remember asking myself, How hard can it be? I'll be totally immersed in it!

    Justified by a belief in my natural ability to pick up new things, I've put in minimal effort, and the result should not be surprising to anyone here: I suck. When I take the time to memorize, repeat, and use new patterns and units, I excel. When I rely on my "smarts," I flounder.

    Of course, immersion in a language isn't useful unless you're also doing something in your head with all that input--and creating output, too.

    Along with Henrique, I'm interested in a Korean language show to use as learning material. Something engaging, hopefully more entertaining than the game shows I see in mini stops. A drama, comedy, animation, reality show, whatever. Is there a show you would recommend to new Korean speakers that we might not be aware of?

    Thanks again. I dig your blog.

  76. I agree with pretty much everything you have to say on this subject. I have benefited from rote memorization and similar processes to the ones you describe here. However, I do believe that once you learn a new word, the fastest way to embed it in your memory is to apply it rather than to repeat it a thousand times. For example, while studying Korean, I encountered the word 화분 but had the hardest time remembering what it meant; one day, I came across a Korean song with that as the title, also conveniently translated into English. I memorized it instantly. Now, when I see 화분, I associate it with that song and instantly know that it means "flowerpot." Yay for application!

    I did have the advantage of growing up in a town with a significant Korean population (Carrollton, Texas, of all places.... but honestly, it might as well be West Korea) so I've picked up on slight vowel and consonant differences faster than others (but oh man, do 발 and 팔 still get me). Still, seeing as I haven't yet experienced immersion and getting a Korean person to agree to converse with me only in Korean is harder than you would think, I probably won't be completely confident in my pronunciation or colloquial vocab until I do.

    On another note, Korean TV is awesome. Not only are variety shows hilarious, but they also contain frequent if completely pointless captions that are extremely helpful in vocab acquisition.

    Thanks for your tips!!

  77. I'm brazilian (so my first language is Portuguese) and some months ago I decided to learn Korean.
    I learned the phrase structure (the verb is at the end) and such more things, but then I realized that I needed vocabulary, so I was a little frustrated haha
    And yes, vocabulary is basically the main thing: even if you don't know the correct order of words in a sentence, if you at least know some vocabulary, you can make you understandable.
    The tougher thing must be learning vocabulary, specially of a language that has NOTHING in common with your first one (just like Portuguese and Korean, because even Portuguese with English have many cognates). After I started to memorize vocabulary, I realized that my process of memorizing has become much much better. Before studying Korean I sucked at memorizing, and one day of these I could memorize 8 verbs in 10 minutes, and remember 5 of more of them in the next day.
    The best thing is that I didn’t improve my memory skill only about Korean, but about almost everything, some classes at college that are basically “memorizing terms” because they’re not like “understanding” I started to do much better. The exception is that I forgot some words in Portuguese and English, but maybe is just the heat of the summer hahaha
    Learning a new language is not really fun, but I just love to see one phrase, don’t understand, learn some things, re-read it and then understand more about what is said. This is what motivates me to want to learn more and more – if a lot of people now understand, why could not I?
    But a thing that I’ve noticed just some weeks ago is that, mainly for learning some particles like “verb-서 + verb” (verb, then verb), you do have to understand them in your first language, and not just relate them in English (I mean, by being my second language), even if you’re learning not through your first language.
    Also, you have to put what you learn up: it’s worthless if you don’t write example sentences to what you learn or never try to speak them, and it’s very important to familiarize your ears to the new language (I didn’t started Korean by listening, and later I found out how important it is, because there are phonemes that we don’t have in Portuguese – and now I know the difference between ㅜ and ㅡ).
    Ok, I hope I wrote it clearly hahaha This article in fact is really nice, it also motivated me more. Thanks!

  78. thanks for the book recommendation - it arrived yesterday and I'm halfway through already! as an ESL teacher and grad student in Applied Linguistics I found your article interesting and insightful.
    Well done!

  79. I realize this is really old but I appreciate the sentiment- I was able to achieve a similar fluency in Spanish at around the same age using the same principals. My speech sounds a lot like the Korean's English- a little bit slower than average and occasional trip-ups on the r's- and I still talk to myself out loud whenever I think no one's around. Also whenever I'm learning something new I always try to "parrot" native speakers- trying to repeat verbatim, matching the sounds and intonation as closely as possible. A good knowledge of phonetics is also indispensable for its ability to make you aware of the feel of a sound or a string of sounds.

  80. Although you appear far from modest in your views about yourself and the comparisons between Korean and American students' overall education, your point on language acquisition being a chore rather than an act of divine revelation, is definitely accurate. I am an American teacher in Korean, and my experience with Korean students and overall experience in Korea is similar to yours in America. Korea students seem to think that English academy is supposed to be fun and haggle me with the daily comment, "Teacher, let's play a game". My greatest regret with the Korean education is the amount of education children are subjected to at too early an age, and when the majority lack the motivation to learn a second language, they are forced to learn English. In their minds, it is simply unnecessary to learn English when everything they do is in Korean. If Korean children do not have an interest in English, they should not be forced to learn it because for learning a second language, desire is necessary, but learning English in Korea is not a necessity for everyone.
    Koreans take the TOEIC, TOEFL, or an English test for entry into government or company positions, but I wonder when I am sitting in the Suncheon or Suwon immigration office, why not a single soul can speak in English. My students memorize a hundred words weekly, but they can not have a basic converstation in English. Memorization is not everything. And in your analysis on the method of learning you forgot to consider that not everyone is capable of learning the same way. In studying korean, I noted that people like myself cannot rely on memorizing word lists from a book and fail miserably on word tests. However, I can pick up new grammar forms instantly and use them in conversation the next day, and do better than my fellow students in speaking Korean. Similarly, I plug in new words to the grammar forms and after looking a word up four or five times because I need them in that particular situation, they begin to stick in my memory. I recommend that students like myself focus on grammar while actively studying words and begin trying to speak immediately in the language environment to be able to obtain it. After two and a half years, I am moving into the advanced stage of learning Korean.
    Lastly, you have to keep in mind, that while you feign at modesty, you mentioned that your situation was exceptional when you included your teachers' comments at your improvement. Most Koreans are not math and science geniuses, and many with their superior educations enter into supermarkets, retail, and coffee shops because they are ultimately slain by the competition for professional jobs. You should be proud of your achievements, and I hope you put them to good use in my former country's crumbling economy. I similarly, seek my fortune in the land of opportunity, South Korea, where Westerners can make the most out of life.

  81. "I started by reading my favorite books that were originally in English -- started with Les Miserables, then Brothers Karamazov."

    Neither Les Miserables nor The Brothers Karamazov were originally in English. Les Miserables was translated from French and The Brothers Karamazov was translated from... you guessed it... Russian. Ok, I know it's lame to point this out but things like this bother me. Given your incredible language skills, I thought this news might inspire you. After a solid year of your insane (but effective) card system I bet you'll be answering questions in French and Russian. ;)

  82. I've tried this out and have been rote memorizing words systematically from Korean textbooks over the last month and my comprehension has been undergoing a very visible and positive change, and I hope to be reading literature by next year.

    However, I don't believe rote memorizing should be done until one has a good grip on the sound system of the language. There's no way I would be able to memorize words at this rate if I wasn't able to tell the difference between difficult consonants/vowels.

  83. Wow. You have no idea how long I just spent writing a comment for this that got lost in a timed out page or some crap like that. Took me a while to pare it down to the 4,096 characters it could fit...

    I'll just lay out my main points.

    1. Critical thinking, at least used here, is just some vague, undefined notion that sounds good. It hardly seems anyone using it here even has a clear idea of what it is besides that it's not just reading a list of information.

    2. Memorization and whatever approximates critical thinking are never mutually exclusive. The brain isn't just a receptacle of information. Information is stored in a network. Likewise, you can't think critically and creatively without having enough info to play with. I'm not flexible with the Korean language yet because I don't have enough in my head to play with. So I can't make stylistic changes, puns, a play on words, idioms, etc. that I can with English and are replete in every language and changing constantly.

    2. On a related note, immersion is helpful in large part because of what it does for memorization and reinforcement. In addition to having a word or phrase reinforced when you recite it or see a flash card, you also get it listening to others on the street or seeing it on a sign. But yes, the context often helps too.

    3. It wasn't about rote memorization as much as you might think (given the TV watching, memorizing and then applying it, etc.), but others already talk about this.

    4. It all required motivation and/or discipline. The idea that some people can't memorize or even that it's a skill you have to pick up or learn (everyone does it all the time to some extent) is insane. If you think you can't do it, it's probably just because the hour you spent "studying" was actually thinking about that hot girl you like and about how much you hate studying this stuff.

  84. THANK YOU, KOREAN. As a linguist, the 'total immersion' idea has bothered me for a long time. Sure, it helps, but as you say, that is not how you learn a second language. Hard work, motivation, and determination are the absolute key. I am going to South Korea for a year starting in October to teach English, and I am determined to learn at least some basic Korean before I go, even though there are people in the program who will teach me while I am there. When I told my friend that I memorized the Korean alphabet today, she said, "Wow, I couldn't do that." Yes, you could. You just don't have the will power to do it.

  85. I've been having a tough time learning Norwegian (coming from America), and I randomly found this blog. I recently started watching Norwegian TV shows and doing what you were doing, reading the subtitles, etc (works great for getting used to speech patterns).

    True, you just have to suck it up! There's really no "easy" way of learning a new language.

    I once again have to agree with you about all these "fun" language learning books and techniques. Its very similar to advertisements you see on TV for "quick, fun weightloss in just 5 minutes a day!" - yeah right!

    Thanks for even more motivation.

  86. I have been following your blog but this is my first time commenting.
    Oh gosh! I seriously cannot help admiring you :)
    I've always wanted to learn French and Korean and now, thanks to you, I know just how to tackle the big bad learning part!
    Thank you for sharing this even though I'm very late.

  87. The Adoptee thinks this is a great post. The Adoptee is currently attempting to tackle "relearning" Korean in a similar fashion and is happy to know that it was successful for at least one other person.

    The Adoptee really likes that The Korean mentions motivation in the post as The Adoptee has noticed this is what sets her apart from her fellow adoptee students in her language class. Being driven by a desire to communicate with a Korean family member is what has made the biggest difference for The Adoptee. Lacking this personal motivation is what prevented her from attempting to become bilingual for many, many years. It is also why The Adoptee lost her bilingual ability with Spanish in a matter of months...Because The Adoptee just didn't care about Spanish.

    Also, The Adoptee is in love with the biggest & boldest message of the post and giggles to herself as she constantly re-reads it. Sometimes The Adoptee has to read it to herself every time she wants to complain when the American side of The Adoptee rears its ugly head.

  88. I'm an American English teacher who has lived in Korea way too long (6 years) to have difficulty passing an intermediate Korean exam which I'm studying for, and that's the basis of why I'm writing. I'm friends with other foreigners who like the Korean are also quite fluent 2 years after moving, and I'm just curious about others' insight.

    I don't have much trouble with any multiple choice questions because of test-taking strategies and because of the finite options, but the fill in the blank questions leave me feeling I'll never get to the point that I can pass this. The way Korean is an endless morph of endings on words really makes me feel like I have missed the boat entirely on how to conceptualize the language. I've watched Chinese students start Korean classes at a lower level and finish at a higher level than me by the end, and I've similarly watched my Korean students learn to speak English faster than I learn Korean.

    The way I grew up speaking English and German, and even French in HS seems so different. I can dip into conversations in those languages and understand who and what are involved with what actions, but in Korean I have the hardest time even knowing who is involved in the conversation. The contextual cues are way over my head. I can't seem to find that innate "intuition" for the right next thing to say or write. I often ask my friends what they just said so I can write it down, but they can never repeat the same sentence they just said the same way or simply forget it the moment it's out of their mouth. (The -냐고 endings don't help :P)

    Having everyone tell me how great my Korean is, while incredibly polite, really doesn't help, because when I really want to speak easily with people I can't. My own Korean friends tell me that when I hang out with their college or HS buddies I make them feel uncomfortable because I don't say much and something about the expression of my face (no doubt me intensely trying to discern the gist of conversation :P) makes them uneasy. With friends that know me well, speaking is more comfortable, but meeting new people is so tough because they really need time getting used to the strange way I speak and knowing what level of Korean they can use with me.

    I grew up studying Latin and French in a traditional method and could read fine in both; nowadays I don't study Korean like that but I certainly memorize vocabulary and practice writing sentences. I can memorize phrases and important sentences and that helps; but substitution for further purposes doesn't seem to work like it does in other languages. I think my primary ways of learning Korean are by textbook, naturally with friends, watching movies infrequently, and by experience shopping / renting apartments / car ownership / tax stuff, helping foreign friends and 카톡.

    Friends from other countries who spend 12 hours a day in a factory and have never been in a language center speak Korean at my level after a year. I'm not giving up, but I'm wondering what I should do.

    My biggest gripe about learning is that I can't seem to learn much from just listening to conversations or watching dramas. Does anyone else have this experience with Korean or another language? I've always learned well by listening and would rather listen to a podcast than read the newspaper or lecture versus a book, so I'm at a loss. I have to say I haven't come close to memorizing 30,000 vocabulary words. Anyway thanks so much for this blog. The Korean and a lot of commenters seem to have a lot of perspective so I'm hoping I can learn something. Sorry for the long post; I know I should have been studying instead of procrastinating :P

  89. Hi. I stumbled on your site. I have a 16 yr old Korean boy living with me. He came to our school (private school) beginning of 9th grade, knowing very little English. He lived with his aunt and uncle until the spring. They wanted him to live with an American family because he was speaking Korean at home and they knew he needed to move out. So we have him know and just love him (along with our own 16 yr old son). He is now on our school soccer team (taught himself by watching how to play on YouTube), was featured in the homecoming skits this fall and, according to my son is like a "rock star" at our school. He's also going to be in the school musical. Like you he scored 100 in math, but only 8percent in I am looking for a way to help him .. does anyone know a good program for him? Public schools wont help him until he is 18. He wants to graduate from our schoo and go college here. Looking forward to your response. Judy

  90. I don't agree that memorization is the key to learning a language for adults or any age. I agree with Pinker that much of language construction is innate. But in my experience of teaching ESL for the past 5 years in 4 different countries and to various nationalities of all ages, the "Holy Grail" of adult language acquisition is NEED. An immediate need to know the language. The Korean learned college level English because he had a need to learn it. I've traveled all over the world and those that speak English well are those in the hospitality and transportation industries or small shops that cater to tourists. While attending universities I volunteered/sistered a Vietnamese and an Indian girl in order to help them with their English. It was casual mostly answering their questions about grammar, but they soon gave up. I don't think they felt an immediate need to acquire English language as they had every intention of returning to their countries. Working at a public high school here in South Korea with classes as large as 44 students, most of whom have no inclination to learn English, I don't feel my time is well used. Out of the 44 students only a few really want to learn English and in that environment, they will not. The only good thing that will come of the English program in South Korea is employing a lot of people who need jobs. But the success of the program, a program that forces 100s of thousands of students to learn a language they care not to learn, is doomed to fail. Even Korean English teachers will have less affect. The older student must have an immediate need to learn a language that is difficult to learn. THAT is the 'Holy Grail' of language acquisition for older students.

    1. As much as the Korean is right, you are right too. He rote memorized the hell outta that stuff and he was able to use it 6 hours a day at school. My first hagwon in Gunsan, where i learned how to teach, was probably the most hardcore school about rote memorization out there. When schools see how I teacher they're either like "Hell yea" or "Whoa, we can't hire this dude" Again you're absolutely right. He wrote memorized the hell out of it, but it stuck because there was need. Any other student would have met a minimal need, but his rote memorization propelled him.

      Good comment.

    2. I agree absolutely and feel this goes a long way towards explaining why so many Koreans struggle for English proficiency here in Korea; it's all about the test/interview. Conversely, for native English speakers here who desire to further their Korean skills, myself included, most struggle with a lack of any deep "need" to to progress; I can manage myself throughout my daily life, but there is little to no economic incentive to reach higher levels. Also, I find that when I engage in Korean, I am treated like a Korean. This is difficult for such an egalitarian person like myself whose cultural blueprint has instilled friendliness and politeness, especially towards strangers (an acknowledgement of their humanity). The emphasis here is on respect, which I define more as subservience because it's imposed from a culturally reinforced mandate, so more often than not when speaking Korean I feel limited and restricted in my personality and expressiveness.

  91. Thanks for this post!

    I'm a Singaporean who tried my hand at picking up Korean, not through the usual method of taking language classes in college, but through a bunch of books bought off the internet. People around me couldn't understand why I chose to take this route, and I've always justified it by saying that I prefer doing things at my own time and target, though the truth is I failed to see the benefit of class lesson structures that spend so much time creating "fun" environments for students to learn in a "natural" way. (Granted, they probably had an aim of teaching something about the culture as well, but I had no patience for it at that point.) While my friends were out flying traditional kites and gambling under the teacher's supervision, I did exactly what you described -- memorised words, watched television shows, talked to myself.

    And honestly I think I'm doing well enough now (not the best yet because as a byproduct of learning through television, I have problems understanding what's being said if the audio is not perfectly noise-free), in fact I'm able to read and enjoy full-length Korean novels, something my friends are not yet able to do. I remember how pleasantly surprised I was when I went to Korea for the first time last year and found myself able to converse with the locals as I backpacked through the country... definitely gave me some conviction in my study methods.

    Anyway, thanks for your post! Your success story is certainly very inspirational, and I hope to one day achieve as much as you did with your English. (You're an amazing writer by the way.)

  92. What a hot topic rote memory is! I think it is obvious that rote memory is necessary for any learning. My comment, however, is not on rote memory per se, but about an assumption that rarely gets attention: "Fluency" is acquired "naturally." Here, fluency means manipulating and understanding language like an educated person. Naturally means without any intervention from education.

    What interests me about language acquisition debates is that one tends to forget that native language speakers, say a person born in American who grows up speaking English (let's call him "the American"), has gone through many years of formal education by way of English classes. The American, who never attended school and never had any formal or informal English lessons, probably would not speak, write, or read English very well. One might even call him an idiot and may wish to brush him under the rug so that one can continue to argue that language proficiency is natural. Yes, a newborn has an innate ability to learn language, but acquisition of basic rudimentary language is far different than proficiency.

    To be good at something, whether it is language, singing, tennis, or whatnot, one must practice, which is just another form of memorization--that is memorization plus application and adaptation of what one has memorized. If one disagrees with the use of the phrase "rote memory," maybe the word "practice" is more palatable due to it having less social-emotional baggage. How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

  93. I love it, I just love it...

    Me, being a German girl - I got this "Surround yourself with the language"-stuff countless times. If I would have done just that I wouldn't be able to comment in English like this. I know, my English could be better, but well - I can talk, write, listen etc.

    Look at my French! I surrounded myself with this language!! I can't even introduce myself in more than 3 sentences. Unfortunately school undermined my motivation to go more far in this language. Interestingly enough I'm still able to understand what our school teachers say in French. (Not sure if I would be able to understand the French themselves.)

    Whatever: Third language I learned was Korean - well for a year at the university. Knowledge is only basic and I didn't have the time to study that language longer than that though I would have loved to. I did very very well if you put in account that I only learned for a year. I'm still able to do all the things I learned in this very year. Writing, listening, speaking (well - should be more fluent, but pls, try to find the opportunity to speak Korean in Germany... Almost a No Go.), etc.
    Well, Korea, wait till I come and when I'm there I'll be sure to master this - with the excellent, since ages negatively judged method The Korean explained.
    It|s the only one that helps - so simple.

  94. Wow your Uni is ranked 9 overall in the WORLD!

    You must be a genius. The uni I want to go to just gets in the top 100 (monash) so that's not bad :)


    I ought to print that off, frame it and hang it above my desk.

  96. You are a hundred percent right, but I do think you can include fun. People often ask me what I did to become fluent in Japanese (I'd call myself the low bar for university level. I got B's in university in Japan, but only because university in Japan is so damn easy. I started learning as a university student and reached legal fluency in 3 years... not bad, but I can't compare to the Korean, evidently!). What I did was played a hell of a lot of videogames. Games were great because they had the written element and the verbal element at the same time, and I had a lot of Chinese characters to memorize but my verbal skills were also weak. I did the same thing as The Korean - every time I didn't know a word, I wrote it down in my notebook and drilled lists constantly. I filled notebook upon notebook of vocab. I would write full page spreads of the same Chinese character over and over. If I found a scene in a game where I couldn't understand most of the dialogue (hello Metal Gear Solid!) I would watch it over and over again, before and after drilling the vocab, 3-6 times, usually. It made everything take a lot time, but I loved the games I was playing, so it wasn't a trial. After I got my level up a bit more I started reading books (video games usually are at a lower level and were easier for me. Same thing with comics).

    My Japanese isn't perfect (my written work is full of awkward phrasing and grammatical errors) but I'm satisfied with my level, and I continue to read books/drill vocab, if not as religiously as before. Using the same method I've absolutely slaughtered easier languages (I had people in my German class asking me how I did so well, but after Japanese, German was a cakewalk).

    Language IS just all about the rote memorization, and I'm always telling people it's not hard, it's just time consuming. You do get some things by osmosis (I've definitely picked up verbal ticks and slang just from conversing regularly with friends and coworkers) but like 95% of it is flashcards, haha.

  97. Having attended American public education when it was still one of the things that made (past tense) this country great, I would want to look at what education looked like then. Rote memorizations was the backbone of learning, the foundation. You must know the truths, before you use them. How can you multiply if you don't know the multiplication tables? I know the answer is we all have calculators, now. But if you don't even know how to add and subtract how do you know if you made a mistake on the calculator? If the answer is outlandish, you won't even know it.

    I love history, so this is my favorite example. How can you draw any conclusions, or learn anything from history unless you know the basics (timelines, dates, and names)? You can't understand why something happened unless you know the context. When I attended school, rote learning was mostly in the early grades when children are most adept at memorizing without understanding. Later, thinking was attached to those basics. This was true of every subject. And in those years education included both at the right time. We both "knew our stuff", and could draw helpful and wise conclusions. We could take what we knew by rote, and think outside the box with it. The "believe everything we tell you" education of today is making us weak and useless.

  98. Best educational post I have ever read. It is exactly how I learned another language. Learning is hard work and you need at least 30,000 words to read a newspaper.

  99. It's a shame rote memorization seems to have been dropped by the wayside in English speaking countries, but I think it's also extremely important to understand each word you memorize. The Korean did this because he consciously tried to define each word he learned, plus he had a context of use to guide his understanding. If your rote memorization method consists only of learning an 'equivalent' English word for each Korean word you learn, you will run into all kinds of problems, much more so than you would with two more closely related languages.

    What is the Korean's recommended method of learning Korean? Other than suck it up and work hard at it, does TK have any more specific advice?

  100. When I was a kid I wondered about the difference between route memorization and rote memorization (at the time a result of mishearing the term). That difference has since been huge in my own methods for learning, especially in languages.

    To take learning the Korean writing system for instance, one can memorize each vowel and consonant by rote, with nothing intersecting between each point memorized, or one can memorize one tip and expand upon it. Anything that doesn't fit with the theory you then know to be false, and you can thereby more easily check yourself. For instance, the vowels can be separated into: rounded lips/unrounded, front of the mouth/back, light (written towards the top-right corner) sounds/dark (bottom-left). From there just try producing sounds in spectrum (based on the height and press of the tongue) in the front of your mouth. At the top, you reach the 'ee', and simply letting it fall should produce the 'e', and then 'ae'. The back produces 'eh', 'uh' and 'ah' as the tongue drops. Rounding the lips then produces the 'eu' and 'oh'.

    Syllables are block-partitioned, but words are spaced apart. Consonants are written not so much as sounds as directions for producing them. Between those two facts the different romanizations for the same letter becomes obvious, as does double consonants carrying over into the vowel of the next block when there is no consonant between them. Through that "route", it just seems like common sense.

    Looked at in that way,one friend took maybe 10 minutes to learn how to read hangul. Another took several hours to be able to read it without making mistakes.

    To get an actual point from all this, I don't think the issue is necessarily whether people are willing to memorize word and word. What matters is that they're willing to concentrate, work hard, which often includes stepping beyond rote memorization if they want to learn efficiently.

    **I also can't quite believe that we really lose all these mental faculties of learning from our childhood as we exit that period. We certainly gain the ability to block things out, consider them unworthy of our time, and use that more and more, but the abilities are still there. Time and time again in language classes I've had people base their grammar on the tiniest of nuances of emotion or assertion or sarcasm that they've heard spoken. We still have those instinctive means to guess what is concrete, what is adaptable, what is predicated, what is inflected, what is phrasal even in a language still unknown to us. We're just rusty compared to when we had no choice but to do that. And those skills go well beyond parts of speech alone, or the order of subject, object, and verb.

  101. I just 'discovered' your blog...LOVE THIS POST! (I'm a language-teacher, incidentally.) Keep it up...

  102. I just found this blog too and love it, will definitely read the other articles & follow it.

    I'm glad for the props to Pinker's Language Instinct, I read it a couple of years ago and it blew my mind. I'd recommend even more highly his 'Stuff of Thought'--there are also YouTube videos where he presents some of the key findings from the books.

    I agree it is terrible how so many language learning companies (Pimsleur, Rosetta Stone, etc.) advertise themselves as mimicking an immersion experience (which they can't really do anyhow)--and play on the presumption that we can learn a foreign language like we can a native one, that is a false hope. I do think, though, along with other commentors here, that it is possible to find ways of learning/reinforcing that is more entertaining or more compelling vs. less so, and a lot of interesting sites are popping up that are making strides in that direction. is a good site for korean. Also, for online flashcards, I really like (and they have other languages as well).


  103. For me in learning the Korean language I would say that the single best thing for me has been rote memorization, just watching Korean dramas I have learned so many words, sentences and paragraphs I have totally self taught by books and internet sights, and am truly amazed at what I have learned. We have a Korean grocery store here and I love going in there speaking Korean to them, but it is a different story when someone is talking back to you I always have to tell them slowly, very slowly. BTW love your sight! Also BTW I am no youngster, so your never to old to learn anything!

  104. This blog post is interesting. Thank you for a wonderful read. But I think the learning process must be fun because if it's not fun then I'll just stop. And to love the process of learning Korean is really important, independent of the outcome.

  105. I loved this post so much and just want to add my *amen* to the memorization technique for learning a new language. My husband spend a couple years in Ecuador and used this exact same technique (minus the tv exposure) to become fluent in Spanish. He speaks it fluently after having only lived there 2 years abd his vocabulary is amazing (from what I hear, I don't speak Spanish) when we go out and he speaks to other Spanish speaking people (something he tries to do daily) he is always asked how ling he has been in the country (He's a native of Philly) he translates professionally for companies and he uses it in his career. He too, swears by this method. Every time he came across a wor he didn't know he wrote it down, and carried it around with him all day until he knew it. I'm very proud of him in case you can't tell but I wanted to let you know that your method is tried and true for not just you and not just Korean to American-English but from American to Spanish as well. He is currently learning Italian. I admire anyone who attempts to learn a new language. My parents both speak Dutch (my mother is from Holland and my paternal grandmother as well) and I was born in Europe with my first words being in Dutch and yet, I STILL can't speak it! Not well, at any rate, not comfortably. Reading it is easier. You have my respect and i can't wait to tell my husband that there is someone else that used the same method he did!

  106. Korean님 같은 분이 있어서 한국 사람들 입장이 다른 나라 사람들에게 더 잘 전달되면 좋겠네요. 정말 고생이 많으세요. 저도 미국에 꽤 살았고, 지금도 전세계를 다니며 일하고 있는데 한국/동양인에 대한 오해나 편견이 너무 많아요. 우리가 일본인이면 이런 말을 들을까 하는 생각이 많이 들어요. 나라가 힘과 돈이 없어서 그런걸까요... 한국어 읽으실 수 있다고 생각하며...

  107. When I listen to Korean, I can tell that there are sounds I am not able to hear. That is to say, I can sort of hear them, enough to know they are there, but not enough to realize just exactly what sound it is that I am hearing.

  108. Okay, I have to challenge you slightly. Language learning relies on context. If you were to say that a grown adult with a high school diploma moves from the US to Korea, they would have to rely on rote memorisation, I agree with you there. However, the whole 'surround yourself with the language' stuff doesn't come out of nowhere. Like TK himself, English isn't my mother tongue but the difference between us is that I learnt English at the age of 10, more or less and developed it for a year and a bit after, until I was at native-speaker level. I also managed to learn German in 3 months, just by being in Germany. People still think that I was born in the UK, because my accent is completely British. This is why I'm saying that you can learn another language by surrounding yourself with, preferably being in the country. But this all depends on your prior knowledge of it (though, I had no knowledge of German when I moved there) and the situation you are in. If you are there for sheer tourism, of course you won't pick up the language; everybody will talk English to you, or at least try to. However, if you are a student, regardless of age, you'll pick up the language fairly quickly, since there is pressure to do well in class, trying to communicate with others and just being in the country. Nobody will be talking to you like a tourist but they'll try and explain things to you. This way, you learn a lot. And you can stop there, and become proficient in the language but not fluent. Or you can pick up a few books, read them over and over again. At first, you'll get the gist of words, then, as you carry on living your life, you'll spot these words more and more often until they become fixated in your brain. Yes, sometimes you do have to pick up a dictionary and see for yourself, but most of the time, these words crawl their way into daily conversations. But that's not the case all the time. It also depends on one's language learning ability. My friend, albeit being brilliantly good at maths, still struggles with English, even though she's lived in London for 2 years. She also struggles to fully consume grammatical rules in Korean. I guess I got the good end of the stick, since when I learn Korean grammar, everything just 'clicks'.
    This comment is just saying that The Korean's method may not work for everyone.

  109. English is a global language. The knowledge of English language is very essential if you want to grow in any field. For more read this.

  110. You have a really informative blog here. I am interested in training, English Communication Training in particular, and this post is just what I was looking for. Your 'Useless Knowledge' adds a nice zing! Keep it coming! Find more here.

  111. Awesome - the Korean deserves much praise and respect. What he has written is both motivational and sounds like truth. Naysayers be gone - unless you have a legit source you can point to and write your point/argument artfully, sprinkled with humourous anecdotes or asides.


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