Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A Conversation

(Driving through Hyundai Heavy Industries in Ulsan.)

The Korean Cousin:  "This is the way up to the lab I work in."

The Korean:  "It's a big hill."

TKC:  "I walk up this hill every morning, at 6 a.m."

TK:  "You have always been so diligent, hyeong."

TKC:  "That's what our family does, working harder than everyone. Your family moved to Seoul early, but I'm a hick, you know. There are all these people who are smarter than me and went to better schools. So this is what I have been doing for the ten years I've been working here. I get to the lab two hours before everyone else does. I open the curtains, clean the office, then I have a quiet time for myself. What do you think I do with that time?"

TK:  "... you would probably study something."

TKC:  "I study English."

TK:  "That's amazing, hyeong."

TKC:  "No it's not, because I'm not getting better. For ten years I've been spending those precious two hours a day of my life studying English, and I'm not getting better. I memorize everything I see, I listen to all these English listening materials, I practice speaking, and I'm not getting better. My test scores are the same, and I don't feel like I'm better at listening or speaking in English.

It's such a waste of time. It's not easy getting up that early. It takes all my dedication and discipline. Those two hours are precious to me. If I spent those two hours a day studying the engineering stuff that I wanted to study, I would be so much happier. I would be a much better engineer too. But I can't do that. People who buy our ships only speak English."

TK:  "... you just gotta keep at it, like you always do ..."

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.


  1. What a silly cousin. Doesn't he know one can learn English just by memorizing really hard like this guy http://askakorean.blogspot.com/p/popular-questions.html ?

  2. >.< Thanks a lot Blogger for eating my original comment; link was supposed to be http://askakorean.blogspot.com/2010/01/koreans-english-acquisition-and-best.html obviously.

  3. No, I'm pointing out that as I read the conversation, feeling very sympathetic for your cousin the whole way, I expected some sort of conclusion giving context and meaning to the post (since you usually write good posts with such context & meaning), and the relevant thing that came to mind was *your* experience learning English.

    And I got to the end of the post and... Nothing. At all. No comparison or contrast to your experience, nor any connection or conclusion to something I hadn't thought of.

    So, what *is* the point of this post? Surely it wasn't to provoke readers into puzzlement so you could then call them dipshits.

  4. No, I'm pointing out that as I read the conversation, feeling very sympathetic for your cousin the whole way, I expected some sort of conclusion giving context and meaning to the post (since you usually write good posts with such context & meaning), and the relevant thing that came to mind was *your* experience learning English.

    That may have been your intention, but I don't care. You were still being a fucking dipshit. Try and have some self-awareness about how you sound, for a change.

  5. Obviously we don't have your cousin here to talk to, and I've never really taught adults, but two hours a day of diligent study should produce better results unless:

    - he's studying the same material for the same tests leading, perhaps, to near-perfect scores

    - what he's studying doesn't match up with the tests he's taking (eg books on conversational English that don't teach the requisite gobbledygook present in the TOEIC, or vice versa)

  6. Let's see, The Korean Cousin is addressed as hyeong, demonstrating that he's older than The Korean. TKC also prides himself on being a hard worker, but he's depressed because his efforts at learning English don't seem to be paying off.

    I think several things could potentially be gleaned from this conversation:

    1. Learning a new language is more difficult the older one gets.

    2. Native English speakers are fortunate not to have to learn English as a second language.

    3. Koreans have to go the extra mile in order to be successful in the international economy.

  7. It is stories like your cousin's that inspire me to pursue a course of action toward helping these people.
    I'm beginning to understand how desperate the need is for people of the working class, among others, to have a place to really practice English. As I am experiencing with learning Korean, it is much easier to learn a language by practicing with a native speaker. There is only so much one can do with books.
    I sincerely hope that I will be able to do something about this problem. Whether it is hosting free get-togethers with like-minded people, or even just making myself available to talk to, a little effort can make a difference.

  8. Ah, TK, but you did not tell us: in your opinion, how is his English? Is he having trouble with grammar and vocabulary, or is he having a tough time because of his accent and pronunciation? Tremendous respect to him for trying to learn a new language while working a full-time job, especially a job as demanding as a ship-building engineer.

  9. Was the conversation in English? I feel this would be ironic if it was.

  10. Does he listen to english audio books while he's walking up that hill? I find listening to books while exercising to be rather enjoyable

  11. Koreans excel in grammar, reading and writing tests but their spoken English is horrible and I think the MAJOR reason behind this hideous accent is the habit of writing English words using Hangul. It should be punishable by law to write any English word with Hangul.

    The result is that they pronounce those words in such a freaking ugly way and that pronunciation gets etched in their heads. Then, when they try speaking in English, they notice the horrible accent and get sensitive about it, compromising their development in this most social and fun aspect of learning a language - speaking in it.

  12. I've got to say, my thoughts turned to The Korean's learning method as well as I was reading this post. Is there a reason why his method of study, which seems to be exactly that which you suggested, did not result in progress?

  13. Why do engineers need to study languages? There are people called interpreters. We cannot make interpreters and lawyers study engineering, why do they torture engineers with languages? Engineers whose native language is English do not need to study any language, don't you find this unfair? I personally like studying ANYTHING and I am interested in many fields but I will never understand why the hell all non native English speakers are obliged to study English.
    How do you call a person who speaks several languages? - polyglot
    How do you a person who speaks only one language? - American.

  14. Ksjoe - I agree. Whenever I use an English word in Korean writing, I always write it in Latin letters, not Hangul.

  15. Wow... Why so harsh guys? Seems unneeded...
    I am very interested if TK spoke with TKC in English, and if so, what was your opinion of his level? Did you offer any advice to him on how to "learn better? Was there anything specific you think he should have been doing/not doing? (I ask for slightly selfish reasons as I am learning Korean currently.)
    It just seems that you were so successful with your English learning that you might be able to offer help to a man whose time commitment is extremely commendable.
    -On another note, it is slightly depression that a man feels that he has to (or actual is forced to) spend so much time studying English when it sounds like his interest and work lies elsewhere. This is a problem I see in Korea - English language proficiency seems to be a necessity for employment even where it is not needed.

  16. Student, perhaps an engineer might want to learn English for the same reason a pilot must learn English ('Aviation English') or a programmer ought to learn English - because it is the modern lingua franca and there are metric shit-tons of important material relevant to their job written in English and equally many important people who use English.

    (You'll notice the comments in the Linux kernel are not in Finnish.)

    People aren't learning English for shits and giggles!

  17. learning a new language can be very frustrating if you don't feel like you're improving, because I've been trying to learn french for years! and I still can not understand enough to even have a basic conversation. I live in Quebec, so I need to pass french to graduate, I feel like something is wrong with me, I just can not understand french after these 5 years

  18. @ tweety

    THERE IS ABSOLUTELY NOTHING WRONG WITH YOU. Don't ever say this - it breaks my heart.

    When a student does not learn, it is her TEACHER's FAULT. Always. I am a teacher. I know. There are methods that work, and there are methods that do not work.

    Learning a new language IS NOT THAT HARD AT ALL if you are doing it the right way. Find a good TPRS teacher in French or a TPRS class - one month of fun (FUN, FUN and more FUN) and you will pass any French test with flying colors. If you cannot find a TPRS teacher I can recommend a book that will teach you French 100% guaranteed. It is not as good as a TPRS class, but it is the next best thing.

    But above all - do not think you cannot do it. Yes, you can. Our brains are wired to learn up to six languages at a time.

  19. vb: not really objecting to what you said, but... 'up to 6'? That's awfully specific; was that a research result or anything?

  20. Every single last foreigner I know here who is even semi-fluent in Korean has told me the exact same thing: Despite years of full time study, for most of them, they'd still be shit at speaking if they hadn't been in some long-term situation where speaking English wasn't an option.

    Engineering those kinds of opportunities even for me is difficult, because the Koreans I know all obviously speak some level of English. Busan gets it in his head he's going to do tough love and only speak to me in Korean, which I'm completely down with. But the second I don't understand something immediately, he just defaults to English, instead of trying to explain in Korean. I can't imagine how much more difficult it would be to have opportunities like that as a Korean in Korea working full time. Even in his business relationships, there's not a lot of room for trial-and-error experiences.

  21. If he is studying English to improve his test score, then he should study test-like material. His day-to-day life English very well might be improving (especially if that conversation you had was in English and you didn't alter his words), but his English abilities that are measured by the test might not be following suit.

  22. I think it's especially difficult to learn a new language without being immersed in it. Commendable individual to have so much dedication and sad to see his frustration. I know I've watched my mom become conversational in English after 30 years in the states, but it is still a difficult road. The pidgin of the islands certainly doesn't help the cause though. Best of luck to your cousin. There are certain individuals with traits that I love and that kind of determination with a lack of excuses just strikes me as someone of exceptional character. Hopefully you were able to possibly provide him with more effective resources. It would be interesting if any of the readers happen to know of some good ones to recommend.

  23. I've been living in Korea for two years...I have yet to talk to someone who NEEDED English in their job. Obviously that need is possible outside of my experience. However, most want English based on some competitive nature ingrained in them since they were young and/or they want to have more global experiences and think English will help them do that.

    I've often thought about this subject...why do Koreans have such difficulty? So many Europeans learn English quickly, just go to Itaewon and see how many people from other countries are fluent in English as their second language.

    Even foreigners here(in korea) learning Korean, seem to learn it more quickly and more comfortably than the opposite.
    Dedicated foreigners study here for an average of 2 years with a native speaker and can at the very least have everyday conversations.

  24. @gwern - yes, there is plenty of research to back it up, I just do not remember what workshop I got that information from. It could be either from Tokuhama-Espinosa or Virginia Rojas, one of those two.

  25. 2 precious hours spent listening, reading and memorizing English. Where's the part of the actual usage of the language? He said he even practices speaking. It's not just practicing his pronunciation, right? Does he practice having a conversation in English or if can't talk to someone, how about writing his thoughts in English then have it checked later by his teacher? Is it safe for me to assume that he has one? After those 2 hours, what's next? He's back to using Korean, am I right? I don't have any scientific data to back up my claim but language is a means of expression so to learn it, one must use it. He should express himself in English as often as he could. Does he also have 20 minutes of English conversational class a day on top of those 2 hours? Even if he does, I am afraid that is still not enough. I believe since he has been spending all those time memorizing all those words and phrases, it is high time that he gain more confidence in himself and start stringing those words together to express his thoughts. I wish him all the best. :)

  26. If it's not working he should try something else. And why, as an English speaker, do I get the feeling I'm supposed to feel guilty about The Korean's cousin's hardships? I'm not the one forcing him to learn.

    If Japan can have outstanding economic success with negligible English skills, then why can't Korea? The only ones forcing Koreans to learn English are themselves.

  27. Of course it's more difficult for Koreans to learn English than for most Europeans. Most European languages belong to the Indo-European language family and Korean is a part of the Altaic language family. Englishsintax and grammar are totally different from Korean but have a lot in common with German, Spanish, Slavic languages, etc. Similarities between languages should not be underestimated. To me as a native Bulgarian speaker is extremely easy to understand Russian even without studying it. I think you should always take into consideration the similarity between two languages.
    As far as I know Koreans learn Japanese and Chinese a lot more easily than most Europeans. This does say something.

  28. Just an unsolicited suggestion for TK: If TKC visits, do not speak a work of Korean unless it is a proper name or has no English equivalent.

    Another suggestion would be to give him a book on engineering topics that he is interested in, but is printed in English.

  29. I admire TKC's determination and persistence. It's ashamed TKC's boss at work does not recognize TKC's dedication. Otherwise, sending TKC to an English learning program may guide him in a good direction?...

    How about watching Korean-subbed American programs/shows that interest TKC for two hours a day?

    Power to you, Cousin nim.

  30. Work smarter, not harder, hyung! We didn't really learn about his studying methods in this post, but there are all kinds of resources on the internet he could use for having free, or very cheap, lengthy conversations with real human beings. If he's studying textbooks he might consider switching to easy news websites (like Reuters) as well as easy novels.

  31. I don't want to sit here and attack TKC's studying methods, because we simply don't know what they are. And it's obvious that TK doesn't feel the studying is an issue or even the main point, as his suggestion was to encourage him to *keep going*! So I'd rather assume that TKC's study habits are sound (he is an engineer, after all--how many of us can boast that?)

    My best guess, though...maybe TK can shed some light...does TKC have an opportunity to practice with a native speaker? Anyways, he must be an impressive man to keep trying to learn and grow!


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