This past week, I hosted a Korean-speaking only dinner with my Korean friends. As a beginner, I struggled to keep up with my more advanced friends, asking for people to repeat what they said and stammering out sentences with a lot of grunting and pointing on the side. As much trouble as it was, I prefer this method to learning over studying vocabulary and grammar at a desk.
Up until this point, I had weekly zoom lessons with a tutor. However, I found my Korean usage nonexistent throughout the week. The only situations where it seemed relevant was the occasional time I found myself in a Korean restaurant, but even then I would be too shy to use anything beyond basic words. I thought that taking lessons alone would be enough, but I felt unsatisfied with my pace; after months of lessons, I still wasn’t able to converse even at the most basic level. I knew that I needed to create more learning opportunities, more optimal conditions to practice consistently, and a better overall system of learning.
During a brunch with co-workers, a colleague shared how he wanted to get back into photography. Someone smartly suggested that he hold a gallery just for his friends. This was a nice idea because it wouldn’t require a huge investment but the set date would give him the kick to put the necessary time and effort to put something together. Additionally, it would allow him to share his goal with a safe set of people.
While they conversed excitedly, I began thinking that I could do something similar with my Korean language learning and I decided to host a Korean-only dinner.
The event itself went fantastically despite my struggles. I invited a number of Korean friends to my apartment to eat Korean food and asked everyone to only speak Korean once they entered.
Being forced to speak Korean when I wasn’t ready was the push that I needed. I quickly exhausted the phrases that I had rehearsed with my tutor the week prior, but I left with many new insights:
Don’t try hosting, cooking, and speaking all at the same time. I wish I could’ve been a better host by more warmly welcoming people, introducing people who hadn’t met before, and directing the activities. As this was also the first event I’ve hosted in 2+ years, I was frazzled even before it came to talking. A note to myself to prepare more dishes ahead of time so that I can focus on people and conversing more next time.
The mix of dread and excitement. Every time I heard the door buzz, I felt myself going back and forth: excited that people came, but also dreading the growing pool of people that I would need to talk to.
Talking was hard, but comprehension was even more frustrating. With my limited toolbox of words and grammar, I was able to hack together sentences. This was a nice workaround when I didn’t know how to say something. But with listening comprehension, I felt like there was no workaround; you either get it, or you don’t.
Things that I wouldn’t even be able to express in English: At one point in the dinner I took center stage in front of 9 people and they asked why I started learning. I found myself particularly stumped because I don’t even think that I could say the reason in a few English sentences. How do I quickly explain how I was raised in a white town? How do I say how I don’t want to be the generation that breaks the link? How do I quickly say I want to learn more because my grandmother just passed away? How do I explain how moving to ny felt freeing after the busy college life?
Conversing one on one was the most helpful. Conversation was easy to follow, and I had space to formulate sentences with their encouragement. Talking with a group made me the most nervous and it became hard to respond to many people giving advice at the same time.
The value of the group. Even though the group was less “productive” in terms of practice, it provided a different kind of comfort in accountability; opening my goals and learning journey to more people was helpful even if we didn’t hash out sentences with each other.
Freeing being at the bottom. There was something nice about having permission to ask as many questions as possible, feeling unconditionally entitled to my mistakes, and relishing in any indication of progress no matter how small.
Even though it was a struggle to keep up, I will certainly continue to experiment with this system of learning. More lessons and takeaways to follow!
Further reading and resources:
Ultralearning - by Scott Young
Lindie Botes YT - Channel dedicated to language learning
How to study Korean - Language resource
Toucan - Chrome extension that replaces words in your browser with your target language