Thursday, March 27, 2014

Ahora Yo Hablo Español

Earlier this month I had a car accident, which, in the end, left me with a lot more free time than I knew what to do with. For reasons unknown, I immediately started studying Spanish. Why Spanish, when I could continue mastering Korean, Japanese, or French? Yes, I asked myself the same thing.

Maybe there are a few reasons, though.

To one friend, I replied reason #1: "Well, whenever I'm with this group of friends, we are constantly switching between English, Japanese, and Korean. There's always 2+ people in the group who will understand what has been said, so it's easy to get carried away and make horribly mix-matched sentences. ...but he doesn't know Japanese or Korean. He doesn't have a second language to share with us during conversations. So, I figured I could learn some Spanish and then the ratios would be back in order!"

This is actually true. I am learning Spanish for him. I do want to help him fit in and feel involved. Besides, there are others in larger versions of our group of friends who know Spanish as well. He and they are just never around at the same time!

Reason #2 is even simpler: I need to! How dare I live in Texas for so long without making more of an effort! There are television channels to practice with, people to practice speaking with, food labels to read! Spanish is everywhere down here, and I'd be a fool to continue ignoring it just because "I can get by."

Reason #3 (I'm struggling now because I said a "few" reasons, and a "few" is 3): Job prospects. It has been a goal of mine to work in an international setting, as well as to work with multiple languages. In the event that I had to live and work in the U.S., Spanish-English language pairings in the career world would outrank any other language pairings. It just sucks that I still have to learn Spanish when I've gotten so far with other languages.
...but, you know, reason #3 sounds awfully close to reason #2, so here's one more.

Reason #4: I think I liking picking up new languages. I'm always more eager to start learning a new language, and less eager to master fluency. It's just what I'm used to, how I grew up. However, I hope that mindset will start to change. It really is disturbing thinking of all the languages I could be fluent in by now if I had studied them all for at least 4 years straight!


Unexpected Situations

Greetings, everyone. Long time, no see!

...Add unexpected situations to the list of reasons I dislike language barriers.
"Nos ha dejado una persona muy querida, siento mucho la perdida de __(name)__ y les mando un fuerte abrazo y los acompaño en estos momentos tan tristes y dolorosos."
The quote above is something I had the misfortune of writing in a letter to someone. We never know quite how fate play out in our lives until we're living it. I hadn't expected needing to write words of condolence in a foreign language. Not so soon. Earlier this month I began studying Spanish. (I will explain why in another post). At this point in my studies, I only know a few of the words in that quote above. I asked a friend to tell me what to write. She gave me those words (along with a translation), and I feel relieved that I am able to say words of peace to someone in the language they feel most comfortable with.

There were times in Korea where I wanted to express my heart-felt beliefs, or at least be as poetic in Korean as I could choose to be in English. The first instance was hearing that a colleague would be leaving the workplace for good. I really only had the time span of a school dinner to pull someone over to us and ask them to help me say goodbye. In the last weeks of my stay in Korea, I had more time to prepare farewells. I had 11 months of language experience to know (or guess) what I wanted to say. I had close friends to help me write things down and correct my mistakes. I also focused on writing positive things rather than sad things.

So I can honestly say that I feel blessed to have made a few close friends in the last year who know enough Spanish to help me get my feelings across. After hearing that a close friend of mine passed away, I definitely wanted to pay my respects to her parents. Even though feelings can get across just fine without words, words are usually the icing on the cake. They are proof of what's being assumed. I wonder how many people find themselves in such situations: wanting to express condolences to someone who might not understand everything they wish to say. Many people would probably just pick a single word in either language and pack it with as much emotion as they could. Saying something is better than saying nothing, yeah?


Friday, October 18, 2013

Unforseen Challenges

I have to say that when I started learning Korean and Japanese consecutively earlier this year, I was startled by just how difficult it was to switch between languages on a daily basis. These days, things have gotten easier. My brain has definitely adjusted to the constant change and usage, but there are still times where I walk into my Korean class and blurt out a Japanese greeting. These kinds of things will work out (or not) over time. Which brings me to my topic for today: time.

It's not hard to agree with. Practicing something over time, and continuing to practice, will surely help you get better at something. However, some of us may forget that when things start to get easy, it may be time to turn things up a notch. After all, the aim of practice is to get better! I don't expect a concert pianist to think, "I've got to maintain this level of mediocrity!"

Well, sometimes common sense fails to make itself present in my mind. I am not escaping blame. It's my fault I feel like the last month or so of Japanese practice has been a waste. On the bright side, going to the Conversation Club meetings has allowed me to become an incredible listener. I can follow conversations in, honestly, the most general sense of understanding. Imagine my ears are a car and the group conversation is a road. Some days, I run into more potholes (unknown words) than I care to.

This has been happening more often these days. When I'm feeling irresponsible, I blame it on not being enrolled in a Japanese class. I think, I don't know these words... and still don't know these words... because I haven't been quizzed and tested on them. Sure, that's true. So, I look around at the other conversation partners. One of them is writing down every new word that comes up during the session. Hmm, that looks like a great idea. I get the urge to reach for my pen.

Writing down unfamiliar words DOES help. Even if you've written it down once, you're more likely to remember it. It has a greater chance of surviving the shallows of short-term memory and swimming into deeper waters. You didn't just hear a word in passing. You took the time to focus on a word long enough to write it down. Write down words you don't know. Write them down several times.

Then comes the practicing. Whereas my goals earlier this year involved picking up what I had forgotten, increasing my listening ability, and being able to juggle two foreign languages in my head at once, I have failed to adjust to the new goals. Some goals, like the ones I've listed, still require "post-goals" after completion. Think of it as the kind of goal that builds upon those before it. You can't jump from beginning to end. You must take things one step at a time.

So, I was so happy to be listening and nodding in agreement and laughing when it was appropriate that I forgot about my own input. PRACTICE those words I wrote down. PRACTICE the new grammar I've finally come to recognize. When I realized these things, I not only felt ashamed for getting settled in the comfort of finally knowing just enough, but I felt a tinge of fear at needing to pursue more.

You know, learning a langauge is a neverending process. Even our native tongues are constantly evolving. It's simply easier to keep up with those changes, so we take the hard work for granted. As a native English speaker, I wonder about the non-native speakers who studied English in school, then went to practice it in the real world, only to be assaulted by the immense amounts of slang are so commonplace in our daily speech.

Though it took time, it will take even more time. Language learning is no joke.


Sunday, March 24, 2013

Support Groups for Second/Multi-Language Learners

You know, and I know, that everyone will learn a language at their own pace. Even with our native language, everyone has their own personal rate for acquiring vocabulary. So while everyone who's interested in (and starting the process of) learning a new language is putting their motivation to good use, they're all doing so at their own speeds.

I have to say that I'm incredibly thankful for coming across groups like LanguageCast in Seoul, an Conversation Club in San Antonio. The opportunity to practice the language you're learning with native speakers (or just others who know that second language at all) is a huge one. It's something I don't think I'll ever take for granted now that I've been exposed to it. Speaking might be the most important step in language simply because it can put all the other stages (listening, reading, and writing) into practice at the same time. A quick example is the time I went into a Korean bank and attempted to cash in my traveler's checks. Albeit at the time I knew very few Korean words to help me through the situation....

My point is, if I'm not able to live in the country whose language I'm learning, a weekly meeting with other speakers of that language is certainly going to make me feel more prepared for the day I DO manage to make that trip. In such environments, there's plenty of opportunity to learn slang and local speak that isn't covered in text books. There's the chance to meet and make friends with people from any possible background (and whom are headed in any possible future). In some ways, it's almost as great as visiting a new country. These organizations have the potential to offer more cultural experience than a town festival, simply because you're allowing yourself to be invited into other people's lives rather than view them from a grassy lawn seat.

In my case, I'm thankful to have a place to maintain skills that I picked up long (and not-so-long) ago when it's not so convenient to take a class. ...And I'm actually learning new things, too. I'm learning new words to add to my memory, to hold onto until the next meeting. I have more than one person available to ask questions (you know... for those tricky times when some part of grammer completely stumps you, and your attempts at questioning your book and the internet haven't quite worked).

Let me be fair in saying that motivation plays a big part in getting the most out of these meetings. Goals do, as well. If you just want to make friends, you can totally expect to achieve that. If you just want the group to be your personal tutor, you can probably achieve that as well. If you want both, or more, your goals and motivations will take you there.

Now, I gotta mention the tricky parts about being in these language meetings. The dominant language can be a killer at times. It is so easy to get stuck conversing in the dominant language rather than practicing the one you're studying, especially at times when your vocab levels are low, or ability to make sentences (which is almost always my case). When I went to LanguageCast with a friend, I was set (and I even told my friend this) on speaking as much Korean as possible. Yet, I kept getting stuck on one or two words here or there, either in their question or in my response, and knowing that English was a safety net to keep the conversation going had me lapsing into English every other sentence.

In the case of the Conversation Club I'm now attending, my first goal was simply to listen to people speaking Japanese and hope to remember what it all meant. When I started out, Korean was heavily clouding my mind. I couldn't find the Japanese words of things that I should've easily been able to remember upon hearing. Things like はぎめまして (Nice to meet you) were blanketed by a heavy layer of Korean equivalents (만나서 반갑습니다). Then there were those moments where nobody had any more questions about Japanese grammar, and the native speakers didn't have anything in particular they wanted to educate us about, so the conversation would shift into long bouts of English until a new topic was established.

--Now, there's nothing wrong with speaking they language you're NOT studying. I mean, SOMEONE is ultimately studying one or the other, no matter the fluency.--

Still, when I finally made a friend and let her speak in full Japanese to me, I stopped feeling so overwhelmed, and focused on the belief that ONE DAY I would be able to do more than just understand. One day, I would be able to respond. It just happens, after all. Practice and learning is definitely important, but breakthroughs certainly "just happen."

I've only been to two kinds so far, but the ones I went to were quite different. In San Antonio, I have found the language groups to be separate, where as the one in Korea was a single meeting for speakers of any language. Of course, people were more than welcome to form subgroups that met their needs. I have to say, I favor the later simply because one could be introduced to languages they never considered learning before. It's a much bigger learning opportunity.

So, I'll keep going to these exchanges. I hope that I can find one wherever I go, or that I will have the courage to create on if there is none (and that people will want to join). You should check them out, too. Even if you're not studying another language, you could help out someone who is trying to learn yours.


Saturday, March 9, 2013

A Benefit of Travel & My History With Languages

What are my experiences with language-learning? It's kind of a long story.

As the child of people who were required to travel for work, I found myself exposed to more than a handful of cultures growing up.

My first language was German. I spoke English at home, but this dominant language would soon overpower (and erase) my German as my family moved on to other places. Japanese was the first language I "studied" in school. Elementary school. The language lessons were part of a required culture class that everyone at my school took part in. There was one just like it at my next location, but instead of learning Japanese, I learned Turkish.

So ends the list of languages I didn't take too seriously while learning (really, there were just two: Japanese and Turkish). Although, I enjoyed those culture classes, I think I had been passively taking in the language. "Oh, if I happen to forever remember the word for cow, I guess that'll be alright."

By the time high school rolled around, I could only remember small things like Japanese numbers and greetings, and the Turkish word for beautiful (which will forever be ingrained in my mind). Now, I was being given the task of choosing a foreign language to study in order to graduate.  My choices were French, German, and Spanish.

Call me stupid for not choosing Spanish. I mean, really, I was living in Texas, so it shouldn't have been a hard choice. ... But hear me out: Spanish was a very competitive class to get into. EVERYONE wanted to take that class. I would later find out that the classes were so big that actually learning things suffered.

Call me an idiot for not picking German. To this day, I'm not quite sure why I didn't choose German. I mean, I could've regained all my childhood skills! The smarts to be able to pronounce words would already be programed in my head, just waiting to be reactivated! Yeah... I still have no answer to give you. I chose something entirely different.

French. What was my reason for choosing French? I think I was a little intrigued by it. It was new and I was curious. I didn't know what to expect from the class. I took two years of French in high school, and one semester at university. It wasn't until the lessons dove deeper into past-tense conjugation that I began to feel the need to give up or take a break.

In my last year of university, I took Japanese. Throughout my higher education, I had been teaching myself Japanese (mostly the writing system). However, I felt that taking an official class would benefit most, so I finally signed up for Beginner 1. It was easy, fun, and I was sad that I couldn't move on to the next class (stupid need to graduate!).

Oh, I also signed up for a free Turkish class around that time. The class was once a week, though, and to be honest, it got pretty difficult for that reason. I think trying to cram tons of information into my head once a week while hoping to remember it all a week later was a little too much. Plus, I might've not had enough enthusiasm to study it in the first place.

Korean... learning Korean... that experience remains the the most different of all so far. There was no prior interest. There was no chance to passively learn it. There was no grade for it; it wasn't a prerequisite. It certainly wasn't a first or dominant language in my life. With Korea, I actively chose to learn it. Yes, I would be going to live in Korea for a while, but prior to going, I didn't know how much I would need to use the language. I didn't know if I should study before or after arriving (though I chose to study beforehand).

When I arrived in Korea, it was all on me to continue studying, to practice with the locals, to get better. There was the choice to stop learning. Many people got by with knowing as few words as possible. I didn't think that was a good idea. It was my first language immersion experience (besides learning German). I decided not to waste it.

These days, I'm taking a Korean class (not for credit, or a grade), as well as studying Japanese and practicing speaking at Conversation Club. Actually, I'm really thankful for the Conversation Club. It's just like LanguageCast and I was actually thinking that I might start one if there wasn't any available in my area. I'm glad there already is one, seeing as I'm a bit shy at leading things.

All being said, I think that no matter how far you go from your starting point, traveling has awesome benefits. If you feel brave enough to cross borders (land or water), chances are that you'll get a taste of a new language. Take it all in. You don't need to walk away with a fluency, and you're not necessarily required to remember all those new words you learned. Still, learning/understanding the language will broaden your scope of that new culture. I don't think anyone has anything to lose by learning another language.

Even though I've started learning so many languages, they haven't hindered me in any way. For instance, I don't get excluded from something because I can write in French. No one has made fun of me for counting in Spanish (Yes, it's not on the list above, but by the power of Sesame Street, I can count in Spanish). If language finds you, give it a chance, get to know it, and if possible, accept it with open arms.


Thursday, March 7, 2013

When Language laughs in your face...

It's funny how language seems to make fun of you from time to time.

The other day, I tried to compliment a friend's shawl (parka?). I said, "きらい!" I knew this was the word for pretty, but I wasn't clear on how to make a complete sentence with it, I just said the word.

Today, I'm looking through an old textbook, studying old and new lessons, and I come across a section explaining how to use Japanese conjunctions.

The example sentence uses kirei. In the paragraph, it has a note: "Kirei" means "clean," but "kirei na" means pretty.

Ah, I think to myself. No one corrected me when I said it wrong. I feel embarrassed for saying it wrong! What did my friend think I was saying about her shawl?

It's an interesting note that friends who are aware that you are trying to learn their language, but whom also have immense sympathy for any mistakes you might make during conversations will happily ignore those mistakes and continue talking.  I know I did this a lot in Korea. I didn't want to stop a person in the middle of their sentences to correct them. Most of the time, I was just happy to have someone build up the courage to speak to me! I didn't care how many mistakes they made. If I could understand (or figure out) what they were saying, I didn't stop them.

Yet, sometimes, you want people to stop you and correct you, yes?



So, I asked about this to an older friend. She said nothing was wrong. Saying kirei along is fine. I feel I have been twice tricked (by my own mind). I really must calm down and think things through.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Studying Korean in Class

I've been taking Korean language classes twice a week. I figured there's no good reason to let what I've learned disappear. Better to keep practicing and learning.

You know what's frustrating? It has been super easy to find Japanese people to talk to at my university. Koreans, on the other hand, are excellent masters of evasion. I remember seeing groups of them around in the last two semesters of my undergrad studies. Now, however, I wouldn't know where to look. As I walk around my old campus, I have the utmost certainty that they are around, but my ears can't pick up any Korean among the crowds.

Now, maybe my hearing is just bad, or maybe I'm finding more Korean Americans than Korean international students. Well, just the other day, I overheard two students speaking Chinese. Sucks for me because I haven't made a strong effort to learn Chinese.... yet.

I'm mostly worried about practicing speaking now that I'm back in the States. While I was in Korea, still new to the language, my primary worries were knowing enough vocab to decipher what was being said to me. However, there's a point where knowing enough vocab and sentence structure isn't satisfying enough. You want to start speaking to see where it will get you. In Korea, speaking was a terrifying prospect, but oftentimes worth it.

Many of the classmates in my Korean class speak more than one language. Many are studying Japanese as well. In the last class, before the midterm exam, we rowdily conversed in a weird mix of "Konglinese" (Korean, Japanese, and English). Which reminds me....

Another thing I'm having trouble with is wrapping my mind around two languages at the same time. I KNOW that with practice, it will get better. However, in the minutes before class, I continuously scolded (in a teasing way) my friends for saying Japanese words to me while I was trying to think in Korean.

Korean class itself isn't bad. The teacher has a good habit of speaking in bursts of "normal-speed" Korean, throwing our minds into overdrive to try to translate what she says before she repeats it slowly, and finally, in English.

As far as what we're learning, well, most of it is easy for me now. The things I'm struggling with is correct spelling and knowing the meanings of certain vocab words. I didn't have to practice spelling so much while in Korea. The words I learned to spell became knowledge just by reading (reading the signs while travelling, etc.), and the only time I had to write a lot of Korean was during my last week when I was giving everyone Thank-You letters. Still, I had a Korean friend help correct my mistakes.

To this day, there are many every-day Korean words that I still don't know just because I never needed to know or say them. Out of all the colors in the Korean language, the only one I can remember is the word for "blue." There was a question on my quiz (and then the midterm) which I failed to answer twice: the phrase for Happy New Year. Having spent New Years in Korea, I can only shake my head and laugh at the irony. One day. I will learn that phrase and remember it one day. 설날.... New Year.....

While I was studying in Korea, I never had any homework. I once had a friend give me a quiz (a verbal one), but there wasn't any extra practice outside of "real-world" situations and lots of review. Oh, if I haven't mentioned already, I learned from Talk To Me In Korean.

I must say that even though homework is annoying, I'm really thankful for it right now. Korean is like English in that there are many words that, even if you guess the spelling at, you will most likely spell wrong. If I am told to spell the verb 'it-da,'  I won't know if they're asking about 있다 or 잊다.  ...I sympathize so much with English language learners when I study foreign languages....

Today is another day of class. I wonder how things will be. What will I find surprisingly difficult?