On Learning Languages

I don't know, felt like writing some non-technical (not really technical per se) stuff, so this is partially more reflective. Or more like a regular journal. Really a text dump of my rambling thoughts.

For Korean, I started to learn it because I had two friends mention that they were going to take a Korean class in September. It was an arbitrary statement about signing up that one made to another at a gathering, that it was the last day to sign up for a discounted price. I went home and immediately registered for the Korean class without really thinking it through.

At the time, I was still doing my German lessons (I am, still, actually - they're online - just not as frequently as before) though I was really getting bored and demotivated because there doesn't seem to be a purpose to it any more. My German is good enough and I think that's all I want. I know I should take the B2 exam, but I'm honestly too afraid to do it because of the speaking component. My teacher has been pushing me to do it for a year(!!), and I've held off. I know you can now take the exam in parts, but I don't want to because... well, I'd still have to do the speaking eventually. And it feels like cheating somehow, that you couldn't do it all together. I should also take the exam for French, which I reached B2 much earlier. I'd probably have to work harder on it to take the exam now, since I've not been actively revising it. But I also have no one encouraging me to take the exam, so that's even less likely.

I learn languages not really for connection to people, not in the personal sense. I get exposure to other cultures, yes, but that's different from having a personal connection with someone. I don't have friends that speak the languages I learn. And now that I'm learning alone most of the time, and sometimes individually with a teacher, it can be very isolating.

For now, Korean is fine because it's in a class. But the truth is, I know if I really wanted to advance faster, I'd take individual lessons again, and probably end up in the same situation that I'm currently in with German.

I don't think it's all that bad. I feel if you stay in the language learning community online enough, there's a lot of things about speaking and learning to speak well. That's all fine and good when your motivation is to communicate with others. I guess I like learning languages for the thrill I get when I can understand this text that I am reading in a foreign language. Sometimes, too, the snippets of conversation that I catch in a foreign tongue. Or even when I can't make out the words, I know the language's melody well enough, that I can say for certainty, "Ah, they're speaking in French." All this, without having to pick out a single word in the thread.

More often than not, schools will drill grammar, vocabulary. I actually find that tolerable, if not... fun. I hesitate to use the word fun, because it's not really fun when you have to do all those exercises. Or pehaps it is, when you are done, and it's an accomplishment. But it's not something that I struggle with very much - writing is never a problem. It's always speaking. It has always been. Not surprising, considering that I'm an introvert.

This Korean experience has been interesting, because it's the first language I'm learning (as an L2 language) that uses a different writing system. I know Mandarin Chinese, but that's from when I was young too, like English. Even then, not really the first, since I took a year of Japanese in high school. (I didn't get very far, and the only things I remember are how to read the hiragana and katakana.) But Korean is the first in a different writing system after I understood more and experienced learning 3 new languages (though all European - French, Italian, German).

I like the writing system for its simplicity - the consonants reflecting the tongue positions. I'd taken an introductory linguistics class in university, and then afterwards I did learn more IPA on my own. Put into that context, a lot of things made more sense, trying to map the symbols to their respective sounds. Still, Korean has rather unique consonants unlike any other language, not just with aspiration and without, but also with double consonants (tensed). Turns out some of these double consonant sounds already exist in Chinese, so it wasn't nearly that bad.

It's interesting too because of my unfamiliarity with the writing system, that I find I'm memorising the sounds of words rather than their spelling first. It's good because I'm not using spelling - and by extension, writing - as a crutch (though in this case, it isn't that misleading, since the spelling is pretty much phonetic, unlike, say, French).

I don't like to talk about my motivations for learning a language, because usually it seems rather trivial in comparison to others. Other people always seem to have such good reasons. Because they have friends or family that they want to speak to. For work or business. Because they love the culture. I know my friends are learning Korean because they have an interest in the culture, the food, the country... it's not as though I dislike them, but it's not something that I love especially. I'm not one for K-pop or K-dramas. Just as a simple comparison, I prefer Japanese food, and also the cultural elements (manga) more. I know it sounds as though I do these things... rather passively, as though it happens to me, as it were. But it's also a choice. The original 8 lessons of the class has ended, but I decided to continue.

When I started with French at the university, it was... a choice between French, German and Korean, for a special program that required you to take 4 semesters' worth of classes, and then you could go on exchange in a country that spoke the respective languages. I took French then, also because I had another friend that wanted to take French, and we took most of the classes together. For me it was either French or German. (Korean, in my mind then, was really not worth it since there was just one country - or two - that speaks it. In fact, I didn't even remember this part - that I once said no to Korean - until I wrote it.) It mattered not then, they were just two languages, interchangeable. It's different, now, of course, now that I know them both.

Then, I went on exchange - to Switzerland. It was there that I learnt Italian. I guess out of all these, Italian was the one that I had more interest in. If my university had offered it, I'd have taken it in my first year. But then, it's not as though I really wanted to learn it, or that I liked it more than French or German. If I really did, I'd have worked harder to do it, and I'd also be more proficient in it by now. (My Italian is still A2 at best.)

Of course, Switzerland is predominantly German-speaking. Yes, there's Swiss German too but the official things are in High German. I recall being rather... irritated that there were so many things I could not read when I travelled around the country. So many signs I could not understand. See, even then, it was more of wanting to be able to do something, to learn a skill, rather than connect with people, that drove me. When I returned, I had a first semester without French (since the university only has 6 classes, and I'd had 8 semesters total for 4 years of study) so I took up German. And I continued, not just in the second semester, alongside French, but even after I graduated.

What I've come to realise is that every language is different. Not just because they are factually, linguistically (that much is obvious), but because of my own personal experiences and interactions with them. These interactions colour my perception of the language. They also inadvertently chart my growth as a person.

I think I learn languages simply because I like to. Because I want to, and because I can. I know when people ask me, I usually tell them rather flippantly, "I was bored." On the surface, I don't want to admit anything, even if I did like something about that language or its associated culture. But more deeply, I think I hate to admit that I don't have a good enough reason, not the way I am supposed to, or should. But why can't "I want to" be reason enough? Why do I hold myself to a standard that is set by others, when it appears to make no sense?

Sure, your "why" is important. It can be your anchor, the reason you keep fighting when things go tough - and they will. Indeed, perhaps if I had a stronger reason for learning German, I would not be in this demotivated state that I am now in. That's my first thought. But I think there there will still come a time, no matter how strong your why is, that you still want to give up. That you want to stop.

If goals are the pull factor, whys are your push. But it is in the hows - the daily habits that you set up, the routines - that will push you through. I know this as a certainty for me, because I've experienced it. But I think that's the topic of another post, if I decide to make it.


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