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How to Succeed in Korean without Really Frying

January 14, 2010

I am so Rosetta Stoned. New pathways are burning through my brain like a gasoline fire in a barrow ditch. Then, just when I am becoming comfortable in the Level 1 Korean wading pool, they throw me into the deep end. I tread a while, and then I’m swimming again, not with great form, but staying barely above water; my mind is picking out keywords and I can identify the proper images. I go on to the next lesson, and I’m not even in the pool anymore; I’m in a rip tide. I have no idea what these people are saying. The sentences are long now, and they contain all new words. How can I possibly match what they are saying to the correct image? But it’s an adventure, and I’m motivated by challenge.

I remind myself that it takes a few yards of gut to begin a new language in your 50s, especially one as different from English as Korean. You can listen and listen and listen and listen, and you will not hear any trace of your Phoenician linguistic heritage. No Greek, Hebrew, Latin, or any other cognates to which the European ear can naturally cling ever come up; it all seems like so many nonsense syllables, and the challenge is to discern their sensible order. I keep wondering where the Koreans were hanging out after Babel; they definitely evolved their own system of linguistic and phonemic logic.

Unlike our Roman alphabet, a linear descendent of Phoenician, which was perhaps the first writing on earth, the Korean alphabet is a relatively new invention, dating only to the 15th century. Hangul is a beautifully logical and elegant alphabet. However, the vowels are difficult for the Western ear, and my pronunciation is a clanging cymbal compared to a native speaker’s bell-like elocution.

Rosetta Stone’s method emphasizes intuitive development in language learning. I would not have believed that intuition could be developed, or that practicing syllables to which my brain attributes no meaning at all could open into a field of sense, but it happens.

No English is used, either written or spoken. I see and hear exactly the same things that a native Amharic-speaking user sees and hears. Learning occurs within context, not word for word. Consequently, I am sometimes at a loss for want of structure. I have no apprehension of grammar and no sense of word logic. But this is the method Rosetta Stone has determined works. Sometimes I go off-method and look up a word in my Korean dictionary. Sometimes this helps and sometimes it doesn’t.

I have yet to test my skill and imaginative pronunciation in a real-life situation, but I am beginning to be able to repeat sentences on a first or second hearing. I even have a fair gist of what they mean. In fact, I’ve noticed that I am listening to everything better since immersing myself in the sounds of Korean. I’ve been working with Rosetta Stone for two weeks, and spent two weeks before its arrival working with Declan’s flashcards and this helpful website. I learned Hangul from this site and some of its links. Had I not learned Hangul before beginning with Rosetta Stone, I think I would have been truly lost and afraid.

I use a modified Pomodoro method, because more than 20 to 30 minutes clicking a mouse has the unintended consequence of total bodily destruction. There is no way that I can interface Dragon NaturallySpeaking with Rosetta Stone to click the mouse. The two programs have separate microphones and separate user settings, so my hands simply have to do the clicking. This leads to burning pain in my hands and arms, but I recover between sessions. I set a timer for 30 minutes, and wherever I am in a lesson, I stop, do some exercises to relieve the tension in my neck and hands, make a cup of tea, and do something else for 10 or 15 minutes.

Level I contains 4 Units, each unit consists of 4 Lessons, and the Lessons have varying numbers of sections that include a core lesson, vocabulary, pronunciation, listening, reading, writing, speaking, and a review. I repeat every exercise until I have done the entire lesson correctly. The program has an algorithm to remind you to review something you missed, and to herald that it’s time for an “adaptive recall” session. Rosetta Stone has user-controlled settings for how rigorous you wish the program’s assessment of your pronunciation to be. I’ve set mine at the easiest level for now and aspire to a normal level at some point. Pronunciation remains my weak area. But I mean, hey, I’m just a slow white chick from Tacoma.

Rosetta Stone’s method is devoid of time and progress guidelines of any kind. There is no pitch telling you that the majority of their users finish the course in any particular time or progress to any particular level within a certain timeframe. The method is entirely user-paced. Rosetta Stone is not a phrasebook. It is designed for someone who wants to integrate the mechanics and vocabulary of the language in a way similar to the way he acquired his original language as an infant. It takes a lot of time and practice and a lot of patience.

The company mantra is “trust the method.” I have days where I think I can never possibly learn this language or any infinitesimal smattering of it. Then suddenly, the next day I am able to repeat entire sentences, and I feel like a genius. It’s just incredibly rewarding to see my efforts lead to improvement and to new accomplishments. This morning, I counted to 6 in Korean to my husband when we woke up. It was the first thing that came into my mind.

Whenever I mention that I’m studying Korean, people usually ask whether I’m going to Korea. I explain that no, I’m studying Korean because I don’t plan to travel anywhere, and that I’m undertaking an adventure within the confines of my own comfort zone. I can drive for 10 minutes and be in the largest Korean community in the Northwest. I look forward to being able to enter a different world I can’t enter in the same way speaking English. In the coming semester, I will be trading English help for Korean help with one of my classmates in a Christian history class. Studying Korean more than sates my wanderlust. Besides, I’d be a disaster in Korea: I can’t eat rice.

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4 Comments
  1. Vic permalink
    January 14, 2010 10:03 am

    That’s a lovely summary of the adventure so far. And it’s just as exciting and wild as a trip abroad, I think–maybe moreso.

  2. January 14, 2010 11:02 am

    Yes, and so far the Cat has registered no disapproval. I doubt he would be so longsuffering if we announced traveling plans.

  3. Jane permalink
    January 15, 2010 8:57 am

    Hey, way to go! I admire your tackling such a difficult language. We had some Vietnamese friends awhile back, and there was no way I could even mimic the sounds, much less see how the words written in English morphed into the sounds they were supposed to represent. I’m sure that in time your forays into the nearby culture will be amply rewarded.

  4. January 15, 2010 9:31 am

    Ahem, Jane…. You, after all, learned Japanese! And so I especially take your encouragement to heart as one who knows what is possible, albeit very difficult. But you were younger. ;-)

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