Linguistically, I’ve changed from a college graduate to a toddler.
A few months ago, I was writing my senior thesis, working on the campus magazine, and signing the final paperwork to accept my Fulbright grant. But when I moved here in July, I was lucky if I could communicate basic needs like wanting food or going to the bathroom. And if someone looked at me and started speaking Korean, I was (and still am) petrified.
I swear! I want to say every time I look helplessly for my online dictionary or glance at the nearest bilingual person in the room. I’m a reasonably intelligent human being!
It’s humbling and frustrating to be a beginner again. I’m used to being a fast learner and understanding new information quickly. But learning a language isn’t like that. Sure, I understand the grammatical rules. For some reason, that’s easy for me. I can write basic Korean sentences without a problem. But listening and understanding? Forming the sentences myself? It’s a herculean task.
The best–and most frightening–way to learn a language is to be fully immersed in it. As an English teacher, I spend most of my day speaking English. But when I come home, I have to use at least a little Korean with Host Mom. Even that little bit of practice is helping immensely.
I am also making an effort to study more on my own. Some nights I study a lot of vocabulary or more grammar, while other days I make a point of asking a co-teacher or Ye Bin about a grammatical point or a few new words. Our Korean classes during Orientation were full-immersion, so I couldn’t ask clarifying questions in English. But I can ask Ye Bin or Mr. Hong any question I want about their language and gain a better understanding of everyday expressions. Sometimes I try to convince myself that watching 3+ hours of a Korean drama every day will also help, but it proved less effective than I’d hoped (unfortunately).
I am understanding a little more every day, and occasionally I can understand an entire conversation – usually if it has to do with food (not surprising, if you know me). I still have the deer-in-highlights look a lot, but it occurs less often than it did a month ago.
I think the teachers also notice and appreciate my efforts. Yesterday, I ate dinner at school with some of the other teachers, none of whom spoke any English. When one of them asked if I liked the food, I responded in Korean, “It’s delicious. I like Korean food, but the kimchi is very spicy.” Their faces lit up with delight. It was like the reaction I give my parrot Magellan when he says, “Janine is my faaaaaaaaavorite human!” That’s okay. As long as it helps me improve and conveys my interest in Korean, I can be a parrot for a little while.
Over the last week alone, I have gained much more confidence, even though I still have so much to learn. Now, I can communicate with Host Mom in Korean using a combination of what I learned during Orientation and what I have been studying on my own. I can say when and where I am going and when I’ll be back; I can say how I will get there; I can say what I like and dislike, especially with food; and I can (sometimes) survive in a shop.
To me, that is a huge accomplishment. Rather than just looking at my progress on daunting vocabulary lists or how many words I can cram in a Korean sentence, I am slowly learning how to readjust my expectations and celebrate the small victories – even if it’s just saying to Host Mom, “I am going to the store. I will come home at 3:00.”