Monthly Archives: March 2013

“Disaster phone calls” vs. being nice to learners

Kay’s post about disaster phone calls in a foreign language brought up the memory of a very very bad phone call I had this week at work. Not in Korean, but nevertheless in another language.

I speak a decent Italian. Not perfect, but I can manage fairly well, read also relatively complicated texts if allowed to use a dictionary and so on. I understand close to everything I hear – for as long as people speak “proper” Italian and don’t switch to a dialect even Italians need subtitles to understand.
At least I thought I did until that godforsaken phonecall on Wednesday…

My colleague sitting next to me suddenly went “you speak Italian, right?”
Me: “erm, yes?”
My colleague [handing me the phone]: “could you please speak to this guy? I have no idea what is going on.”
In the meantime the guy on the other end of the line had called for one of his colleagues and gone over a similar discussion.
Once I got on the phone, a woman was answering. A very annoyed woman who didn’t know the case either.

This was my first work-related phone call in Italian, I felt unprepared and I was sweating bullets.
My palms are getting sweaty just thinking about it.
I forgot important verbs, nouns, had to ask her to speak slower because she spoke like she was in a speed-speaking competition, and very quickly I came to think of the conversation as a cruel, cruel test. My colleagues were looking at me. I felt like disappearing into a hole, hoping that situational amnesia was occuring to them just as it was affecting my quickly deteriorating Italian skills so that at least they would forget the whole ordeal immediately.

After a while the woman went “do youuu speak Iiinglish?!”. The four little words no learner wants to hear.

I got the situation sorted out in a mixture of Italian and English because thankfully the things she didn’t know in English I knew in Italian and vice-versa, we all got the info we needed and nobody has been scarred for life – except for my ego that is.
After hanging up I felt like I had to say something to my colleague who assured me “don’t let them stress you”.

Even after a couple of days this can make me cringe. I’m a perfectionist. It hurts my ego that I got thrown off so easily. Must practice more!!! The only thing that soothes my nerves just the tiniest bit is that I was speaking to her in my fourth language and she was replying in her mother tongue.

Maybe that’s something we all need to remember when speaking to foreigners. Initially they might sound like they are doing well enough so we get lazy with our pronunciation, start speaking fast, and cut endings. I even have a friend whom I can barely understand when speaking on the phone, and I continously have to ask her to speak clearly. And we’re from the same country!

So let’s all take care of the learners out there; let’s speak clearly to them and not pull the native card on them. Maybe we should do that in general. Everywhere people are getting lazy about their diction.

Mark Law has written about being a beginner in judo in his book The Pyjama Game:

A white belt in the dojo is like a toddler at a tea party and demands a similar etiquette: people must take turns playing with him; it’s incumbent upon everyone to encourage him, praise his simplest achievements and not laugh when he falls over.

I think this applies to language learners too. Of course you can also belittle a language learner by praising them a little too enthusiastically when they have reached a very high level, but as in judo where foreign judoka can be nervous before fighting a Japanese in Japan even if very skilled, a language learner – even if advanced – can feel intimidated by speaking to a native. Especially if that native shows no concern towards the learner.

Having experienced being thrown, arm barred, pinned to the floor and choked in judo class, I can confidently say that being embarrassed by a native speaker of a language feels worse. In judo, at least you can surrender by tapping on the floor or your opponent with whatever limb is not stuck under your opponent to say “okay, you win, I give up” and the slate is immediately wiped clean. You get up and start over.

That being said, I think my colleague gave me some sound advice. Once we get stressed we lose everything.

So I guess my conclusion is that as learners we cannot put all responsibility for our conversational success or failure on the natives of whatever language we are trying to learn, but as natives of our own language we can at least try to increase the chances of success for the people who try to learn our language.

Happy Easter everyone

Chocolate eggs, sleeping in, and of course: Korean!
It’s the final day of March and in 20 days it’s TOPIK time for many of us.
Do you feel ready? What are your final preparations going to be?

My preparations are going to be the following:
ㅇ Finish TTMIK level 3.
ㅇ Listen to the 듣기 sections provided in the Complete TOPIK Guide (without earphones!).
ㅇ Listen to the 듣기 sections for the past few TOPIK exams.
ㅇ Go through the 읽기 sections in the Sogang books to revise vocabulary.
ㅇ Drill native Korean numbers.
ㅇ Get as far as possible in TTMIK level 4.

I had really hoped I would be farther in my Korean stars by now, but I least I can thank my lucky star that I have a job!!!

New term, new lists

In just a few days a new quarter will start at uni. That means that I have a new set of lists with chapters to check off, book bills to agonise about (seriously, how can a book cost over $100 and how can they ask us to buy several books at that price? Maybe I should start writing uni books…), and a new schedule puzzle to figure out.

Lectures, exercise classes, work, Korean self-study, meeting my Korean partners, judo, and then of course cooking and cleaning and so on. And still only 24 hours per day.

Well, what to do except for just get moving and read one page at a time.

TOPIK prep status 15

Status for 16-29 March 2013

I’ve been going over quite a few lessons. Listening to the level 3 audio while walking to the station in the morning and doing the exercises on the train on my way to and from work.
I’ll soon be done with level 3 🙂 this might seem rather slow, but I prefer to listen to the audio several times before moving on so I actually remember the material.

Language exchange
Both my partners are travelling and I have been working a lot so we haven’t met. I did write an entry for one of my partners, though. Now I just have to send it!
I have only just gotten a work plan for April so I haven’t even been able to ask my partners for new meetings before now.

In general
I cannot say how many hours of audio I have been listening to but it’s a lot! At times when you don’t have time to sit down at a table and study but have to do it on the go, TTMIK is a lot better than Sogang. Perhaps I should try to make a comparison of the Sogang system and TTMIK to see how many lessons I need to go through to go all of the grammar because the TTMIK system is a lot easier for me to fit into my daily life at the moment.

Delays in comments

Hi everyone!

Thank you for reading and commenting on the post about memorisation. If I haven’t yet responded to your comment, I’m working on it! Rest assured, I will get to it 🙂

I’m sorry for any delays in replies to comments (or if your comment takes a little while before it appears in a comment section these days if you’re a first-time commenter).

I am extremely busy with work these days, occasionally working odd hours too, and I cannot check the blog from work since firstly it’s a very busy office and secondly, it would probably weird out my colleagues…
They know I am studying Korean, but they don’t know about this blog – at least not yet. Maybe I will tell some of them one day.

So, if you catch yourself wondering why I’m not responding, it’s not because I don’t like you – I’m just working 🙂

Memorisation: maybe it does actually work?

The other day at work I was discussing language learning with a few colleagues since we all need to speak multiple languages during a day so adding a language to our portfolio is something most of us consider. Some of my colleagues are true polyglots speaking some 5-6 languages fluently (oh how I wished I could do that), and in a neighbouring department they can count some 35 languages in total so things are pretty international.

During that conversation, I realised that one of my co-workers has not been in Denmark for particularly long, but her Danish is excellent and apparently she was fluent enough to get a good job after having been in the country for only 6 months. That is pretty darn impressive because Danish is a “weird” language in many respects and many foreigners (though especially the Swedes hehe) make fun of us by saying that it sounds like the Danes speak with hot potatos in their mouths.

It turned out that she had been attending a special language school targeting professionals and one of the requirements was to learn 15 sentences by heart for each class. The idea was that the sentences they memorised would provide a structure for the students, and then they could alternate the words depending on what they wanted to say.
She thought it was nice to be forced to memorise words and sentences because she would never get around to doing that at home and now she remembered them. I suppose she has a point there. If someone tested my Korean in some particular area on a set date (let’s not think of the TOPIK right now but more casually and on a weekly basis) then I would probably also try to memorise some more things to at least not make a fool of myself for not knowing some key words.

She still has a hint of an accent, but she is eloquent and does not appear to be in any way inhibited when speaking. Danish is her working language and she is able to handle even stressful situations in Danish. That’s more that I can say about my Korean skills at the moment…

Personally, I’ve gone through some phases concerning memorisation, and I know many learners feel very strongly about the topic. Some are strongly against it while others seem to live and breathe for it. My initial approach was to make lists and flash cards. After a while I didn’t really review them and just looked up words as I went along. Then I revised flash cards again and now I have had my feet solidly planted in the “no word lists” camp for a while – letting my poor collection of flash cards collect dust.

What I have done is to go through my TTMIK and Sogang books, going over the lessons and looking up whenever needed. Of course I have thought “seriously, this is the fourth time you look up that word, just remember it!” but I haven’t really gone though a “memorisation regime” in relation to these books. I’ve also looked at the word lists and grammar lists provided at the end of the chapters in the Sogang books just to check my comprehension level, but I never “drilled” the lists.

I’m still a newbie when it comes to Korean, but I sure have passed the 6-month mark by now and my Korean is nowhere near my colleague’s level of Danish. Of course I’m not in Korea, I don’t have to speak it in my daily life, and I don’t even have the opportunity to subject Koreans to my language learning struggles on a daily basis, but still, kudos to her for her efforts and her results. They are still impressive.

Have any of you learned a language through the method she has been following? A method where memorisation was a very integrated part and considered crucial?

Do share your experiences with memorisation and your thoughts about it in the comments 🙂

Survival mode

I’ve been wanting to post something for a couple of days, but I’ve just not had a moment of peace to even gather my thoughts. Korean studies have literally been “to go” as in listening to audio whenever walking or on train/bus, and I’ve been doing the exercises from the TTMIK book on the train. I’m exhausted…

TOPIK prep status 14

Status for 9-15 March

I have put some of the original level 3 audio files on my dictionary and then I listen to them when I go to and from the station. I also have the files that come with the book, but when I walk somewhere I actually quite like to listen to all of Hyunwoo and Kyungeun’s bantering along the grammar points rather than the clean cut version that comes with the work book.
This has been a substitute for listening to Korean music while commuting.

Language exchange
I have only met one of my partners since the other’s schedule clashed with mine this week. The sacrifice that comes with afternoon/evening shifts at work. We have agreed that we will exchange mails instead so I’m really happy we can still ‘see’ eachother that way 🙂
As for meeting my speaking partner, my speaking skills are… close to non-existant. It’s bordering on shameful that I read simple things fairly well and my writing is also slowly coming together, but when I speak I seem to forget everything. Every week I hope the next will be better.

Sogang books
I think it’s time for me to revive them.

There is such big difference between hearing native speakers in real life and hearing them on audio files. Endings disappear, entire words may disappear (e.g. 아침을 먹었어요?), words merge, and it all happens about three times faster than in the audio files. Also if you meet in a noisy place it doesn’t sound as clear. Those moments I become thankful that there is no speaking part in the TOPIK because without it my chances of success have increased significantly… The TOPIK isn’t everything of course, but now I paid the exam fee, hotel, and plane tickets! I need to get my speaking in order, though.

Korean learner question answered

Today I spotted the following search term in the overview of search terms that have led to this blog:

Why haven’t you progressed in your studies as fast as expected?

That is probably something we’re all wondering about at some point in our Korean studies. At least I know I have.

Of course I cannot speak on behalf of all learners, but here are some of the hurdles I have had to overcome:

I am terribly good at overbooking my calendar. I have great ambitions, make lists to check off for when I have completed something, and I have some idea of how much to do each day. However, since I tend to overbook, I rarely meet my own target completely. After a while I will revise the plan since it makes no sense to be too far behind. The problem is usually that I overestimate how much I can do and then I have to face that Korean is secondary to e.g. my uni work or paid work which has to be delivered. On a more positive note, I probably get more done by always feeling a little “ooh, I shouldn’t fall behind” compared to thinking “대박! The rest of the day off!”.

The energy bias
Sometimes I feel that planning vs. executing a study plan is a bit like writing a shopping list right after eating only to do the actual grocery shopping after not having eaten anything the whole day… Some things are going to be forgotten and bad habits are more likely to get their say about the contents of the basket. Sticking to the plan just becomes a bit more difficult.

I tend to make all these crazy plans and lists when I am really well-rested and energetic. Sadly I’m not always as well-rested when the plan needs to be translated into real life action… The times when I read a sentence and end up looking up half the words only to realise I already know them tend to correlate with this drop in energy level. That makes it a little difficult to get through several grammar points in an evening, write sample sentences, do listening exercises etc. etc. etc. as was the original plan.

When the GPS misleads you
Sometimes we make mistakes in our plans! We go in a direction that leads to nowhere and we only realise it after a while.
Some of you may have experienced that your GPS has tried to blatantly mislead you when you were driving. You are on the freeway in the Kingdom of Far Far Away, there are many kilometers of straight road ahead of you, and all is honky dory until the GPS voice suddenly tells you “in 200 meters, turn right”. Perplexed you look at the fields surrounding you wondering what all the cows would think if you suddenly took “a short-cut”. In those situations it’s pretty clear that following the plan laid out for you by the GPS is not the wisest. When learning a language, it usually takes a little while before we find out if something isn’t working.

We can proudly spend eons of time making vocabulary lists we are never going to remember, flash cards we are never going to revise, or worst for a Korean learner: insist on using romanisations instead of using the Korean alphabet.

If people were driving like most of us begin our Korean self-studies (with a certain degree of chaos), we would probably already have crossed the field, traumatised the cows by zig-zagging between them, and ended up driving in the wrong direction down a one-way road. Thankfully we cannot get arrested for being inefficient self-learners until we get into a routine that works for us. (Although, possibly there should be an exception about learning Korean through romanisations… Making it a criminal offence might bring some people over from the dark side).

The puzzle
Being a self-learner can be a bit like solving a puzzle. Not all information you need is necessarily in one place and you can only see the big picture when you have gathered all the pieces. Having someone like a language partner to explain something can be absolutely invaluable. When you breeze through a book to get an overview, it can difficult to see what is going to cause problems when you actually read it and often you need multiple sources to get the whole story; For instance listening to the TTMIK lessons will teach you one thing, then you look at one of the university systems and you notice a new aspect. That makes you wonder if there is more to it so you might then look it up in a grammar book. Or you might want to ask a native why you need to say x and not y in situation A when you have to do the opposite in situation B. It’s rarely as straight forward as you think in the beginning – or at least that has been the case for me a couple of times.

So those are the overall hurdles that I have thought about. How about you guys? Share your experiences in the comments 🙂

Korean: “It’s not what you said, it’s the way you said it”

Disclaimer: I have a keen eye for the obvious.

I have been listening to the Korean drama phrase audio book from TTMIK. Some of the phrases are of the kind that you need to be careful with in real life, but knowing them will help you understand movies and dramas because they occur relatively frequently.

This made me think more about being rude in foreign languages. In some languages it just seems a lot stronger than in others.

To me, being rude in Korean somehow seems a lot more rude compared to being rude in other languages I have studied. Do you think so too?

My reasoning is this: In other languages, your main “weapon” will be your actual choice of words which can then be combined with tone of voice. Calling someone an idiot is going to get some kind of message across in all languages, but in Korean the insult can be augmented by dropping different speech level to let someone know that you are less than pleased with them. When I became aware of the existence of different speech levels back in the days, I noticed that if you read the subtitles of a movie, the words on their own wouldn’t necessarily be that offensive, but when factoring in the sudden change of endings it was easier to understand why one of the parties would suddenly become very upset because the change of grammar in itself would be significant. Having such distinctly different formality levels really adds some subtlety to all types of exchanges since “speaking down” to someone depends on so much more than the words.

So far I stick to trying not to offend someone by my choice of speech level, though…

Maybe I just have a keen eye for the obvious, but Korean is one of those languages where that dreadful comment “it’s not what you said, it’s the way you said it” actually makes sense.