Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Infinity Limited

One of the problems I've identified with myself psychologically as far as my language studies are concerned, is that learning Korean feels like an open-ended commitment that will last the rest of my life. I'm very objective-oriented as a person. I used to write software for a living, and then became a financial trader -  both these activities produce definable end points, whether it be in terms of a completed function in a program, or a trade which is closed for a profit or a loss. There's no definable end-point in learning a language. Yes, you can say it's attaining fluency, but what is that exactly, and how far off into the future is it?

As a trader, I live my life by numbers. So when Tim, the host of Inside Out Busan, told me on the show that he'd read that it requires 4,000 hours of studying Korean to reach competency, I began to think about the number and how much progress I was making towards that goal.

So inevitably before long I'd created a new worksheet in the spreadsheet I use to record the results of my vocabulary tests, and into this worksheet I entered 240,000 – that's the number of minutes in 4,000 hours. I studied for an hour, and entered 60 into the box next to it - leading to the spreadsheet reporting that I'd  accomplished '0.03%' of my target. It wasn't much, but it felt like I was a little closer to my goal. It's oddly satisfying, and will remain so for as long as it takes me to realise that my rate of progress means I'm going to reach 100% in 2021. Yes, I worked that out.

I don't believe it's as simple as just putting the hours in though, because in my life I've found that the real benefits which accrue from studying language come from studying it in a reasonably concentrated period. When I was studying Japanese, in my first year I ended up in a class with a couple of people who'd been doing it for eight years, and it wasn't long before I felt that I'd surpassed their level. But they had jobs, and I was only working part-time back then. It gave me an incredible advantage.

My life in Korea has never been like that. Some of it has been my choice – but like those people back in the Japanese class – I have a job too – and just because I work for myself it doesn't make it any easier to quit – like them, I still have to pay the bills at the end of the month.

I feel that this year is a make-or-break year for my Korean studies though. Time is moving on and my abilities are clearly not. So I've decided to set myself that 4,000 hour target. I don't even care if the academic research backs this up or not - it feels about right. It's also merely indicative - it's a mistake to chase hourly targets because the most important thing is to put in good quality study time.

I started my hours off at zero - partly because I haven't recorded how much time I've put in before now, but mostly because at this point in time I feel it was largely worthless. My 4,000 hour target is not going to be achieved in one year; 4,000 hours approximates to two years working the hours of a full-time job with no holidays. Even as a trader, I only work about 2,750 hours per year, and those are long hours I'll never want or be able to do with the language.

So during the course of this year I'm going to publicly shame myself by placing a Korean-language competency progress meter after each post, you can share in the unfolding horror. Right now, I've done 480 minutes in the last week, reaching 0.2% of my target, meaning that the bar on the progress meter below is undetectable. Some may view setting such a difficult target as counter-productive, but for me, with my kind of background and character, it really does feel like setting any kind of target - even a large and possibly unattainable one - is putting some sort of limit what otherwise feels like an endless infinity of language study.

The Lurking Horror


kangmi said...

I hereby encourage you in your goal.

Mike said...

Thank you kangmi.

CeilingofStars said...

I so love the way you write. I, like you, need to have that sort of measurable goal. I've heard of the 4000 hour rule, but that gets me depressed, so I measure my chunks in podcasts/modules/chapters consumed. I went through all of my Korean language resources and wrote down exactly what was left to be done in small chunks, and then assigned them to months of the year. Then once I finish it, I can delete them. It's really encouraging to see the list getting shorter and shorter, and I like it because I feel like someone (well, me, lol) is 'on my back' to get it done.

Anyway, I wish you all the luck in the world, and I can't wait to see that progress bar increase!

Mike said...

Thanks - making a list and ticking off what's been done resulting in a shorter list sounds like a good idea too.

Personally I've always had a bit of an aversion to to-do lists because I have a bad habit of adding more to them than I take off, so I never finish. That's poor discipline on my part. I've never tried it with Korean though, which unlike real life is more of a definable and controllable subset of tasks. I might actually give some thought to doing that because it's not incompatible with my 4,000-hour plan.

It's strange that I haven't felt as positive about studying Korean as I do now in a long time. Setting a target - no matter how large - is exactly what I needed and I'm appalled that I didn't think of it until now. I've always liked a quote by Norman Vincent Peale - "Change your thoughts, and you change your world" - and it feels exactly like that.

Sublunari said...

I love this idea and I may have to copy it. I would just like to add that every time you attempt to speak Korean, or every time you attempt to listen or understand to what is being said or what is written around you, it should count as study time.

My wedding is coming up this weekend and so I've been hanging around my wife's family a lot more than usual, and this has generally equated to really fun but really exhausting day-long study sessions, where I can measure my success by how much I can contribute to the conversations everyone has. And, also, my own family is here from America, so I'm able to work my translator's muscles and show off for them, which is a lot of fun as I've never spoken a second language as well as I speak Korean.

Still, I'm more or less at the point where I can get a lot of words of my wife's conversations without actually being able to piece them together into a larger whole. I just wanted to recommend that you take advantage of the huge study environment that surrounds you here.

Mike said...

First of all - congratulations on your upcoming wedding! I talked about my wedding in my radio segment this week and it brought back a lot of memories of the chaos that can happen here - I hope you have a saner experience! :-)

I imagine there's a point at which I might understand enough Korean to really start to benefit from the environment and begin substantively counting it towards study time, but I'm not really there yet. My vocabulary is currently around 850 words with various verbs and verbs forms mixed in with that. From what I've read in the past, an average person's typical spoken daily vocabulary use in English (i.e. not their total vocabulary) is around 5,000 words. Korean might be different, but if I said that - in the confusion of attempted real-time comprehension - I understood around 10% of the words that were said around me, it might even be generous. But that means, if I spend 60 minutes listening intensely to a conversation, I should probably count it as 6 minutes of actual study time :-) It's tempting to count much of the rest, but if I'm honest with myself - at my level - I'm not really getting much directly out of it. I tend to think of it like a coal mine: how much time do I spend at the coalface - i.e. the actual work, versus time travelling to and from it in the mine - i.e. time in the mine I'm actually not really working.

So, in other words, I'm quite strict with myself regarding what I measure as study time. I am counting a little of my normal daily environment, but unfortunately it's a reflection of my limited ability that it is only a little. It must be really good experience working as a translator for your family though!

I'm certainly trying to take advantage of the environment around me, but the odd thing about my life in Korea is that because I work from home - and have a baby tying us down now - I really don't get out much any more at all. I tried to set myself a goal of going out every day and doing something that would bring me some real-life Korean interaction, but that's not working out very well with my other commitments at the moment. Hopefully, things will improve later after we're over the worst of the 'new baby experience'.

I am quite taken with the 4,000 hour target because I really needed that sense of there being an end point. It's still early days for me but it's definitely made me more positive and motivated about what I have to do so far.

Dustin Cole said...

hey mike, i'm interested in doing the same thing you're doing. do you have an excel file or something similar you could share?

Mike said...

Hello Dustin,

Sorry for the late reply. The spreadsheet is really simple - but here's an example in Excel 2007 format:


and the same in Open Office/Libre Office (ODF .ods) format:


In terms of the HTML code for my blog (I'm afraid there's a bit of getting your hands dirty for this) here it is for cutting and pasting - I'm using Google's public APIs (chart services) to produce the graphics:

<a href="http://busanmike.blogspot.com/2011/01/infinity-limited.html"><img border="0" height="70" src="https://chart.googleapis.com/chart?cht=bhs&chs=200x65&chco=003478,c6d9fd&chxt=x&chxr=0,0,4000,1000&
%28134.0%20Hours%203.35%%29" width="200" /></a>

You have to post the cut and pasted code into the bottom of your blog post (I've put the numbers you change in bold type), and change the hyperlink address or just remove it if you don't want the progress meter to link to a post.

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