A year ago someone told me that they’d read that it requires about 4,000 hours of studying to reach competency in the Korean language. I’d been struggling with finding the motivation to study in an increasingly busy life, and I seized upon this figure as a psychological tool which would give me a sense of there being an end point to my efforts to learn. To that end, I began posting a progress meter at the end of my posts to show my progress towards this fixed goal, fully knowing that any potential failure would be there for the world to see.
And I failed. With the year over, I’m just over 3% of the way towards that 4,000-hour target, which means that theoretically it will take me over 30 years to achieve competency in Korean at my current pace of studying.
Auribus teneo lupum
So what has gone wrong? I can give many reasons but when it comes down to it I believe that in this world you are either in control of your life, or your life is in control of you. Studying a language requires a commitment, mental focus, motivation and enough free time every day to make it happen, and these things are increasingly eluding me.
In retrospect what I believe I should have done when I quit trading for a living in August is taken a year off, and made studying Korean my primary goal with no compromises. Frankly, I’m getting too old to keep studying piecemeal here and there year after year, it doesn’t really work and it’s the road to becoming one of those foreigners who’s lived here ten years and who doesn’t speak the language and never will, but are living here with the delusion that they are still trying. It’s obvious though at this point that it’s the latter fate that awaits me. Perhaps I'm already there.
But with my wife not working after the birth of our first baby, taking a year off would have led to a substantial drain on our savings, even if we had stayed living at my mother-in-law’s place. Our living arrangements were becoming untenable for me though, so we bought our own place last year – in itself a project that took two months of our free time – and the upshot is that our costs have risen by 50% and now we have a mortgage bearing down on us. Despite all this I still could have afforded to take a year out to study, but watching my savings disappear is psychologically something it turns out I can’t easily accept.
So instead of studying Korean, I quickly found a part-time position working as a software engineer – my pre-trading career – and which officially takes 15 hours out of my week but is actually 22 hours with travelling. I was also offered more work at Busan e-FM and took that, I agreed to form a joint-venture business with a large Korean Internet company that approached me but ultimately didn’t manage to get their project off the ground, and I immersed myself in several side-projects which like a lot of things we ultimately do for our job prospects, were time-consuming and lacked any immediate return-on-investment.
My wife did an eight-week TESOL course around this time, which very much left me holding the baby – both figuratively and in reality – and combined with my 'dash-for-cash' efforts to put a liveable income together, this was how I didn’t study in September and October, following the two months I lost due to apartment hunting in July and August.
I began to realise that I used to complain about the long hours working as a trader was demanding, but while I certainly had to sit watching the screens, I did get a lot of other things done at the same time, which amongst other things included studying as well as writing my blog.
The final irony of my choices turned out to be that the financial chaos in August was a bad time to make life-changing decisions; by the year's end I'd still made 64.13% in my trading account, and while that didn't compare all that favourably with previous years, sticking with trading was still a better financial option than everything else I plunged myself into. But in my life I traded the uncertainty of trading for the certainty and greater respectability of salaried employment, and perhaps there's something to be said for stability.
The Maginot Line
Another wider question which has been on my mind in recent months is whether the greater goal should to be to learn Korean at all. In the last year I’ve met a lot of foreigners who have been in Korea for a long time. And one of them - who like the others is completely fluent right down to the body language - quietly told me that if he could live his time over again, he wasn’t sure he’d bother making the effort to learn the language. It’s a shocking revelation for an old Korea-hand, but one I increasingly understand as I reach the personal conclusion that more often than not Korea is a country that does not really reward you for your efforts as a foreigner. Of course, there are people who go native and find some contentment in their lives here - whether in reality or through wilful ignorance – but my own experiences are leaning me towards the idea that it might not be typical.
To wit, consider the case of an English-language radio station I’m aware of – I won’t say which one - that employs foreigners, or Koreans who speak English well enough to be hosts, and is officially run for the benefit of the foreign community in Korea (even though I’m sure the vast majority of the audience are Koreans learning English). There is no prospect of progression into production or management for fluent Korean speakers because that’s their Maginot Line through which the invaders must not cross. What’s more, those defensive fortifications do not just protect against physical incursions, but also the cultural – because one strongly gets the impression that foreign ideas are not really welcome in even this small corner of supposedly multicultural Korea.
Much like the Maginot Line though, I know these defences will eventually be swept away, but like a lot of things in Korea it’s a process which will take a lot of time, maybe even generations. But it’s 2012, and even in an organisation that is meant to be a beacon of multiculturalism I’m still left with the feeling that it's reflective of a multiculturalism that more often than not gravitates towards telling foreigners about your superior culture and trying to help them assimilate into Korea’s monoculture to become almost-Koreans. In fact I’ve long since lost track of the number of Koreans I’ve met who’ve told me they’d like to go abroad – not really to learn from other cultures but to tell everyone about bibimbap, Dokdo, Korea’s four seasons or some other repressed Korean secret they think the world should know and is going to be in awe of once it collectively realises, which it won't.
Now people of limited intellect who like to summarise entire articles in single words will say this is a rant, but I’m afraid it’s far more nuanced than that because personally I have mixed feelings about multiculturalism, and I think the Koreans are entitled to be Korean if they want to be. If part of being Korean means not really accepting foreigners for who they are and largely keeping us in our place so be it, but what it means is that learning Korean does not carry with it the rewards I might be hoping for, which is the prospect of a seat at the table one day, and maybe even a proper job.
I say this attitude doesn’t put me off, but deep down, it doesn’t motivate me either, and after working all day in an office or spending my time babysitting I need more positive rewards than I’m finding to learn the language.
Time is running out. Life is running out. I hope this year will be different while knowing in my heart that it won’t be. But without the hope for change, what is left?
"Koyaanisqatsi" is a Hopi Indian term for "life out of balance".